Did you know, many of the personal products we use on a daily basis are full of chemical toxins that may have implications for our fertility? Given that the average woman uses 12 personal care products each day, the ingredients these contain should be an important consideration when trying to conceive.
Although the European Commission regulates the use of chemical ingredients in cosmetic products, the worry voiced by many health professionals is that cumulatively – with exposure from multiple personal care products – we are building up extensive levels of these fertility-damaging toxins in our bodies.
Of particular concern are chemicals that are classed as endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, known as EDCs, interfere with the body’s normal endocrine (hormone) system. They mimic oestrogen (the female sex hormone) and androgens (the male sex hormones, the most well-known of which is testosterone), meaning they can affect sperm, egg and embryo quality.
The idea that your current personal products might in some way be affecting your fertility may sound scary, but try not to panic! Remember: it’s all about making changes where you can to reduce your risk. Arming yourself with the right information can help you to make more fertility-friendly choices. To help you get started, here’s our handy A-Z ‘naughty list’ of the chemical nasties linked to poor fertility that you should try to avoid wherever possible:
Acrylates: Derived from acrylic acid, certain acrylates have been linked to poor fertility and birth defects. Acrylates are found in artificial nail products (such as acrylic and gel nails, and gel polishes), and in cosmetic adhesives that hold false nails and false eyelashes in place. Exposure to acrylates most often occurs through vapour inhalation (now you know why your nail technician wears a mask!), but topical exposure can also be hazardous as harmful amounts can be absorbed through our skin. Specific links have been made between ethyl methacrylate and methyl methacrylate and foetal malformations, so avoiding false nails, eyelashes and checking your nail polish ingredients when TTC and during pregnancy is a must. Laboratory studies have additionally shown that methyl methacrylate significantly lowers testosterone levels in males.
Label lookouts: acrylate, ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, and methyl methacrylate.
BHA/BHT: BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are synthetic chemical compounds that have antioxidising effects. They are often found in cosmetic products such as lipsticks, hair gels/creams and moisturises where they act as a preservative, prolonging shelf-life. There is increasing concern that BHA and BHT act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s normal hormone functions, and some studies have shown BHA and BHT to have estrogenic and anti-androgenic (testosterone-blocking) properties.
Label lookouts: BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole, BHT, butylated hydroxytoluene, dibutylhydroxytoluene.
Butylphenyl Methylpropional: Often labelled as ‘lilial’, butylphenyl methylpropional synthetically replicates the aroma of the lily of the valley flower. It is found in everything from hair products and deodorants, to perfumes, hand soaps and even scented candles. Butylphenyl methylpropional can be damaging to male testes, impacting sperm quality, and can also be harmful to developing foetuses exposed through their mother’s use of products containing the chemical. Although its use is regulated, a discussion from The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety published in May 2019 indicated that the aggregate exposure to this chemical arising from the use of multiple products meant at the current regulated concentrations butylphenyl methylpropional could not be considered as safe.
Label lookouts: butylphenyl methylpropional, lilial, lily aldehyde.
Ethanolamines: Ethanolamines such as diethanolamine (DEA), act as an emulsifier (allowing combined liquids to make a smooth mixture without separating) or a degreaser. Since they remove oil and dirt, they are often found in cleaning products such as hand soaps and shampoos, or in creamy products such as moisturisers. DEA can cause problems for male fertility as it can alter the sperm’s structure which impacts its ability to reach and fertilise an egg.
Label lookouts: diethanolamine (DEA), cocamide, ethanolamines, lauramide, triethanolamine (TEA).
Lead: Exposure to lead – a heavy metal – has been linked to both male and female fertility issues such as sperm damage, hormone changes, reduced ability to conceive, and miscarriage occurence in pregnant women. It might not sound like something you’d come across in your beauty products, but in actual fact trace amounts of lead have historically been found in highly-coloured cosmetics such as lipstick and eye makeup. Often this occurs as a by-product of the manufacturing process and such traces will not be listed on product labels, but other times heavy metals are actually intentionally added to products as colourants. Check your labels for ingredients such as lead acetate and those below to be sure. As a precaution, when TTC, avoiding highly-coloured makeups (bye bye red lipstick!) might be prudent to reduce your risk of coming into contact with any hidden impurities.
Label lookouts: lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate.
Parabens: Parabens are synthetic compounds used in many health and beauty products as a preservative to prolong shelf-life. Known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), they can mimic oestrogen, interfering with the body’s hormone function, and can also affect sperm, egg and embryo quality. Parabens can be absorbed through the skin so check the labels on those body creams, perfumes and shampoos! The simplest rule of thumb is to go for products specifically advertised as ‘paraben-free’.
Label lookouts: parabens, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben.
Phthalates: Phthalates are a group of chemicals known as plasticizers as they are mainly used to soften plastics. Although most phthalates are now banned from use in cosmetics as they interfere with hormone function and reduced sperm count, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many beauty products to help fragrances last longer. Phthalates may not always appear in ingredient lists, however, if you find ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on a label without further explanation as to the source, there may well be phthalates lurking. As a general rule, avoiding heavily perfumed products whilst TTC is a good move.
Label lookouts: diethyl phthalate (DEP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), ‘fragrance/parfum’ where source has not been clarified, for example ‘natural essential oils’.
