Like many of you, my wellness journey began with food—learning about nutrition, cooking, juicing and so on. I knew that what I put in my body mattered to my long term health and survivorship. But not long after that, I also learned that personal care products, plastics, household cleaners, packaging and so on really mattered, too. The choices we make in these areas and more can really impact the state of our delicate inner eco systems. That’s when my research expanded beyond food, and I discovered that some of the biggest offenders were a group of chemicals called endocrine disruptors.
So, what’s safe to eat? To drink? To lather up with in the shower or pull out of my makeup bag while getting ready for a night on the town? And, what exactly are endocrine disruptors?
In the past, I’ve covered topics like pesticides in our food, toxic chemicals in household cleaners and body burden. But today, I want to talk more specifically about endocrine disruptors. What are they? Where are they? And, how can you reduce your exposure? We’ll cover all of these questions and most importantly, help you understand how you can avoid them (for the most part) without driving yourself crazy. So, let’s start with the basics.
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can mess with our bodies’ endocrine systems. Some are natural and some are synthetic. Regardless, when absorbed through our skin, breathed in or ingested through our food or drink, they essentially mimic hormones in our bodies and can make our natural hormones act wacky. Sometimes, endocrine disruptors cause our natural hormones to go into overdrive and other times, they dial down their functionality. They can even cause new hormonal reactions to happen. We’ll talk more about the health implications of this in a moment.
In addition, these chemicals aren’t broken down quickly in the environment. That’s why they’re used in products and food production in the first place. Companies add these chemicals to the things you buy in the store to extend their shelf lives. Unfortunately, endocrine disruptors also take a long time to break down in the body, meaning that your body has a difficult time getting rid of them—giving them more opportunity to wreak havoc.
So what does that mean for our health?
Endocrine disruptors can have a negative impact on many functions of the body, but they’re most harmful to the thyroid, sex hormones and reproductive system. More specifically, endocrine disruptors can mess with puberty—causing it to occur earlier in girls and later than normal in boys (study).
Boys exposed to endocrine disruptors in the womb or as young infants may also develop genital abnormalities, including hypospadias (a congenital defect in boys in which the urinary opening is on the underside of the penis), undescended testes and smaller penises. These consequences can lead to infertility and other reproductive issues, upset immune function and mental health, decrease responsiveness to vaccines, increase cancer risk and even impair sensory development in children.
Where do you find endocrine disruptors?
Basically, everywhere. They’re in our food, the packaging it often comes in, beauty products, household cleaners, water, soil and even in the dust that gather on our bookshelves. But just because they’re all around, doesn’t mean we have to wear hazmat suits or go off the grid. Let’s review the most common endocrine disruptors and where they’re most prevalent.
- Atrazine: An herbicide used to control weeds and grass. Found in drinking water.
- Bisphenol A (BPA): A chemical used to harden plastics. Found in plastic bottles, the inside lining of some canned foods, medical devices, dental sealants and in the water, dust and air.
- Dioxins: A family of toxic chemicals. Found in the environment as a byproduct of industrial processing; mainly in fish, seafood, meats, eggs and cheese.
- Flame Retardants: A group of chemicals added to many manufactured items. Found in fabrics, plastics, surface coatings, furniture and baby products.
- Parabens: A preservative. Found in personal care products, such as deodorants and lotions to stop bacterial growth.
- Perchlorate: An industrial chemical. Used in rocket propellant, fireworks and road flares, and can end up in drinking water.
- Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs): A family of chemicals. Found in food packaging and non-stick cookware.
- Pesticides: Substances used to destroy insects and other harmful organisms. Used in farming and food production.
- Phthalates: Chemicals widely used in production. Found in plastics, scented beauty products and household cleaners—and also many other everyday items, including nail polish, carpeting and even your car’s steering wheel.
- Zeranol: A naturally occurring mycoestrogen (estrogen made by fungi). Used as a growth promoter in the meat industry, which has been banned in the European Union.
- Others include: Arsenic, DDT, glycol ethers, lead, mercury, PCBs (banned in 1980, but still present in the food supply), polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and phytoestrogens (naturally occurring plant estrogens found in greatest quantities in soybeans and flax seeds, although these have also been shown to lower breast cancer risk).
How can you decrease your exposure to endocrine disruptors?
Despite emerging research that endocrine disruptors may be linked to various health problems, they are still used in manufacturing and food production. Even the ones that have been banned exist in our soil and water today.
So while it’s impossible to avoid endocrine disruptors completely, there are simple things you can do to greatly limit your exposure. Pregnant and nursing moms, as well as parents of small children, should pay extra attention because these are the stages of life when little humans are extra vulnerable.
9 Simple Ways to Avoid Endocrine Disruptors
- Choose fresh, unpackaged foods and BPA-free cans. This will greatly reduce your exposure to BPA, phthalates, PFCs and other endocrine disruptors that come into play in food processing and packaging.
- Cook with stainless steel, cast iron, titanium or ceramic pans rather than non-stick. Not only are these pans free of PFCs, but they often last longer and give you better tasting foods.
