One of the first research projects I did on the impact that lifestyle can have on fertility showed that women exposed to a handful of common chemicals classified as EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) go through menopause earlier than women who have less exposure. It gained a lot of media attention because several of the toxic chemicals I found in my study are common in makeup products. A more recent study highlighted the continued importance of addressing this issue in women’s health and prompted this post.
This group evaluated the top beauty brands for each type of makeup and found 1322 ingredients. They then went on to summarize the evidence suggesting the association between each of these chemicals and menopause. Most of the chemicals they found are absorbed through the skin, meaning that all these chemicals are entering our bodies each day. Although the group admits there aren’t enough studies to show a direct link between cosmetics use and menopause, I think it’s enough to have me question what I’m being exposed to on a daily basis and how it’s going to impact my health.
Even though you may be far from menopause, I think it is still important for you to consider how chemicals that you’re exposed to can be impacting your ovaries. Women who go through menopause early are likely to have a shorter fertility window, meaning that they may use up their eggs at a faster rate than someone else their age. In the fertility world, this can translate to women who respond less to medications or are less successful with their use of assisted reproductive technology compared to others their age.
As a woman, as a mother, and as a fertility specialist, my first response to learning how many chemicals we are exposed to daily was disbelief: Why aren’t we protected as consumers from these potentially toxic chemicals? Why are they still exposing people to these toxic chemicals? Although the Food and Drug Administration monitors the chemicals that go into food and drugs, cosmetics are not subjected to the same regulation. Here are a few things that we can do to protect ourselves by limiting the numbers of chemicals we are exposed to daily.
Take home points:
- Women are exposed to 1000s of toxic environmental chemicals each day.
- Some of the chemicals found in makeup have been linked to health problems, including earlier menopause
- Physicians and patients need to do a better job learning about the risks to their health so that they can make more informed choices in selecting their personal care products
- What you can do:
- Limit the number of personal care products you use. For example, try to limit to one type of shampoo to minimize the exposure to multiple chemicals.
- Avoid any personal care items that have fragrances or scents.
- Read labels and support companies that disclose what their ingredients are and support their efforts to remove those that are not necessary or are suspected to be unsafe.
- Be an informed consumer: know what you are being exposed to. Here is a list of great resources.
We’re all frightened by what we don’t understand. Many infectious diseases feed in to that fear. Consider for example the recent media frenzy over Ebola Virus; then again over Bird Flu and then more recently over Chikungunya—all of which have died down without the nightmare scenarios coming to fruition. Now we’re focusing on Zika virus. This is admittedly scary due to its possible link to birth defects in babies born in Brazil. So let’s review what we know, what we don’t know AND what we can do in the meantime.
Recently the Society of Maternal-Fetal-Medicine held a special session to review this important topic and provide updated advice and guidance for women’s healthcare specialists in the USA. Zika is a virus transmitted by mosquitos. Those developing a symptomatic infection during pregnancy may be at high risk of having a child with a birth defect known as microcephaly. Although this link has not yet been definitively established it is recommended that we provide very close surveillance of any suspected cases while additional information is gathered. Although this sounds scary here are some of the key facts to keep in mind:
- Only 1 in 5 people bitten by an infected mosquito is likely to develop an infection
- Those infected have pretty specific symptoms including sore joints, a rash and conjunctivitis (red, swollen areas around the eyes)
- The infection will appear within one or two weeks of the mosquito bite
- The current test available is nonspecific and can create concerns due to false-positive results (a positive test due to a related virus that has not been linked with birth defects)
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring places in the world known to have active Zika transmission for travelers and advising those that are pregnant or planning pregnancy to avoid traveling to those locations
- Meanwhile, alternate causes of the fetal malformations are being investigated including a possible link to an insecticide widely used to control mosquitos in the area of Brazil most heavily effected by fetal microcephaly
Clearly we need to learn more about the Zika virus. In the meantime, here is some practical advice for patients that want to become pregnant:
- If possible avoid traveling to areas effected by Zika for at least one month prior to starting fertility treatment
- During mosquito season (as well as while traveling to effected areas) consider the following protective steps
- Wear long sleeves when possible and stay in air conditioned facilities (rather than using open windows for cooling
- Use insect repellants to reduce the risk of mosquito bites. Here are two that are among the safest (and least toxic) for women trying to conceive:
- If you live in an area with a high rate of Zika virus exposure, consider undergoing fertility treatment and freezing the embryos for delayed embryo transfer–a process known as embryo banking.
