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Hormone Disrupting Chemicals and Fertility: Which Toxins to Avoid and Why

Did you know that skin absorbs as much as 60-70% of whatever you slather onto it?

And according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, people do a lot of slathering: on average we use 9 different personal care items a day - and one quarter of women use as many as 15 products, sometimes multiple times a day.

Of the 82,000 ingredients in cosmetic products, almost 14,000 have been found to be industrial chemicals that are carcinogens and hormone disruptors - which means they can mess with your reproductive hormones.

The FDA actually has no authority to make companies test their products for safety, which means the cosmetics industry is one of the least regulated out there.

America’s cosmetic legislation for safe products is 81 years old and hasn’t been updated.

Where there is safety testing of cosmetics it’s just into whether or not it might cause skin irritation, not whether it could cause or contribute to long-term issues like reproductive problems or even cancer.

And some ingredients are considered safe by the FDA for acute exposure, because of the low quantities used in beauty products, there is a lack of studies looking at chronic exposure.

The US government has banned 11 chemicals, but to put it in perspective the EU has banned around 1,000.

And outside of these ingredients, out of the many, many thousands more - some only slight variations of the banned ones - any ingredient or raw material can be put into things like makeup, cleanser and body wash without any review or approval process.

Take a look around you right now. What are you touching? What did you use

to wash your hair this morning? What products did you put on your face and body?

Chances are, they all have one thing in common: synthetic chemicals. And a surprising number of these are known to play havoc with our reproductive systems.

It’s not only your fertility right now, but also your future child’s health, that can benefit from swapping chemical-laden products for hormone-friendly replacements.

Endocrine-disruptive chemicals like food pesticides, plastics, preservatives, artificial colours and scents are common ingredients in personal care and household products. They can alter hormonal signaling and have potential effects on developing reproductive and nervous systems, including:

  • Metabolism changes

  • Cancer

  • Reduced rates of pregnancy and an increased risk of pregnancy loss

  • Gut bacteria imbalances

  • Increased risk of autoimmune disease

  • Birth defects in babies

Fortunately, simply by being aware of what chemicals to look for and

where they can be found will help you reduce your exposure and the harmful

effects they have on your fertility.

So what do experts suggest avoiding?

  • BPA

  • Parabens

  • Phthalates

  • Sulfates

  • Oxybenzone

  • Triclosan

  • Hydroquinone

  • Aluminium compounds

  • Ethoxylated agents

  • Formaldehyde

  • Plasticizers

  • Heavy metals

  • Surfactants

  • Silica

  • Talc

  • Artificial fragrances / 'parfum'

In other words: a LOT of chemicals!

What to look for instead:

  1. Look out for the following certifications: Soil Association, Cosmos, Ecocert, USDA, NaTrue, EWG and Demeter. That product has passed their stringent tests.

  2. Look for an expiry date of six to 18 months after opening: this implies the products are fresh. Experts say generally this is a good rule of thumb for natural products.

  3. Look out for a product labelled as having Organic ingredients, if your budget allows: Natural products contain ingredients from plants and nature and are minimally processed. Organic products are made with non-GMO ingredients that have been grown, raised, harvested, manufactured and preserved without chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or antibiotics – so that generally gives you products with fewer contaminants.

  4. Look for products with FEWER ingredients: A simple list of ingredients (not one as long as your arm) can tend to mean fewer nasties.

Here's more detail on some of the chemicals and substances to avoid:

Triclosan: this chemical commonly found in hand sanitizer, hand wash, and toothpaste is known to decrease fertility in men and women.

Phthalates: Often found in cosmetics and cleansers, some studies have linked phthalate exposure to obesity, breast cancers, reproductive malformation and infertility. One study found 70 percent of perfume and cosmetics sales people had exceeded the cumulative risk of phthalate exposure.

TPHP: TPHP (a substance used in nail polish) was shown to be at levels 7x higher in people who had painted their nails 10 hours before testing. It shows up in urine, after you’ve painted it on your nails. Emerging data in humans suggests that TPHP alters endocrine function and alters thyroid hormone levels. One study looking specifically at its use in cosmetics found that of ten nail polish brands, eight had detectable levels found within (despite three not even listing it as an ingredient. Look for “14 free” or “10 free” nail polish.

