Although the European Commission regulates the use of chemicals in cosmetic products, the particular worry voiced by many health professionals is that cumulatively – with exposure from multiple personal care products – we are building up extensive levels of these chemicals in our bodies.

Of particular concern are chemicals that are classed as endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, known as EDCs, interfere with the body’s normal endocrine (hormone) system. They mimic oestrogen (the female sex hormone) and androgens (the male sex hormones, the most well-known of which is testosterone), meaning they can affect the normal functioning of a woman’s body – especially when it comes to key life stages, such as trying to conceive, pregnancy, and menopause.

The idea that your current personal products might in some way be affecting the natural balance of your hormones may sound scary, but try not to panic! Remember: it’s all about making changes where you can to reduce your risk, and arming yourself with the right information is the first step. To help you get started, here’s our handy A-Z ‘naughty list’ of the key chemicals linked to poor female health that you should try to avoid wherever possible:

Acrylamide: See ‘Polyacrylamide’.

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.

Ethyl acrylate can also irritate the skin and eyes, and if inhaled can be harmful to the gastrointestinal tract and respiratory system; and methyl methacrylate inhalation has additionally been associated with lung disease.

Label lookouts: acrylate, ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, and methyl methacrylate.

Adapalene: See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

Aizen Tartrazine: See ‘Tartrazine’.

Benzonephenone-3: See ‘UV Filters’.

BHA/BHT: BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are synthetic chemical compounds that have antioxidising effects. They are often found in cosmetic products such as lipsticks, deodorants, hair gels/creams, and moisturisers where they act as a preservative – prolonging shelf-life. There is increasing concern that BHA and BHT act as endocrine disruptors, and some studies have shown BHA and BHT to have oestrogenic and anti-androgenic (testosterone-blocking) properties. Endocrine disruptors that are either oestrogenic or anti-androgenic can play a role in our reproductive cycles, resulting in shorter menstrual cycles, which can impact our ability to conceive. They can also cause symptoms such as hot flashes in pre-menopausal women, and lead to earlier age of menopause onset.

BHT also irritates the eyes, skin and respiratory system; with long-term exposure to high doses of BHT linked to liver, thyroid and kidney problems, impaired lung function, blood coagulation issues, and (in certain situations) tumour growth.

Label lookouts: BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole, BHT, butylated hydroxytoluene, dibutylhydroxytoluene.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole: See ‘BHA/BHT’.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene: See ‘BHA/BHT’.

Butylparaben: See ‘Parabens’.

Butylphenyl Methylpropional: Sometimes 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 scented candles. Butylphenyl methylpropional is a known dermal and respiratory irritant, and can also be harmful to developing foetuses exposed through their mother’s use of products containing the chemical.

Research has shown that butylphenyl methylpropional should not be considered safe because of something called aggregate exposure, which happens when we are exposed to the same chemical from multiple products. Because of this, the EU has now banned the use of butylphenyl methylpropional, and from March 2022 manufacturers have to remove it from their products – but since that’s a while off, you should still check the labels of the products you currently use.

Label lookouts: butylphenyl methylpropional, lilial, lily aldehyde.

Chromium: See ‘Lead’.

CI 19140: See ‘Tartrazine’.

Cosmetic Talc: See ‘Talc’.

Cyclomethicone: See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

Cyclotetrasiloxane (D4): See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

Cyclohexasiloxane: See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

Dibutylhydroxytoluene: See ‘BHA/BHT’.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): See ‘Phthalates’.

Diethyl Phthalate (DEP): See ‘Phthalates’.

Dimethicone: See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

E102: See ‘Tartrazine’.

Ethyl Acrylate: See ‘Acrylates’.

Ethyl Methacrylate: See ‘Acrylates’.

Ethanolamines: Ethanolamines such as diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), act as an emulsifier (allowing combined liquids to make a smooth mixture without separating) or a degreaser. Since they remove oil and dirt, they are often found in cleaning products and creamy products such as hand soaps and shampoos.

