Let’s back up: Our endocrine system is the part of our body that regulates hormones, the chemical messengers that are responsible for many of the body's functions. Not only do hormones regulate growth, blood sugars, hunger, and sleep, but they also run our entire reproductive system.
- Laura Purdy, MD, board-certified family medicine physician
Endocrine disruptors, or endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), change these functions by mimicking, interfering with, and even blocking the body’s hormones. As Glenn Morrison, PhD, a professor in the department of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, once told Well+Good about EDCs’ effects, “They can stop something when it shouldn't stop, or start something when it shouldn't start."
According to the Endocrine Society, there are 1000 or more chemicals that could be EDCs. Common ones include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
Where are endocrine disruptors found?
EDCs are in lots of our everyday products, but exposure mostly happens by ingestion. Herbicides, pesticides, contaminated water, and preservatives used in food may contain EDCs. Then there are the things that touch the food: Food packaging, particularly plastic, as well as microwave popcorn bags, cans, and non-stick pans, are other ways many of us are exposed.
In addition, we can inhale them and absorb EDCs through the skin. Emily Hulse, MS, RD, of The Write Nutrition, says, “Makeup, skincare, and other personal care items are common sources of EDCs. We are often exposed through common items like face wash, shaving cream, body lotion, and sunscreen.” EDCs can also be in toys, furniture, and carpet.
What does the science say about health risks?
According to board-certified family medicine physician Laura Purdy, MD, MBA, “EDCs can interact with the endocrine system, which can eventually have a negative impact on health.” Research shows that long-term exposure to EDCs can lead to multiple medical problems, like altered development (possible early or late puberty and breast development), decreased fertility, increased risk of certain cancers (including breast, prostate, testicular), and immune and nervous system issues.
That’s not to say that one bag of microwave popcorn is going to doom you to all of these health problems. All chemicals—even the most toxic—have safe doses that the body can handle. But the problem is, we don’t yet know enough about EDCs to determine what is a safe amount. Because the endocrine system operates on tiny changes, it is thought that even low exposure to EDCs may alter the way your hormones work. And it’s hard to determine precise safety levels since they can depend on our age, overall health, and genetics, and most people are usually exposed to multiple EDCs.
What’s being done about it?
So if EDCs aren’t good for us, what steps are being taken? “Research!” says Nicole Sparks, PhD, assistant professor of environmental & occupational health at the University of California, Irvine. She explains there are studies being done “specifically focusing on how EDCs are harmful to human health and can lead to diseases and disorders.”
The research leads to action. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1938), Toxic Substances Control Act (1976), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) are just a few of the regulations that have been put in place—and updated—over the decades to keep us safe. While “endocrine disruptor” was a term scientists started using in 1991, it has been known for over 50 years that chemicals—whether natural or man-made—can alter our hormones.
“In California, phthalates in personal care products are banned, and all cleaning and personal care products must disclose EDCs,” says Dr. Sparks. Since being signed into law in 2020 and 2017 (respectively), these changes are now being replicated in other states, Dr. Sparks adds. As a result, many manufacturers have responded by creating products without EDCs. These days, you can usually find an EDC-free alternative for most products.
Tips to reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors
In a perfect world, we’d be able to totally avoid EDCs. Unfortunately, because EDCs are everywhere, that’s not the case. But you can certainly limit your exposure. Start by identifying the ways you are being exposed by informing yourself. “Ensure that your personal care products do not contain parabens by checking the ingredient label,” Hulse suggests.
You can reduce exposure to triclosan by swapping your antibacterial soap for regular soap. The Food and Drug Administration says regular soap and water are just as effective as antibacterial soap at removing germs.
As far as food packaging goes, Dr. Purdy says, “Skip plastics because most of them contain EDCs.” Try to consume less processed foods overall. When you do buy packaged food or canned goods, look for options that are labeled PFAS- and BPA-free. And choose glass packaging when available.
You can further reduce exposure by opting for plastic-free tea bags or using loose-leaf tea. Limit the use of sandwich bags, opting for glass, stainless steel, or cloth containers. Another idea is popping your own popcorn on the stove rather than microwave popcorn. And if you are getting takeout, you can bring your own containers, or remove the food from its packaging as soon as you get home.
Also research the household products you use. Dr. Purdy warns, “Many ‘cleaning products’ are not clean.” The label will say if the product contains phthalates or parabens and will sometimes be at the end of the ingredient, like methylparaben or propylparaben. And while scented sprays, detergents, lotions, and creams are appealing, try to skip the fragrance. “Fragrances often contain EDCs,” she adds.
Sure it takes more work to research which products have been made without harmful chemicals. But it can be a big step in protecting your health.
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