Oxybenzone: Oxybenzone and oxytocinate, which are commonly found in sunscreen, are recognized endocrine disrupting chemicals - as well as fertility issues, they’ve been linked to birth defects. Look for sunscreen containing zinc or titanium dioxide instead, with an SPF value of at least 30.

“Parfum” scented products: This innocuous sounding word, listed as an ingredient everything from perfumes to face creams to conditioners, can mask a blend of hundreds of chemicals and hide EDCs. Look for products scented with natural ingredients clearly listed instead.

Paraben-free products: Many deodorants contain chemicals such as aluminium (linked to breast cancers) and parabens. Studies have shown that some parabens can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body’s cells, disrupting the delicate balance needed for reproductive functions.


BPA is most famously known as the “gender-bending” chemical due to its effects on male breast growth (or “man boobs”) and reduced penis size in newborn male infants.

BPA exposure is also consistently linked to negative reproductive outcomes such as fewer eggs retrieved, fewer mature eggs and fewer fertilized eggs for women undergoing fertility treatment.

In fact, 139 different research studies indicate that BPA disrupts the egg maturation process and reduces egg quality.

So what actually is it?

BPA is a chemical used to bring transparency, colorability and flexibility to plastics, while also making them hard, watertight and shatterproof.

It is also used to make epoxy resins, which are put on the inner lining of canned food containers to keep the metal from corroding and breaking.

So, pretty useful, and you can see why it’s everywhere.

But there’s an alarming cost to this level of reliance on BPA within the food and packaging industries - it can leach out of canned food linings and into food, or out of plastic food storage containers, especially when heated.

That makes diet the main source of BPA exposure.

BPA can enter your body through your stomach in food you’ve eaten, or merely through contact with your skin.

It’s hardly a shock, then, that data indicates that measurable levels of BPA are found in more than 90% of the US population.

It seems crazy given it wasn’t banned long ago, as BPA’s influence on fertility was first uncovered as long as twenty years ago - albeit on mice.

The link was actually discovered inadvertently.

Researchers were studying the reproductive systems of female mice to gather data on other fertility issues, when they discovered female mice were developing chromosomally abnormal eggs among a host of other unexpected fertility issues.

They eventually isolated the source to BPA leaching out of plastic mouse cages, which the mice had damaged through chewing.

They repeated the experiment, and found that in the female mice, even short-term, low-dose exposure during the final stages of egg growth was sufficient to show detectable effects.

Despite some powerful evidence, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that the amount of BPA leaching from food packaging will not harm people.

But this begs the question of why BPA has been banned in the manufacturing of baby bottles and sippy cups in many countries around the world.

The FDA does say that there is “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children.”

As of 2019, BPA has faced some restrictions in the EU and Canada, but in the US, the subject is a matter of contentious debate.

There is of course massive political pressure from the polycarbonate, metal packaging and food industries, which profit from the eight billion pounds of BPA produced annually.

While there is still room for debate on the exact level at which BPA becomes toxic, what is known is that even small changes to our hormones can have large biological effects.

This fact alone has lead scientists to think that BPA exposures, even at low doses, can disrupt the body’s delicate endocrine system and lead to many adverse effects.

This feels particularly significant when you consider that the egg and its “meiotic spindle” (the part involved in critical DNA processes) are sensitive to hormone changes.

How to avoid BPA:

  • Avoid using plastic items in the kitchen, even if it says “BPA-free” - In light of the concern around BPA, manufacturers have replaced it with similar chemicals called bisphenol-S (BPS) and bisphenol-F (BPF) that can be equally as damaging, even in small concentrations.

  • Reduce consumption of foods packaged and stored in plastic - Avoid plastic items labeled with the recycling numbers 3 and 7 or the letters “PC,” which likely contain BPA, BPS or BPF.

  • Throw out old and scratched plastic items – BPA is more likely to leach into food and beverages through tiny cracks and crevices in plastics.

  • Replace plastic Tupperware with glass - BPA leaches into food over time so food stored in plastic is likely to soak up more of this toxin.

  • Replace plastic Tupperware with glass - BPA leaches into food over time so food stored in plastic is likely to soak up more of this toxin.

  • Don’t heat up plastic - Don’t put plastic containers in the microwave or wash them at very high temperatures. BPA is more likely to leach into your food.