DEA can be particularly problematic for anyone trying to conceive or pregnant: research indicates DEA can decrease sperm motility and viability (affecting its ability to reach and fertilise an egg), and can negatively impact the brain development of foetuses (specifically memory function) via their mother’s exposure.

Not only this, but when ethanolamines are used in a product alongside certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen they can form compounds called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are classed as possible carcinogens. DEA may also react with other ingredients to form N-Nitrosodiethylamine, a known carcinogen which can be absorbed through the skin. Although the use of DEA is prohibited by the European Commission for use in cosmetics due to concerns about nitrosamines, it can still be found in other cleansing and care products so be sure to check your labels.

Label lookouts: diethanolamine (DEA), cocamide, ethanolamines, lauramide, triethanolamine (TEA).

Ethylparaben: See ‘Parabens’.

FD&C Yellow 5: See ‘Tartrazine’.

Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is a synthetic chemical used as a preservative in products to make them last longer. Although formaldehyde itself is banned from use in cosmetics as it can affect hormones and cause cancer, some products still contain ingredients that are formaldehyde-releasers. Formaldehyde-releasers are often found in nail polishes and removers, nail glue, hair care products, soaps, and highly coloured cosmetics. 

Women who are TTC, pregnant or breastfeeding should take particular care to avoid formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers: exposure can interfere with hormones, affect ovary function and fertility, cause birth defects, and has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriages and premature births. Breastfed babies can also become exposed to formaldehyde through breast milk if their mother uses products containing the chemical.

Exposure to this chemical is dangerous even in small amounts, and research has shown that formaldehyde inhalation can cause cancers such as leukaemia. It is also  a major skin irritant and can cause severe allergic reactions.

Label lookouts: formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol). 

Fragrance/Parfum: See ‘Phthalates’.

Homosalate: See ‘UV Filters’. 

Homomenthyl Salicylate: See ‘UV Filters’.

Hydrogenated Cotton Seed Oil: See ‘Lead’.

Isobutylparaben: See ‘Parabens’.

Isotretinoin: See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

Lead: It might not sound like something you’d come across in your beauty products, but in actual fact trace amounts of lead – a heavy metal – have historically been found in highly-coloured cosmetics such as lipstick and eye makeup. Often this occurs as a by-product of the manufacturing process and such traces will not be listed on product labels, but other times heavy metals are actually intentionally added to products as colourants. Check your labels for ingredients such as lead acetate and those below to be sure. Exposure to lead has been linked to female fertility issues such as reduced ability to conceive, and miscarriages in pregnant women. As a precaution, when TTC and pregnant, avoiding highly-coloured makeups (bye bye red lipstick!) might be prudent to reduce your risk of coming into contact with any hidden impurities.

Lead is also a neurotoxin, and high levels can impact the nervous system, kidney function, and lead to weakness and anaemia. There is also data to suggest that cumulative lead exposure is linked with delayed onset of periods, as well as early menopause – which can result in loss of bone density minerals.

Label lookouts: lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate.

Lead Acetate: See ‘Lead’.

Lilial: See ‘Butylphenyl Methylpropional’.

Lily Aldehyde: See ‘Butylphenyl Methylpropional’.

Methicone: See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

Methylbenzene: See ‘Toluene’.

Methyl Methacrylate: See ‘Acrylates’.

Methylparaben: See ‘Parabens’.

Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4): See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

Octinoxate: See ‘UV Filters’.

Octyl Methoxycinnamate (OMC): See ‘UV Filters’.

Oxybenzone: See ‘UV Filters’.

Parabens: Parabens are synthetic compounds used in many health and beauty products as a preservative to prolong shelf-life. Known endocrine-disruptors, parabens can mimic oestrogen, interfering with the body’s normal hormone function. This can impact egg and embryo quality for those trying to conceive, and parabens have even been linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer, with one study finding traces of five different parabens present in the tumors of 19 out of 20 women.

