I was very heartened by the common sense responses of the commentators on this story from the Daily Mail, sent to me by my sister.
Some stories are so obviously bogus you need no specialist knowledge whatever to see that they are nonsense . The only question is why the editors at the Mail don’t share their brains of their readers who spotted straight away that no, your shampoo is not going to affect your waistline.
In fact if shampoos did contain endocrine disruptors weight gain would be a possible symptom, but would be the least of your worries. The increased risk of cancer and birth defects would be much worse.
The question of endocrine disruptors does come up quite often in spurious stories about cosmetics. It ought to be called uncontrolled endocrine disruption to be precise. The contraceptive pill that deliberately alters the natural estrogen level is endocrine disruption. So it isn’t hard to imagine that a chemical that mimics or interferes with estrogen in some way could be a problem. As is often the case, the truth is a lot more interesting than the PR driven drivel in this article.
Advances in chemistry in the forties and fifties led to a lot of new chemical entities getting into consumer products. At the time the chemists had got a bit ahead of the biologists, and although safety was always a consideration it wasn’t always done taking the way the real world actually works into account. If you look at my review of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, you’ll see that nobody realised the way biological systems can concentrate some dangerous chemicals. She describes how DDE (a close relative of DDT) was sprayed on a lake at levels that on paper looked to be well below the levels that could possibly cause any harm. But the animals at the top of the food chain – grebes in this particular case – were found to accumulate millions and millions of times the concentration of the chemical that was applied.
It just wasn’t appreciated that a chemical that was stable, oil soluble and had low toxicity and behaved fine in the lab could be absolutely devastating to the real life environment.
Endocrine disruptors add another level of difficulty. If you had an endocrine disruptor that was also able to penetrate into the body and accumulate in it it would indeed be a risky proposition. And it could work at a much lower level than a simple poison. And the effects might take a while to manifest themselves. If there were signs of people suffering from endocrine effects it might be quite tricky to disentangle where they were coming from.
Interestingly the first suggestion of this as a problem that I know of is in Silent Spring itself, though she must have got it from some earlier literature. So this theoretical risk has been known about for a very long time indeed. Again, you have to wonder if the editors at the Mail are aware that they are working for a NEWS paper. A fifty year old suggestion of a potential risk that has never actually manifested itself isn’t really my idea of news.
But it is interesting to consider that the cosmetics industry probably did have a lucky escape all those years ago. If an edocrine disrupting chemical had been widely used back in the fifties there is every chance that at the time the risk would not have been spotted and we might now being looking back on some disastrous story about some shampoo ingredient in the same way we do about DDT. But luckily we know a lot more about these things now. No synthetic endocrine disruptor would get anywhere near a cosmetic formulation nowadays. In fact if there are endocrine disrputors in your cosmetics they are much more likely to originate from natural sources. Take for example the recently very trendy pomegranate. This is so full of phytoestrogens that it was actually used as a means of birth control in the Ancient world. I don’t believe that there is actually any risk from any personal care products simply because the amount you use is really tiny and there is no evidence that there is a problem. There are plenty of much more likely sources for endocrine disruptors.
But here is my bottom line. I don’t believe that there is any reason to fear endocrine disruption from any kind of cosmetic product. But of all the scare stories you hear it is the most plausible one. You can just about make a cause for concern against the parabens based on some rather poor quality work done six years ago, though every year that goes by without this being confirmed makes it less likely this concern is a valid one. But if you want to be really careful you should avoid products containing parabens. The other potential source of endocrine disruptors are phytoestrogens from plant extracts. The theoretical risk is about the same, but once again there isn’t any actual evidence to back up the theory. Fragrances do often contain plant material, so for good measure you should avoid fragrances as well. It makes no difference at all whether the plant extracts are organic, they could still contain phytoestrogens. In fact organic products generally contain more plant material so will be more risky.
Or you could follow the advice of many of the commentators on the original story, and ignore the whole thing until someone produces some actual evidence.
It might be heavy going for the general reader, but this paper on pomegrates makes it pretty clear that even quite familiar natural products are not free of risks.