Chemicals to Avoid: Part 2 Xenoestrogens

Xenoestrogens are synthetic chemicals that enter the body and mimic estrogen. There are many sources of xenoestrogens, from air pollution, plastics, and water pollution. This article will cover the common estrogenic compounds found in personal care / cosmetic items. (You can look forward to my expanded series on xenoestrogens from other sources soon.)

Estrogen receptors are complex molecules within certain cells in our bodies. They have a complex shape that is designed to accept estrogen—just like a lock and key.

Estrogen receptor molecule

Estradiol, a form of natural estrogen

Estrogen receptors are designed to accept estrogen molecules. When estrogen locks in to a receptor, certain things happen—particular cells are spurred to grow and divide, other levels of hormones are signaled to release. It's a very complex process that affects many parts of our body, the heart, our bones, as well as our reproductive organs (men too!) When estrogen has done its job in the receptor, it's released and metabolized (broken down) and leaves the body.

When a xenoestrogen enters the body, it's different. Because these chemicals are similar in shape to estrogen, it locks in to these receptors--but not quite correctly. Because they're shaped differently, the all of the chemical bonds aren't formed correctly. The receptors are stimulated in negative ways, creating cells where they shouldn't be. This can lead to reproductive disorders such as:

Anovulatory Dysfunctional Uterine Bleeding (having a period without ovulating)
  • Uterine Fibroids
  • Ovarian Cysts
  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
  • Endometriosis
  • Adenomyosis
  • Reproductive cancers, uterine, ovarian, breast, etc.
There are a number of xenoestrogens in personal care products. One is a group of chemicals that you've probably heard of, parabens. They're listed on labels as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, etc. Parabens have been studied numerous times and have been found to act estrogenically in cells, and to accumulate in breast cancer tissue. They are used in a wide variety of products as a preservative.

methylparaben. Note the similar ring-like structure to the estrogen.

For expanded information on parabens, visit this page.

Phthalates—phthalates are a very harmful group of synthetic chemicals that can mimic estrogen. The problem is that phthalates aren't usually listed in the ingredients list—they're used as fragrance compounds, so whenever you see the listing for “fragrance” you don't really know what it is. There are over 3000 different chemicals used in fragrances, and many of them are phthalates.

Aluminum chlorohydrate is another one—it's an anti-perspirant compound that acts like estrogen. This is especially important to avoid since it's a compound you're applying, leaving on your skin in a very delicate area right by your breast tissue.

Triclosan is also a common xenoestrogen. Triclosan is a compound used in hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial hand soaps. It has become a major problem because so many people are using these anti-bacterial soaps and washing them down the drain. Downstream the waters become polluted with triclosan, which then acts like estrogen in aquatic life—then you have fish and frogs and other animals that die off because they can't reproduce. We think that we need these antibacterial agents, but we don't. It's not about killing the bacteria, but washing it away. Triclosan only kills 99.9% of bacteria--that .1% ends up surviving and getting stronger. We then have more resistant strains of bacteria that lead to higher incidence of staph infections in hospitals, schools, and even homes.

Suspected Xenoestrogens

Phenoxyethanol has not been studied much as a xenoestrogen, but its chemical structure definitely shows potential to acting estrogenically.

Salicylic acid, commonly used as an anti-aging or anti-acne treatment, is a suspected xenoestrogen.