Moreover, long-term daily use of skincare products containing parabens, and especially methylparaben, can lead to changes in the skin’s natural cell growth, weakening it and causing issues such as premature skin ageing.

As Parabens are readily absorbed through the skin, be sure to 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.

Parfum/Fragrance: See ‘Phthalates’.

Phenylmethane: See ‘Toluene’.

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, 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.

Epidemiological data has even linked the risk of hormonally-mediated disease, such as endometriosis, to phthalates.

Aside from being used in perfumes and personal care products, phthalates are also commonly found in cleaning products. As a general rule, avoiding heavily perfumed products all round is a good move.

Label lookouts: diethyl phthalate (DEP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), ‘fragrance/parfum’ where source has not been clarified, for example ‘natural essential oils’.

Polyacrylate: See ‘Polyacrylamide’.

Polyacrylamide: Polyacrylamide is sometimes used as a thickener, foaming agent or lubricant in cosmetic lotions. Although not considered risky in itself, the controversy surrounding polyacrylamide usage comes from its potential to secrete acrylamide molecules as it breaks down. Acrylamide is a known toxin and has been associated with problems in foetal development. It is also a suspected carcinogen, and several studies have found an association between acrylamide exposure and risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, as well as risk of a specific type of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.

Although acrylamide itself is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU, and use of polyacrylamide is regulated to strict levels to ensure exposure to residual acrylamide is reduced, it might be worth avoiding those products that are labelled as containing polyacrylamide, and switching to lotions that don’t run the risk of containing acrylamide.

Label lookouts: polyacrylamide, acrylamide, polyacrylate, polyquaternium and acrylate.

Polydimethylsiloxane: See ‘Silicones/Siloxanes’.

Propylparaben: See ‘Parabens’.

Retinaldehyde: APPLICABLE FOR TTC AND DURING PREGNANCY See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

Retinoic Acid: APPLICABLE FOR TTC AND DURING PREGNANCY See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

Retinoids and Retinol: APPLICABLE TO THOSE TTC AND PREGNANT ONLY. Retinoids are chemical compounds related to vitamin A that are used in creams or gels to treat skin problems such as acne or uneven skin tone, and in anti-ageing creams 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.

Retinyl Palmitate: APPLICABLE FOR TTC AND DURING PREGNANCY See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

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.

Others like cyclopentasiloxane D5 may pose a specific risk to those TTC, pregnant and/or breastfeeding –  having the potential to adversely affect foetal neural development, as well as interfere with the hormone prolactin, which plays a role in lactation. Research findings also indicate that inhalation and oral exposure to D5 can lead to alterations in the organs, specifically the liver and vagina.

Alongside being present in certain creams, shampoos, conditioners and moisturising products, silicones are sometimes found in lubricants and can affect sperm motility, so be sure you check those labels on your favourites when TTC!

Finally, as silicones form a barrier on the skin, they can actually trap bacteria and dead skin, so avoiding moisturisers with silicones may be useful for those already managing skin complaints such as acne.

Label lookouts: cyclotetrasiloxane (D4), octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4), cyclopentasiloxane (D5), decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5), decamethyl-cyclomethicone 5, cyclomethicone, cyclohexasiloxane, polydimethylsiloxane, methicone and dimethicone.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate: Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) is a synthetic chemical used as a cleansing, wetting, foaming, and/or emulsifying agent in personal care products. SLS is often found in antiperspirants, bath products, toothpastes, hand creams, shampoos, and other cleansing products.

Women who are TTC or pregnant should take particular care to avoid SLS: exposure has been linked to reproductive problems. Studies have shown that dermal exposure is linked with reduced pregnancy rates, maternal weight, and foetal growth rate, and that oral exposure to SLS during pregnancy can cause maternal weight loss, and even miscarriage.

