≡ Menu

Estrogen in beauty products Episode 39

What are xenohormones and should we be worried about them in cosmetics? This week we talk about the alleged dangers of estrogen and other endocrine disruptors in beauty products.  

Show notes

Beauty Science News – The case of the stolen body parts

Stolen hair and skin – who would have thought that beauty body parts would be the target of theft?

Question of the week: Are endocrine disrupting hormones dangerous in cosmetics?

Melissa asks…I’m interested in your take on the Suzanne Somers organic skincare and cosmetic line. As a recent breast cancer patient I would like to know if you think we should be concerned about xenoestrogens and are her products or any other nontoxic type of products hype or really worth taking a look at?

What is the endocrine system?

The endocrine system is responsible for controlling biological processes such as metabolism, blood sugar levels, growth and function of the reproductive system, and the development of the many organs.

It has three parts:

1. Glands are organs like the thyroid, testes and ovaries that secrete specific chemical substances called hormones.

2. Hormones which are chemicals that stimulate cells or tissues into action. For example, there’s estrogen which regulates menstrual cycles.

3. Cell receptors that pick up the signal from the hormones and trigger a response. Estrogens (for example estradiol) are a group of steroid compounds, named for their importance in the menstrual cycle and function as a primary female sex hormone.

The problem is that certain chemicals can mimic the effects of hormones and interfere with normal operation of the endocrine system.

Xenohormones and endocrine disruptors

Chemicals that can “fake out” cell receptors are known as Xenohormones. These are a group of either naturally occurring or artificially created compounds with hormone-like properties.

The most commonly occurring xenohormones are xenoestrogens. (And, by the way, there are also xenohormones that mimic other hormones such as xenoandrogens and xenoprogesterones.)
Xenoestrogens are often referred to “environmental hormones” or “EDC” (Endocrine Disrupting Compounds).

There seems to be overlap in definition I think all xenohormones can be EDCs but not all EDCs have to be xenohormones.

Here’s the EPA’s definition:
An EDC is “an exogenous agent that interferes with synthesis, secretion, transport, metabolism, binding action, or elimination of natural blood-borne hormones…”

So what are these EDCs?

They can be either synthetic or natural. Some synthetic examples include …
Industrial solvents/lubricants and their byproducts [polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), dioxins], materials used in plastics like bisphenol A (BPA)] and phthalates), a variety of pesticides and even some pharmaceutical agents.

For natural chemicals…examples include phytoestrogens (genistein and coumestrol).

5 Reasons studying EDCs are problematic

You might wonder then, if EDCs are so bad, why are they still used in ANY product, not just cosmetics. The answer is that the science is very complicated and we don’t really know yet which compounds are REALLY a problem. In fact there are 5 reasons why this is so complicated.

1. Age at exposure
2. Latency from exposure
3. Importance of mixtures
4. Nontraditional dose-response dynamics
5. Transgenerational, epigenetic effects

EDCs in cosmetics – what are they and how bad are they?

There are a handful of chemicals that are of concern in cosmetics related to endocrine disruption. I’ll list the important ones and give you their status.

First, recognize that there are probably 6 different common phthalates – Some of these have shown up as contaminants in blood samples and are believed to produce teratogenic or endocrine-disrupting effects. For this reason, the European Union has categorized dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate as Category 2 reproductive toxins. In the US, the FDA has moved to restrict the use of DEHP and DBP in pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Both the FDA in the US and the SCCP in EU agree that there’s no clear data that the use of these ingredients in cosmetics pose a measurable hazard to consumers. The FDA is continuing to monitor the situation while the EU has taken a more conservative approach and decided to limit the use of some phthalates to only trace levels. From a regulatory perspective, the EU now has three categories for phthalates:

Accepted phthalates: This one is considered safe for use in cosmetics: DEP
Banned phthalates: These are banned from being added to cosmetics but are allowable as “trace contaminants” up to 100 ppm: DEHP, DBP and BBP.
Unregulated phthalates: These have not been regulated in EU but given their low usage (at least in perfumes) there is no quantifiable risk to consumers: DMP, DIBP, DCHP, DINP and DIDP.

Most recent data shows that when used at designated levels (around 0,2%) they are safe, particularly Methyparaben which is the most commonly used. insert reference.

Bisphenol A (or BPA)
There is data showing BPA is hazardous but it’s only used in packaging not as part of any cosmetic ingredient.

Dioxin vs 1,4 dioxane
Dioxin is an EDC but not found in cosmetics. Comes from pesticides, industrial manufacturing. 1,4 dioxane is found in cosmetics as a contaminant from surfactant manufacture. At certain levels it has been shown to be carcinogenic but the industry regulates the amount to make sure it’s at a safe level. http://cosmeticsinfo.org/HBI/32

Now as I said, some of these EDCs are naturally occurring compounds
For example, plant estrogens (also known as phytoestrogens) found in soybeans and other foodstuffs have been shown to have weak endocrine activity. However, the estrogenic activity of these materials, as measured under laboratory conditions, is generally far below that which is observed for estradiol – the naturally occurring form of estrogen in the human body. In addition, the levels at which these ingredients with potential hormonal properties occur in cosmetic and personal care products is significantly below levels that have been associated with the laboratory demonstrated endocrine activity.

Vitamin E
Some studies say this is an EDC while others say it protects against EDCs. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16182432

And finally Tea Tree oil and Lavender oil http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17575592 have been shown to mimic estrogens and a few years ago there was a case reported where a couple of boys developed gynomastia (they grew breasts) after using products tea tree and lavender products.

But after a closer look at the data, it appears there’s nothing to be concerned about – for a thorough breakdown of this case check out the link:


So it seems like the EDCs which are of most concern in cosmetics really aren’t that concerning after all…Of course the debate still rages on.

