Did you know, many of the personal products you use on a daily basis are full of chemicals and toxins that may have implications for your fertility, and negatively affect your health and the development of your baby throughout pregnancy?
When trying to conceive (TTC) and during pregnancy, some of the first steps you take are to adjust your diet, nutrition, exercise and relaxation routines in order to give yourself the best chance of a successful and healthy pregnancy. But what about making changes to your perfumes, skincare, makeup and personal toiletries? Could shaking up your beauty regime improve your chances of getting pregnant and help to support your baby’s healthy development?
Scientific studies are increasingly highlighting the association between the environmental chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis and poor fertile health. 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 damaging toxins in our bodies. Given that the average man uses 6, and the average woman uses 12 personal care products each day, the ingredients these contain should be an important consideration when looking at potential fertility-lifestyle changes.
Here’s a handy checklist of eight of the key chemical nasties linked to poor fertility that you should try to avoid wherever possible:
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.
Acrylates: Derived from acrylic acid, 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 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, false eyelashes, and checking your nail polish ingredients when TTC and during pregnancy is a must.
Label lookouts: acrylate, ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, and methyl methacrylate.
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). While they offer protection from UV light, they are also endocrine disruptors that mimic oestrogen. An important chemical of concern to look out for when TTC and pregnant is octinoxate. Octionoxate, which is absorbed quickly through the skin, has been found to alter the reproductive systems of developing offspring, increasing their subsequent risk of fertility issues. It also disrupts thyroid activity, reducing the amount of thyroid hormones in the blood stream – which can have implications for foetal development.
Label lookouts: octinoxate, octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), oxybenzone, homosalate, benzonephenone-3, homomenthyl salicylate, 3,3,5-trimethyl-cyclohexyl-salicylate.
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. Phthalates can impact thyroid signalling, decreasing circulating thyroid hormone levels in the body. Such changes could be particularly problematic during early pregnancy, when the foetal brain depends entirely on its mother’s thyroid hormone supply. As a general rule, avoiding heavily perfumed products while TTC is a good move.
Label lookouts: diethyl phthalate (DEP),‘fragrance/parfum’ where source has not been clarified, for example ‘natural essential oils’.
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 use is regulated, a discussion from The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety published in May 2019 indicated 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.
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 due to the role naturally occurring vitamin A plays in skin health.
Topical retinoid use has however been linked to birth defects, so avoiding their use when trying to conceive 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 about the risks of long term usage, or the specific risks whilst trying to conceive or during pregnancy.
Label lookouts: retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, and isotretinoin.
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).
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.
The idea that your current beauty products might contain these chemicals and toxins and could therefore 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 when it comes to your health and beauty products. Checking your labels and switching to products that don’t contain the harmful ingredients listed above is a great first step.
For a comprehensive list of chemicals and toxins to avoid while TTC and during pregnancy, check out the Wellbeing Sisters’ Naughty List.
Aydin O, et al., ‘The effects of methyl methacrylate on nasal cavity, lung, and antioxidant system (an experimental inhalation study)’, Toxicological Pathology, volume 30:3, (May-June 2002), pages 350-356.
Ethyl Acrylate, 1988 OSHA PEL Project Documentation (January 1989). Available online: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/pel88/140-88.html
European Chemical Agency (ECHA) Ethyl Acrylate Substance Information Card. Available online: https://echa.europa.eu/substance-information/-/substanceinfo/100.004.945
#ChemicalCallout – Phthalates: https://www.madesafe.org/science/hazard-list/phthalates/
Chemicals of concern: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chem-of-concern/
Commission decision of 9 February 2006 amending Decision 96/335/EC establishing an inventory and a common nomenclature of ingredients employed in cosmetic products:
Diamanti-Kandarakis E, et al., ’Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement’, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 30:4, (June 2009), Pages 293–342.
Environmental Working Group EWG’s Skin Deep® Cosmetic Database: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
Environmental Working Group Report: The trouble with sunscreen chemicals: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
European Commission Cosmetics and Cosmetic Notifications Portal (CPNP): https://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/cosmetics/
European Commission list of substances which cosmetic products must not contain except subject to the restrictions laid down: https://ec.europa.eu/growth/tools-databases/cosing/index.cfm?fuseaction=ref_data.annexes_v2 CoSing EU commission database annexes
Mojsiewicz-Pieńkowska K, Jamrógiewicz M, Szymkowska K and Krenczkowska D, ‘Direct Human Contact with Siloxanes (Silicones) – Safety or Risk Part 1. Characteristics of Siloxanes (Silicones)’, Frontiers in Pharmacology, volume 7, (May 2016), page 132.
National Toxicology Program report: Photocarcinogenesis study of retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate, National Institute of Health, (2012). Available online: https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/lt_rpts/tr568_508.pdf
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Scientific Committee on Consumer Products SCCP opinion on phthalates march 2007: https://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_sccp/docs/sccp_o_106.pdf
Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS opinion on the safety of Butylphenyl methylpropional (p-BMHCA) in cosmetic products – Submission II : https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_213.pdf
‘Should People Be Concerned about Parabens in Beauty Products’, October 6, 2014: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-people-be-concerned-about-parabens-in-beauty-products/
Skin deep exposures add up survey: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2004/06/15/exposures-add-up-survey-results/ Exposures add up – Survey results
Young A S, et al, ‘Phthalate and Organophosphate Plasticizers in Nail Polish: Evaluation of Labels and Ingredients’ Environmental Science and Technology, Volume 52(21), (October 2018), Pages 12841-12850.