SLS is very irritating to the eyes and skin, so if you have skin complaints such as eczema or dermatitis, you might want to stay away from products that contain this extremely drying chemical.

Label lookouts: sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium
dodecyl sulphate (SDS).

Sodium Hexametaphosphate: See ‘Lead’.

Talc: Talc is a well-known clay-based mineral whose powdered form has anti-moisture and anti-friction properties. You might normally associate it with baby powder, however, talc can also be found in beauty and cosmetic products such as powdered makeup, mascaras, feminine hygiene products, deodorants, face masks and even lipsticks. In recent years there has been much bad press surrounding talc due to studies indicating a link between increased endometrial and ovarian cancer occurrences in women who use talc-containing products in their genital area. This is because talc that is mined naturally may in fact be contaminated by the mineral asbestos, which is sometimes co-located, and is a known carcinogen.

One study has also indicated a slight increase in the risk of developing endometrial cancer for women using talcum powder in the perineal areas, and in particular, an elevated risk for those women who are also post- menopausal.

If you do wish to use talc-containing products, then go for those specifically labelled as being ‘asbestos-free’, and avoid usage in the pelvic area.

Label lookouts: talcum powder, talc, cosmetic talc.

Talcum powder: See ‘Talc’.

Talcum powder: See ‘Talc’.

Tartrazine: Tartrazine, also known as yellow 5, is a synthetic dye sometimes used to colour health and beauty products such as shampoos, perfumes and colognes, toothpastes, soaps, and makeup. Tartrazine has been linked to a decrease in foetal weight, so should be avoided when TTC or during pregnancy.

Label lookouts: tartrazine (TAZ), FD&C yellow 5, Aizen tartrazine, E102, CI 19140, trisodium salt.

Tazarotene: See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

Thimerosal: See ‘Lead’.

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. Breathing in toluene vapours can also cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, headache, sickness, memory problems, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Not overdoing the manicures and pedicures (especially when trying to conceive and during pregnancy) is a good start, as well as switching to polishes that don’t contain toluene.

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).

Toluol: See ‘Toluene’.

Toluene-2,5-Diamine: See ‘Toluene’.

Toluene-3,4-Diamine: See ‘Toluene’.

Toulene-2,5-Diamine Sulfate: See ‘Toluene’.

Tretinoin: See ‘Retinoids and Retinol’.

Triclosan: Triclosan (TSC) is an antibacterial agent most often found in hand soaps, toothpastes, hand sanitisers, deodorants and mouthwashes. Studies have shown that exposure to triclosan can impact oestrogenic activity, and decrease thyroid hormone levels.

Research has also indicated that TSC can disrupt the gut’s microbiome (the naturally occurring bacteria found in our intestines) which plays a crucial role in helping to control digestion, boosting immunity, and on brain function and behaviour.

Pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers should especially try to avoid TSC containing products as there has been evidence to suggest that TSC accumulates in breast milk, as well as it being present in blood samples taken from infants’ umbilical cords – meaning foetuses and babies are additionally at risk of being exposed to TSC’s health-disrupting effects.

Label lookouts: triclosan (TSC), triclocarban (TCC).

Triclocarban (TCC): See Triclosan’.

Triethanolamine (TEA): See ‘Ethanolamines’.

Triphenyl Phosphate: Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) is another endocrine disruptor often found in nail polishes. It has links to reproductive toxicity, inducing oestrogenic activity. It can also cause skin sensitivity and dermal irritation in certain cases. Those who paint their nails regularly may find themselves chronically exposed, so it’s well-worth checking the labels on those lovely shades.

Label lookouts: triphenyl phosphate (TPHP).

3,3,5-Trimethyl-Cyclohexyl-Salicylate: See ‘UV Filters’.

Trisodium Salt: See ‘Tartrazine’.

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). Whilst they offer protection from UV light, they are also endocrine disruptors that mimic oestrogen. This can have poor health implications, such as an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

An important chemical of concern to look out for when 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.