- Make sure you get enough iodine in your diet. Iodine can reduce effects of perchlorate and keep your thyroid gland healthy. The recommended intake is 150 micrograms daily, and 1/2 teaspoon of iodized salt has about 200 micrograms. If you don’t eat sea vegetables on a regular basis, I’d recommend using iodized sea salt for cooking. And, your doc can order a simple blood test if you’re curious about your levels.
- Buy organic produce when possible, following Environmental Working Group’s guidelines. This will help limit your exposure to endocrine-disrupting pesticides and herbicides. Follow EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list found here to guide you in which produce items are more important for buying organic.
- Filter your water and consider using a reverse osmosis filter. Filtering your water with an activated carbon filter, such as Brita or Pur, will reduce arsenic, atrazine, lead and the presence of other endocrine disrupting metals. If you can go the extra step and invest in a reverse osmosis filter, you will reduce perchlorate content, as well.
- Vacuum your house with a HEPA filter. Since so many endocrine disruptors are found in dust, a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner can help reduce dusty toxins in your home. Keeping your home clean and tidy on a regular basis will also help your air stay cleaner and healthier.
- Buy fewer plastics in general. BPA and other endocrine disruptors can leach out of any kind of plastic, including children’s toys, plastic wrap and all the various plastic recyclables, especially #3, #6 and #7 in the United States. Don’t forget that your skin is an organ, so holding, touching and using plastics will increase your exposure to the various endocrine disruptors. Try to store food in glass containers and buy wooden and cloth toys for kids.
- Choose fragrance-free and paraben-free cosmetics, beauty products, household cleaners and soaps. This will reduce your exposure to phthalates, parabens and other endocrine disruptors. Products naturally scented with lavender, lemon, orange or tea tree oil are likely to be endocrine disruptor-free, but double check that the fragrances are from pure oils.
- Eat fewer animal products. Since environmental chemicals and toxins, such as dioxins, lead and mercury, often end up in greatest concentrations in meat, fish, seafood and other animal products, limiting these foods in your diet (even organic ones) will greatly reduce your intake of endocrine disruptors. Plus, choosing plant proteins (even whole soy foods, which are rich in phytoestrogens) over meats will help you to limit your intake of zeranol, which is given to animals to boost their growth and production.
Great article & info – scary to see these harmful substances lurking everywhere!
Avoid commercial process products all you can because many contains chemicals that are very harmful to you health. Some products don’t work for example deodorants. They only mask the odors but contain synthetic chemicals. That’s why I use UARMSOL deodorant powder, that does not prevênt you from sweating and it doesn’t mask underarm odors. It’s the best deodorant out there! I don’t like chemicals and try to stay out of it as much as possible!
Kris, you might want to add methylchloroisothiazinoline, methylisothiazinolone, and glutaral to your list of things to avoid! Just this past Friday I was diagnosed with an allergy to these preservatives, and I’ve since learned that more and more people are having problems with them in recent years. They seem to be in just about every water-based personal care product, cosmetic, cleaner and paint out there.
Thank you! Your information and advice is empowering and validating.?❤️
One question. You write: These consequences can lead to infertility and other reproductive issues, upset immune function and mental health, decrease responsiveness to vaccines.
I would like to hear your opinion on vaccinations, are they safe or not worth the risk?
Dear Kris – it is so important to know that lavender and Tea Tree are two of nature’s most powerful phytoestrogens. They can cause many of these concerns that you mention above with endocrine disruption. Some people may not feel the effects, but others can be very compromised and find their hormones becoming significantly inbalanced when using these products. I would encourage anyone using lavender or tea tree to do their research and be very careful, especially when using essential oil versions of these products.
Hi Elaine: Thank you for noting the potential phytoestrogenic activity in lavender and tea tree essential oils. There was initial alarm when a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 2007 reporting that 3 boys ages 4, 7, and 10 seen in the same clinic started developing breasts while using soaps and lotions containing these essential oils, and that the breast development resolved once those products were discontinued. Since then, there’s been research to confirm very weak estrogenic activity of certain essential oils. However, in this particular study, it is likely that the phthalates, pesticides, contaminants, or other ingredients in these products may have been to blame. It’s certainly an area of research that we’ll want to keep an eye on. But for now, follow-up studies have found that pure essential oils from plants grown organically are not a concern for any significant or harmful endocrine disrupting activity. Hope that helps!
Love this Kris! While it’s impossible to avoid endocrine disruptors entirely, these are some great tips to reduce your exposure. I do the best I can…I carry filtered water in a glass bottle, never use non stick cookwear, and use safe, natural skin care and cosmetics for the most past. My veggies are organic and my animal products pasture raised. I also try to not make myself crazy…I want to be aware, but not live in fear. I appreciate the way you share this information in such a positive way!
The natural skin care products you recommend look amazing. I was wondering what you recommend for natural cosmetics?
There is a lot that I didn’t know about so thank you for this article.