EDCs in cosmetics: Two sides of the story

Play it safe and act now
Some people take the stance that we should play it safe and act not. They say that…
We don’t know if there are a safe exposure levels.
We don’t know if there’s a synergistic effect with mixtures of ingredients
It can take years for effects to show up and by that time it’s too late

So, if there’s even the slightest risk why not completely get rid of the right now? (Some people call this the Precautionary Principle)

Get more data so we can make informed decisions
Others say we should collect more data so we can make more informed decisions.
According to CosmeticsInfo, this topic is very controversial and is currently under-investigation by scientists in many countries. Right now the best science says that “Although a variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine system in studies of laboratory animals at very high doses and in some populations of fish and wildlife, there is no convincing evidence that ingredients used in cosmetic and personal care products cause endocrine disruption in humans.”

There are two reasons we meed more data:
1. We can’t do everything at once. We should focus on the chemicals that have been proven to be a high risk. For example, we should prioritize efforts to remove EDCs from foods before cosmetics.
2. Let’s not accidentally make things worse. There are lack of good alternatives (for example, we don’t have any preservatives that works as well as parabens, so getting rid of them may cause other more pressing issues (like contamination leading to infections.) Also, we don’t have good alternatives that have better safety profiles. Don’t want to exchange a potential EDC for a known carcinogenic compound.

Also, for what it’s worth, historically once the cosmetic industry has had clear data that an ingredient is harmful, it has moved quickly to removed it. Numerous colorants, hexachlorophene, certain preservatives.

So called “Organic” or “Green” products are not necessarily the answer

Melissa also asked if the SS line and other “non-toxic” products are worth taking a look at. Unfortunately, Just because a product is labeled “organic” or “green” doesn’t guarantee that it is better.

First of all, since there’s no standard definition you don’t REALLY know whether or not you can believe a company when they tell you their product is green. For example in a 2011 study researchers found that in terms of the number of “hazardous” chemicals, the “green”-labeled fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced products.

I also found a study that tested over 200 products and compared “regular” products to “green” alternatives and found EDCs in both.

And, here’s an example from the SS line: Her product line is “organic” and certified as “Toxic Free” yet it contains tea tree oil which is a known EDC. (I’m not saying it’s proven to be dangerous but it is proven to be an EDC so why would they include that?)

You have to be very skeptical of HOW green products are different. It’s just not enough to be told “they’re organic.”

Substitute products may involve trade-offs in performance.

Here’s another factor to consider, choosing substitute products is complicated because there are likely to be trade-offs in performance.

For example, let’s look at a couple of the Suzanne Somers’ products which Melissa mentioned:

Her Organics Defining mascara is based on simple plant extracts and waxes rather than polymers which means it’s more likely to flake, smear and so forth.

Her Organics Ageless Serum uses a vitamin C derivative that doesn’t convert well to ascorbic acid and it doesn’t contain anything else proven to work for anti-aging. (such as retinoids or niacinamide)

Her Organic Nourishing shampoo is based on Decyl glucoside but it’s $20 for 8 ounces. Rinse off products are even less an issue due to lower exposure so probably not the place to waste money.

The point is, if you’re that concerned about product safety and you’re willing to pay a lot more money for products which CLAIM to be safer, then you deserve to know that these products will work differently.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

When it comes to learning which cosmetic ingredients pose a risk as an EDC, pay attention to legitimate scientific sources rather than fear mongering groups.

Consider what your personal risk factors are. Are you pregnant or likely to become pregnant soon? Then you may have a higher level of concern about potential effects upon your reproductive system.

If you do decide to look for alternative products then do your research. Learn what’s really in the products you’re considering and find out what trade offs in performance you might expect. That way you can make an informed decision.

But at the end of it all: If you’re really concerned about EDCs and don’t mind spending more money and potentially sacrificing performance, to avoid an undefined risk then MAYBE these alternative products are a good option for you.



Dodson RE, Nishioka M, Standley LJ, Perovich LJ, Brody JG, Rudel RA. 2012. Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products. Environ Health Perspect 120:935–943; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1104052


Diamanti-Kandarakis E et al. 2009 Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement. Endocrine Reviews 30(4):293-342


LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Traci July 15, 2014, 9:52 am

    Thanks for such a thorough look at both sides of this issue.

  • Chaeya July 15, 2014, 11:03 am

    Thanks for this info. It’s nice to see an unbiased view of the facts, and most of what I read here is spot on with my own research.

  • Janessa July 15, 2014, 3:34 pm

    Such a thorough explanation as always! I love the Beauty Brains Show and really appreciate them. I went through a phase of going ‘green’ but then decided it was limiting me from too many beauty products (for a makeup lover) and I think the city air I breathe is toxic and too many things are toxic to care so much. I agree with Traci, thanks for sharing both sides so that we’re informed and can make the ultimate decisions for ourselves.

    • Randy Schueller July 15, 2014, 3:49 pm

      Thanks to Janessa, Chaeya, and Traci for the words of support! It really helps to hear that you guys value what we do.

  • Eileen July 15, 2014, 9:15 pm

    Don’t think for even one moment that your balanced, insightful, and often humorous posts go unnoticed. You guys are the greatest at taking complex subjects and presenting them in a consumer friendly way. There’s just so much ignorance and blathering to be found online. We need people like you to interject some sanity and reasonableness into the conversation. Great job, as always!

    • Randy Schueller July 16, 2014, 6:58 am

      Awww, Eileen. Thanks for the touching words! Can’t type anymore right now, I seem to have something in my eye. *Sniff*

  • Evande July 17, 2014, 3:33 am

    It is a great post, it helps me a lot to understand many things about my health and body. Thanks a lot.

  • Kitty June 28, 2017, 5:01 am

    Such good points here. Thank you guys!