Magazines, TV and radio shows and some blogs regularly cast aspersions on endocrine disruptors, creating a climate of fear around them. So what’s the truth of the matter?
“Traces of dozens of endocrine disruptors found in the hair of children aged 10 to 15”, “The risks you take when you put on make-up”, “When my cream gives me cancer”… All of these are headlines that send a shiver down your spine and categorically point the finger at beauty products. However, the issue of endocrine disruptors is more nuanced and far more complex.
What is an endocrine disruptor?
According to the WHO definition, which has been adopted by the European Commission: ”An endocrine disruptor is an exogenous substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub)populations”.
These are molecules foreign to the body, which are either synthetic in origin (products of the chemical industry) or naturally occurring (hormones and plant oestrogens).
What effects do they have?
Ubiquitous in everday life, they work by mimicking and modifying the metabolization of naturally-occurring hormones. So the body can be exposed in multiple ways (ingestion, inhalation or skin contact) to minute doses of several compounds, whose various effects could become combined. Endocrine disruptors (ED) are suspected of causing ailments such as obesity, diabetes and autism, fertility disorders (possibly across several generations) such as decreased sperm quality in boys, or conversely early puberty in girls, or hormone-sensitive cancers (of the breast, uterus, prostate and testicles). Endocrine disruptors are said to be found in pesticides, and also household upkeep products, furniture, clothing and beauty products.
The dose effect and the cocktail effect
Conventionally, adverse effects of chemical substances are described in toxicology studies as being proportional to the tested dose.
Not the usual dose effect
Usually, a low dose has no effect, a moderate dose prompts slight toxic effects and a high dose sets off more pronounced or hazardous effects. In the case of ED, toxicologists have noted that some of these chemical substances can have effects that are greater at low doses than those observed at high doses (or even reversed ones).
But a cocktail effect
According to the WHO, humans are exposed on a daily basis to a large number of different endocrine disruptors, from various products: food item packaging, plastic bottles, household upkeep products, paint, baby wipes and beauty products. Though each of them can have adverse effects on the body, what worries scientists the most is the cocktail effect associated with their interactions. The effects of this mixture of molecules on the body are as yet unknown.
A great many suspects, but none proven guilty
In beauty products, the list of presumed endocrine disruptors varies. There is no truly reliable database of them.
The infamous suspects
If you want an exhaustive list of ED, here it is:
- Chemical sunscreens: avobenzone, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, benzophenone-1 and -3, oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
- Antioxidants: BHA and BHT
- Volatile types of silicon: cyclopentasiloxane and others which are already prohibited
- Preservatives: butylparaben, propylparaben, methylparaben and ethylparaben (5 types of paraben are prohibited under regulation no. 1004/2014.)
- And also: salicylic acid, diethyl phthalate, EDTA, PEGs, resorcinol in hair dye, aluminium salts in deodorants, the antibacterial agent triclosan (very rarely found in preparations over the past few years)
Studies that are often contradictory
The problem is that scientists themselves are unable to reach agreement on these substances. For each one, there are as many studies that clear its name as level accusations at it. Ultimately, there is no study that proves or clearly states the hazards associated with these molecules.
Ever-changing beauty product regulations
The REACH regulation and ED
In France, beauty products are governed by EU regulation (Regulation (EC) no. 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council dated 30 November 2009). But it doesn’t include any specific provisions on ED. It’s up to the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) Regulation to address environmental concerns associated with chemical substances contained in beauty products.
Endocrine disruptors are reined in by Article 57 of the REACH regulation: substances that display endocrine disruptor properties can be identified as SVHC (substances of very high concern), just as other types of hazardous chemical substances are classed as CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic for reproduction) or PBT (persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic). Once a substance is classed as a SVHC, it can no longer be produced or used in the EU. Restrictions can also prohibit endocrine disruptors from being used in certain ways.
A committee of European experts
Each instance of substance use is subject to a prior comprehensive risk assessment. This assessment is carried out by an independent committee: the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). It comprises 17 independent members of various nationalities who are drawn from national health and safety authorities. They are essentially chemistry and toxicology experts, without any connection to corporations. The Committee can act in a self-directed manner if it has suspicions over a given substance, or upon request of a member state.
The SCCS issues findings on the health and safety risks posed by non-food consumer products such as beauty products.
The European Commission regularly calls upon the CSSC to run new assessments on potentially harmful substances, particularly those suspected of causing endocrine disruption.
Since 2019, a list of 28 potential endocrine disruptors has been drawn up in respect of beauty product ingredients. The following are in the process of being assessed as a matter of priority: kojic acid, benzophenone 1 and 3, benzyl salicylate, BHT, genistein, homosalate, octocrylene, propylparaben, resorcinol, triclosan and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC).
On 15 February 2021 another 10 substances were added, including two types of paraben (butylparaben and methylparaben), five UV filters (including benzophenone 1, octocrylene and octinoxate), BHA and salicylic acid.
The findings are due in the coming months or year.
Ultimately, the issue of endocrine disruptors is chiefly about erring on the side of caution. Nothing has as yet been truly and scientifically proven. So if endocrine disruptors are not absolutely necessary (a question raised especially by sunscreens), should we use them and accept the risks associated with them? In the meantime, you can screen product ingredients with apps that flag them up if found, and you can gravitate towards simpler, cleaner formulations.