Polyacrylamide: Polyacrylamide is sometimes used as a thickener, foaming agent or lubricant in cosmetic lotions. Although not considered risky in itself, the controversy surrounding polyacrylamide usage comes from its potential to secrete acrylamide molecules as it breaks down. Acrylamide is a known toxin and has links to decreased sperm count and problems with foetal development. Acrylamide is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU, and use of polyacrylamide is regulated to strict levels to ensure exposure to residual acrylamide is reduced. However, when TTC, it might be worth avoiding those products altogether that are labelled as containing polyacrylamide and switching to lotions that don’t run the risk of containing acrylamide.
Label lookouts: polyacrylamide, acrylamide, polyacrylate, polyquaternium and acrylate.
Retinoids and Retinol: Retinoids are chemical compounds related to Vitamin A that are used in anti-acne creams to unclog pores, and anti-ageing medications to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Although retinoids are prescription-only, you can buy the over-the-counter-version, retinol (which is essentially Vitamin A), without a prescription, and it is often an ingredient found in commercial anti-ageing products. Topical retinoid use has however been linked to birth defects, so avoiding their use when TTC and in early pregnancy is important. Be sure to check any of your beauty products billed as ‘anti-acne’ or ‘anti-ageing’ for the below ingredients, and if you are on any prescription retinoids, speak to your doctor and inform them you are TTC.
Label lookouts: retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, and isotretinoin.
Silicones/Siloxanes: Silicones are used in cosmetic and beauty products to reduce greasiness, increase absorption and spreadability, and to lubricate. Certain types of silicones, such as cyclotetrasiloxane (D4), have been classed as endocrine disruptors, interfering with normal hormone function and having the potential to affect fertile health. Silicones are additionally found in some lubricants and can affect sperm motility, so be sure you check those labels on your favourites when TTC!
Label lookouts: cyclotetrasiloxane (D4), octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4), cyclomethicone, cyclohexasiloxane. polydimethylsiloxane, methicone and dimethicone
Talc: Talc is a well-know clay-based mineral whose powdered form has anti-moisture and anti-friction properties. You might normally associate it with baby powder, however, talc can also be found in beauty and cosmetic products such as powdered makeup, mascaras, feminine hygiene products, deodorants, face masks and lipsticks. In recent years there has been much bad press surrounding talc due to studies indicating a link between increased endometrial and ovarian cancer occurrences in women who use talc-containing products in their genital area. This is because talc that is mined naturally may in fact be contaminated by the mineral asbestos, which is sometimes co-located, and is a known carcinogen. If you do wish to use talc-containing products whilst TTC then go for those specifically labelled as being ‘asbestos-free’, and avoid usage in the pelvic area.
Label lookouts: talcum powder, talc, cosmetic talc.
Tartrazine: Tartrazine, also known as yellow 5 is a synthetic dye sometimes used to colour health and beauty products such as shampoos, perfumes and colognes, toothpastes, soaps, and makeup. Tartrazine has been linked to sperm count decreases and increase in sperm abnormalities in males, as well as a decrease in foetal weight.
Label lookouts: tartrazine (TAZ), FD&C yellow 5, Aizen tartrazine, E102, CI 19140, trisodium salt.
Toluene: Found in nail varnishes and hair dyes, toluene is what gives your polish a smooth finish on your nail. Some studies have indicated toluene has been linked to reproductive damage in females, as well as pregnancy loss. Not overdoing the manicures and pedicures when TTC and during pregnancy is a good start, as well as switching to polishes that don’t contain toluene or any other fertility-damaging chemicals.
Label lookouts: toluene also listed as methylbenzene, phenylmethane or toluol; toluene-2,5-diamine, toluene-2,5-diamine sulfate, toluene-3,4-diamine (hair dyes).
Triphenyl Phosphate: triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) is another endocrine disruptor often found in nail polishes. It has links to reproductive toxicity, inducing oestrogenic activity in women and decreasing semen quality in men. Those who paint their nails regularly may find themselves chronically exposed, so it’s well-worth checking the labels on those lovely shades.
Label lookouts: triphenyl phosphate (TPHP).
Triclosan: Triclosan (TSC) is an antibacterial agent most often found in hand soaps, toothpastes, hand sanitisers, deodorants and mouthwashes. Studies have indicated that exposure to triclosan can cause abnormalities in sperm for males. It has also been linked to the reduction in certain hormone levels for females, and has been shown to impact estrogenic activity. Pregnant women and new mothers especially should try to avoid TSC containing products. There has been evidence to suggest that TSC accumulates in breast milk, as well as it being present in blood samples taken from infants’ umbilical cords – meaning foetuses and babies are additionally at risk of being exposed to these hormone-disrupting effects. When checking your labels, be wary of anything claiming to have ‘antibacterial’ or ‘odour-fighting’ properties as there could well be triclosan inside. There is no evidence that TSC works as a greater antibacterial agent than regular soap and water, so when TTC it’s best to avoid these types of products.
Label lookouts: triclosan (TSC), triclocarban (TCC).
UV Filters: UV filters such as octinoxate and oxybenzone are often found in sun cream and other cosmetics offering an SPF (lipsticks, skin creams, hair products etc). Whilst they offer protection from UV light, they are also endocrine disruptors that mimic oestrogen. Octinoxate exposure has additionally been found to alter the reproductive systems of females, and in males it reduces sperm count.
Label lookouts: octinoxate, octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), oxybenzone, homosalate, benzonephenone-3, homomenthyl salicylate, 3,3,5-trimethyl-cyclohexyl-salicylate.