- If you develop the symptoms of rash, joint pain and red eyes, contact your healthcare provider to discussed current recommendations on testing.
- Stay informed. If you subscribe to this blog, I will do my best to remain current on this topic.
For the latest updated information from the CDC on this emerging problem, check out the following link: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/
Latest Update 02/29/2016: “It’s entirely possible there’s something else going on in Brazil — something unique to the population or environment in which transmission takes place.” – Dr. Anthony Fauci, Direct of National Institute for Allergy and Infectious disease
One of the most challenging problems to diagnose and treat for couples trying to conceive is the problem of recurrent early pregnancy loss (REPL). As fertility specialists, we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy making sure that we control all of the variables that might improve the chances that a pregnancy gets a healthy start. New evidence shows that women can—and should—make some simple changes in their lifestyle to also improve their chances for a successful outcome.
A study presented at the 2015 meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recently highlighted the potential impact of a chemical called phthalates on the pregnancies of women going through IVF. This was part of a study called the EARTH study; an investigation on how environmental and lifestyle can impact reproductive health. They measured phthalate levels in the urine of about 250 women going through fertility treatment and then followed these levels in nearly 300 pregnancies. What they found was that women going through fertility treatment that had higher levels of this chemical in their body had a much higher chance of miscarrying then the fertility patients with lower levels. In fact, their risk could be as much as three to four times higher—depending upon their level of exposure.
An important aspect of modern research is to pose the question of “why?” In this case, the question would be “why would phthalates increase the risk of miscarriage.” The answer to that question is by interfering with the ability of ovary to support the development of the early pregnancy. Specifically, after an egg is released from the ovary; the cells that remain at the site of the egg’s origin form a hormone producing unit called a corpus luteum (CL). The function of this CL is to help get the pregnancy off to a strong start until the placenta is large enough to take over hormone production. In 2014 a well designed study found that phthalates directly interfere with the ability of the CL to perform this critical role.
A recent multi-centered clinical study found that women pursuing Advanced Reproductive Treatments (ART) like IVF had lower levels of phthalate in their body than infertility patients pursuing other forms of treatment. The believed explanation for this finding was that patients undergoing IVF may pursue healthier lifestyle choices. For instance, it is estimated that at least 90% of the phthalates in our bodies are due to dietary intake. By reducing processed foods and decreasing consumption of animal fats, phthalate levels fall rapidly. In fact, our bodies are able to eliminate phthalates after only 6 to 12 hours. So it is only through the continued exposure that these chemicals persist in the bloodstream. So by making better choices, patients may be able to reduce their risk of miscarriage by 75%.
Here are some easy steps that you can take to begin reducing your phthalate level today:
- Only use nail polishes that are phthalate free—most add a phthalate called DBP to reduce chipping
- Don’t microwave or cook your food in plastic containers or use plastic utensils to eat hot foods—heat leaches this chemical out of the plastics and into food—the easiest pathway into your body
- Avoid plastic bottles—seek out glass or metal instead. When you must use plastic seek out bottles with the #2, #4 and #5 in the recycle triangle
- Avoid perfumes and scented products—phthalates (DEP) are used to prolong fragrances
- Don’t use air fresheners—most contain phthalates
- Avoid vinyl containing products—many products like lawn furniture, rain coats or shower curtains can not only release phthalates that can be inhaled but they can also be absorbed through the skin as well.
There have long been rumors that lipstick contains lead and but since cosmetic producers are not mandated to release the ingredients of their products, this fact remained hidden for many years. Back in 2007 the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics [r1] sent 33 brands of lipstick to an independent lab for testing and found that 61% tested positive for up to 0.65 parts per million of lead. What’s more they found top selling brands—including one that sold for $24 each—had the highest lead content! They reported their results to FDA and were promised an investigation.