Thank you Kris! You suggest glass containers over plastic (yay), but do you have suggestions for storing produce? An alternative to plastic bags? Many thanks…
Hi Lisa: Many produce items can be washed and then wrapped in a paper towel and put in an airtight container or in the crisper drawer of your fridge. I especially like storing sliced celery and carrots in a glass container of water in the fridge to maintain their crunch, and I keep tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet peppers on the counter if I’m going to eat them within a few days. Hope that helps! xo, kc
Wait- should I avoid flax seed?
Flax seed is listed under the “other” endocrine disruptors section: “phytoestrogens (naturally occurring plant estrogens found in greatest quantities in soybeans and flax seeds”
I add ground flax seed to my smoothies and always on my yogurt. I knew to avoid soy, but not flax too.
Hi Melinda: Flax seeds and soy foods technically have endocrine disruptors because their phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) can help to lower circulating estrogen levels and lower estrogen-dependent cancer risk. This is one of the only examples of a potentially helpful disruptor!
Thanks so much! I liked what I’ve read about the benefits of flax in the past as far as eliminating fat from the body, but maybe it’s just fat in food eaten at the same time as the flax. I was more looking at something to flush out stored fat anyway.
As far as phytoestrogens, I wish there was a way to tell if an individual person should avoid them, or, include them as far as imminent health concerns which probably differ in people. There is probably not a test to know if a person has too much or too little.
Thank you so much for all that you share,
So many things to worry about! Thanks for this info. We do try to use less plastic, BPA free packaging, cans etc but it’s so difficult. I’m sure there are many things that I use that I think are ok but really aren’t. I like the vacuum idea. My house is very old so I’m sure a hepa filter would help reduce any air pollutants.
Hey Kris! Have you ever heard of Arbonne?! They’re a vegan, cruelty free company that has skincare, nutrition and cosmetics. They are also as natural as you can get – just wondering your opinion! I’ve been using their products for a year now and have decided I might start selling it as an independent consultant. Thanks!
My daughter has stage 4 cancer and is having a hard time making decisions about treatment. Do you share your story and what you did in regards to western medicine? Thanks, Meredith
Hi Meredith: The type of cancer I have is extremely rare and traditional treatment is not currently available. So, I have pursued other approaches to managing my disease. I share more of my story and outline my main health practices in this blog: https://kriscarr.com/blog/11-tips-for-cancer-patients/
You may also find my books helpful if you’d like to learn more after reading the blog. Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips and Crazy Sexy Diet are a great place to start. Sending love. xo
Very useful information. Thank you, Kris.
Kris, I too am confused about flax. I have been dealing with ER+ breast cancer. I avoid non-fermented soy, but is flax to be avoided as well if I’m to avoid these phytoestrogens? My integrative Dr. has never mentioned this.
Like Danna, I have an estrogen receptor positive cancer (a rare-form of ovarian cancer called GCT). Information about soy and flax is confusing, and I’d love your take on the subject. From what I can understand, if you don’t have cancer then soy (ideally fermented or non-processed) and flax have a protective effect. On the other hand, with an ER+ cancer, that “potentially helpful disruptor” is to be avoided. (Danna – I will use a bit of ground flax but I mostly choose chia seeds for similar benefits!)
Thank you Karie. My Integrative Dr. wants me to use ground flax for the EFA’s, Omega 3’s I believe?… which I don’t think chia has? I’ll see what he has to say about the phytoestrogens in flax. And I too would be interested in Kris’ take on it.
Hi Danna and Karie, There are actually several foods that contain plant estrogens (phytoestrogens), soy and flax just happen to be the richest sources. Soy foods contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones and flax seeds contain phytoestrogens called lignans. Research has pointed to both sets of phytoestrogens as being preventative for estrogen-related cancers, and even helpful in preventing cancer recurrence (even in ER+ cases), which is why we continue to include them in our recipes and meal plans. But, some oncologists still recommend limiting consumption of phytoestrogens for ER+ cancer survivors just to be safe. Here is a great research article that explains the research on soy isoflavones and various aspects of disease: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/100/Supplement_1/423S.full. Obviously, listen to your doc, and know that you can avoid soy and flax and get the beneficial protein from beans, nuts, and seeds, and Omega-3s from walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. I hope that helps! xo, kc
Great article. This is exactly what I have been worrying about for months. My concern is regarding the use of teeth retainers which are made of plastic. I stopped using them while pregnant as my dentist wasn’t able to confirm the chemical content of the plastic used. I am now breastfeeding and started using my retainers back again. I am worried it may affect my baby’s endocrine system as much as my own. There is simply not much information out there about it’s safety. I would love to hear your opinion.
Hi Andrea: Great question! From what I’ve been able to find from a few research articles and the American Dental Association, the BPA and phthalate contents of dental products like retainers and night guards are nonexistent, negligible, or in quantities far below what’s considered unsafe during pregnancy or lactation. However, it might be a good idea to contact the lab your dentist uses just to double-check. Hope that helps! xo, kc
Hi Kris – I’m Pauline and I work with Erik Weihenmayer on his Touch the Top team. He’s known as the only blind person to have reached the top of Mt. Everest (www.touchthetop.com) Our team would like to present you a “Reach Award.” Please email me or message me on fb for more information!