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Gender Bending Chemicals under the spotlight

October 30, 2009

These days you can’t visit a cosmetic counter without seeing a product that is “free from” something. Be it petroleum derivatives, palm oil, parabens, SLES or Silicones there is always something grabbing the headlines.  However,  much of this hysteria has stemmed from somewhat sketchy arguments, incomplete scientific evidence, a bad vibe or just a general feeling of unease over our addiction to chemical cocktails.

Now, after years of hearsay and urban myth making the BIG issue is being addressed (n.b: work on endocrine disrupting chemicals has been going on for some time but had also been classed as a bit whacky to be taken notice of. That is starting to change) Sweden is investigating what happens when you are exposed to various chemical cocktails over a period of time.

Before I go on I will very briefly touch on what has been a very difficult are for the chemical industry – the fact that in the chemical world 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2.

Every industry using chemicals (and all industries do) has to prove the safety of their products for the purpose that the products are designed. Food has to be safe to eat, cosmetics have to be safe to wear on the skin (and in it if it is lipstick), paint has to be safe to chew within reason (which means lead is out) and pesticides have to conform to strict guidelines.   While each industry carefully toes the industry standard line (of course there are good companies and bad companies AND good governments and bad. That’s life) it is pretty hard for everyone to get together and test to see what happens when you use everything together over a lifetime. Too many variables.

Anyway, the issue of gender bending has become very real. Men around the world are suffering from reduced sperm counts (not all of them I have to say), in some areas fish are changing sex or becoming infertile and the composition of the soil in other areas is changing in a bad way. This seems at least in part, to be due to endocrine disrupters – chemicals that can change the way our hormones work.

Sweden’s environment ministry is looking into the effect of blends of known endocrine disrupting chemicals to see what effects a cumulative exposure may have. As I have mentioned before this work isn’t new and I remember watching a program about 2 years ago about an American endocrinologist who had been studying the same thing (can’t recall her name). Anyway, at least now the unspeakable issue has got onto the drawing board.

So, do we need to worry when we go to the cosmetics counter?  Yes and no.  Parabens are the endocrine disruptor most often found in today’s cosmetics. These are used as preservatives and are present in small amounts and while they are known to have endocrine disrupting properties their effect is thousands of times weaker than estrogen. In fact parabens are less than Pears (with natural paraben content) to change our sex. However, people are worried and so seek alternatives.  Other than that sunscreens come under the spotlight as potential endocrine disrupting chemicals. With sunscreens the cumulative impact is not yet well understood although one by one sunscreens have been proven to be quite safe under usual conditions.  What we need to do now is to look at their environmental persistence and the ability of them to affect the food chain when combined with other environmentally persistant endocrine disruptors.  For the record, Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide are NOT that kind of chemical.

So, the debate is on. The work is being done and the results will be made public.  Like any good science, finding the answers takes time so we must be patient and in the meantime think not just about the cosmetics that we use but the way we live our whole lives. Your lipstick may not turn Freddy frog into Franny but your contraceptive pill might.

It’s all about dose, persistence and solubility!

Here is a link to the news story from Cosmetic Design Europe.

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