It took the FDA two years and a letter from 3 US Senators to perform a follow up study. They found lead in every brand that they tested[r2] . Some of the brands had four times more lead in them then the Campaign study results. Despite these findings, the FDA did not take any action to protect consumers. More recently, an expanded analysis found lead levels as high as 7.19ppm. Even more surprising 5 of the top 10 most heavily contaminated brands were made by a one manufacturer[r3] , Loreal USA. Why aren’t consumers being made aware that something as toxic as lead is being sold to apply to their lips? That’s a hard question to answer.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is “No safe blood level for lead.” Lead is a neurotoxin. It accumulates in the body and it can even cross the placenta to harm a developing fetus. That’s why the only effective strategy against heavy metal poisoning is to minimize your risk of lead exposure. The effects of lead are well known and include lower IQ scores, behavioral problems, aggression and learning (especially language) disabilities.
More recently, a study demonstrated that high levels of lead can also contribute to infertility. In this study[r4] —conducted by the National Institute of Health—they found that women and men with higher levels of the heavy metals lead and cadmium experienced a nearly 30% reduction in their chance of conceiving. Although their study considered cigarettes to be the primary source of exposure to these toxic metals; their study was completed before the high lead levels in lipstick were revealed. Be a smart consumer and check out your personal care products and cosmetics before you apply: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/browse/lipstick .
Everyone likes to look and smell their best. But what is the real cost of that silky smooth skin and shiny hair? Cosmetics and personal care products contain various combinations of nearly 11,000 chemicals; only 11% of which have been evaluated for their safety. Maybe more concerning is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [r1] has not set any premarketing standards for testing these products or disclosing the results when problems are detected. With the exception of California—which passed the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 (Senate Bill 484)—the production of cosmetics is a self-regulated industry that generates over $50 billion annually. One easy (but inaccurate) way of trying to put consumer’s minds at ease by these companies is by promoting the notion that beauty products are applied externally and therefore have minimal opportunity to impact internal physiology.
Even though personal care products are applied topically; they are absorbed. How much they are absorbed depends upon several factors like, are they are applied near an opening (lipstick and eyeliner for instance gain entry easily); are they applied to a part of the body that is shaved (making for easier absorption); is it a moist or covered area (boosting the amount that penetrates the skin) and how often does is it applied or how long does it linger after application (dose). Another important aspect of a cosmetic’s ability to penetrate has to do with fragrance; the simple rule is if you can smell it, it is getting into your body and often into the bloodstream.
Let’s consider the example phthalates. These chemicals are plasticizing agents that add flexibility and a moisturizing sheen to products like nail polishes/nail hardeners, fragrances, mascara, lotions, shampoos/conditioners and sunscreens. If they appear on labels—not all cosmetics reveal ingredients—they are named for their specific chemical like DEP—most commonly used; DBP—used widely in nail polish; DMP—becoming more popular amongst manufacturers. They are well known for their ability to cause hormonal imbalance in both people and animals. They have been linked to early onset of puberty in girls[r2] , genital malformations in boys[r3] born to women exposed during pregnancy and now there have been several studies linking them to an elevated risk of obesity[u4] . Most troubling of all, they aren’t even a necessary ingredient.
Nail products tend to be one of the greatest sources of exposure for women. Although one would not think a product could be absorbed through the nail, DBP is water soluble so slight amounts leach out each time the nail is wet. As a result, it can be absorbed by the skin or taken in orally if the leaching takes place during food preparation. In fact, the reason that nail polish becomes brittle and chips over time are due to the loss of DBP which is used to keep polishes flexible. Rest assured, there are phthalate-free products available now, and consumers have the right to be educated on why avoiding such hormone disruptors is important to their reproductive health.
The simplest way to reduce exposure to phthalates is to buy products that don’t contain them. By doing so, you’re also supporting manufacturers that are making more responsible decisions. If you’d like to check out your favorite brands as well as get some leads on healthy alternatives, go the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database[u5] . They have the lowdown on over 69,000 products.