Endocrine Disrupters In Beauty: A Cosmetic Chemist Breaks Down The Problem
In clean and natural cosmetics, there are a few classes of ingredients we tend to flag. Environmental toxins are those that cause harm to the planet, such as cyclic silicones, which have been shown to bioaccumulate in our water supply1 when they swirl down the drain. There are drying agents, like sulfates and some types of alcohols, that disrupt your skin barrier, damage the microbiome, and cause microscopic inflammation. Allergens and irritants can cause skin sensitivity over time, perhaps even leading to inflammatory skin conditions when you're older. Then there are carcinogens, which despite having links to diseases and cancer, still show up in many traditional beauty products (albeit less so now).
And, of course, there are endocrine disrupters. If you pay attention to the well-being industry, you've likely heard this term come up. Certainly it holds space in clean beauty, but it does too with plastics, household goods, food, and elsewhere.
And so often when I look into these ingredients—or chat about them with others—one counterpoint is always brought up: We can't seem to nail down, with definitive proof, what exactly they do to the body and which ones are the worst offenders. And if I'm being honest: No argument there! These are certainly a tricky class of ingredients.
But that's why chatting with clean cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline (on a recent episode of Clean Beauty School) was so illuminating. Here, she explains why endocrine disrupters are just so hard to deal with in the beauty industry.
So first up: What are endocrine disrupters in beauty?
Endocrine disrupters, in cosmetics or elsewhere, are ingredients that interact with your body's natural hormones or hormone receptors. The endocrine system is the system in your body that regulates your hormones, from cortisol and melatonin to estrogen and testosterone. Your hormones are constantly working together—trying to achieve harmony. However, they can be thrown off by a variety of factors, endocrine disrupters included.
When this class of ingredients interacts with and are absorbed by the body, they can disrupt your hormones in a few ways. The first way is that they may simply increase or decrease the levels of a hormone you have naturally. The second is that they mimic your own hormones, thereby leaching onto your hormone receptors, so your actual hormones have no place to go. The third is they mask your hormones, essentially blocking them from reaching the receptors or doing their unique job in the body.
As Koestline explains in this example, "So let's say they may mimic estrogen. And then they bind to those receptors that estrogen would usually bind to. So your body thinks that you have all this estrogen that you don't actually have. And so your body will start to do the things it's supposed to do when you have those high levels of estrogen in the body. Things like producing growth hormones. Once those extra growth hormones are produced in the body, there's a lot of negative things that can happen."
Why are they so hard to weed out?
The first reason that endocrine disrupters are challenging is because, well, a lot of things can affect your hormones: Tap water, pollution, stress, diets can all influence your balance.
Of course, the clean beauty argument to this is that we're only concerned with the more insidious ones—the ones that show up in beauty products that can do tangible harm to the body. (Because if our hormones are going to be affected by so much that is out of our control, why not try to mitigate damage with what we can control, no?) But even the latter category of endocrine disrupters is hard to pinpoint.
As Koestline explains, "The worst part is that you can't really link any of these to a direct outcome. Because hormones do so much and play such a big part in how your body functions, disrupting these hormones could mean the outcome is literally anything," she says. "It's hard to prove with definitive science that this ingredient causes that [problem]. We don't really know that—it might happen, but we can't prove it."
Essentially, as we discuss in the episode, you can't really determine causation with endocrine disrupters—only correlation. But as Koestline tells me, she doesn't use any ingredient (for herself or in formulations) that has any major connection to hormone deception—"safety is the most important principle to clean beauty to me."
Here, the major offenders to keep an eye out for:
- Preservative Triclosan
Because our natural hormone balance is influenced by so many factors, pinpointing the cause or trigger of a disruption is difficult—and almost impossible to prove. However, this clean cosmetic chemist says it's worth avoiding the major ones regardless, as they can wreak havoc on the body—in ways big and small.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.