  • Don’t consume foods from cans - BPA is often found in the lining of cans. Not all cans are lined with it, but it’s impossible for you to tell whether or not it does from the label. Play it safe by buying fresh foods or buying those packaged in glass or paper instead. For drinking on the go, look for stainless steel bottles that do not have a liner. Some metal water bottles lined with an epoxy-based enamel coating could leach BPA. If you do eat fruit or vegetables from a can, research indicates that rinsing them before eating may reduce the amount of BPA you ingest.

  • Say no to printed receipts - Thermal paper is often coated with BPA, so ask for your receipt to be emailed or forego it altogether, where possible. If you handle receipts as part of your job, wash your hands thoroughly before eating, or consider wearing gloves.

  • Stay hydrated - Drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of clean, purified or filtered water daily will help flush out environmental hazards (as well as improving your circulation, which helps hormones travel to where they’re needed throughout the body). For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, you should drink 60 ounces of water, or about 1.8 quarts. Even being slightly dehydrated can sabotage your body by affecting hormone balance, the concentration of toxins in your bloodstream and nutrient absorption. Long-term disturbances due to lack of hydration in the tissue can result in oxidative stress and in extreme cases lead to DNA damage and permanent cellular dysfunction.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals have been identified as affecting human fertility hormones.

It’s even been found that a reduction of an increased heavy metal body load improved the spontaneous conception chances of infertile women.

Heavy metals include metals such as lead, mercury, boron, aluminum, cadmium, arsenic, antimony, cobalt, and lithium.

Heavy metals are a natural component of the earth’s crust but are toxic to the body even in small quantities.

Toxic heavy metals are not easily broken down or excreted by the body, so are dangerous because they bioaccumulate.

The problem being that due to their inability to be easily metabolized and excreted they tend to accumulate further and further causing metabolic disruptions and a whole range of health problems.

All of us are widely exposed to heavy metals in our daily lives, such as Aluminium, Arsenic, Cadmium, Copper, Lead, Mercury and Nickel.

Cosmetics, deodorants, dental amalgams, newsprint, paint, birth control pills, aluminum foil, antiseptics, body powders, cheese, toothpaste, milk products, nasal sprays – all of them are sources of heavy metals.

Heavy meals are added (yes, unfortunately you read correctly—they are added!) to medicines as well as thousands of different food products, household products, personal products and untold numbers of industrial products and chemicals.

For example:

  • A common form of aluminium is found in antiperspirants and especially sprays which can be inadvertently inhaled. Aluminium can reduce zinc, vitamin C, magnesium and calcium and thus can cause mineral loss from our bones as well as cause skin problems and gastrointestinal dysfunction.

  • Shellfish, coastal and river fish and large fish have been found to contain high levels of Mercury which may reduce selenium, zinc, vitamin C and methionine. This can result in menstrual disturbances, reduced ovulation and mitochondrial dysfunction. The eggs of older women are particularly vulnerable.

Although these elements are found in nature, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration warns that they can be harmful to your health, especially over a long period of time or in high doses.

Some of these metals, such as zinc, copper, and iron, are good for you in small amounts, but overexposure can have a toxic effect on your ovaries caused by hormonal disruption.

We are exposed to a variety of heavy metals via everything from cigarettes and dietary supplements to contaminated food, air, and water.

For example, cadmium is a heavy metal found abundantly within cigarette tobacco, which accumulates in the ovaries of habitual smokers over time.

You can also be exposed to heavy metals through air pollution.

Some estimates indicate that in the US, more than 100 to 200,000 tons of lead per year is released from vehicle exhausts.

Why are they bad?

While research is limited, studies have confirmed that women with high levels of heavy metals such as lead and mercury tend to have significantly fewer of mature eggs retrieved in IVF.

Research also indicates that cadmium, boron, and sodium arsenite can alter our reproductive hormones, of which the consequences on fertility are still being discovered.

Lead has been found to affect calcium, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc leading to reproductive failure, slow infant development, and damage to sperm, sterility and impotence.

A 2017 review found that studies in both animals and humans show air pollution causes defects in egg maturation and leads to a drop in reproductive capacity. It showed that particulate matter from, for example, diesel exhaust, can cause hormone disruption, that

air pollution can generate oxidative stress and cause alterations in DNA, leading to mutations, which is why there are considerable concerns around fertility.

Emerging evidence suggests that babies developing in the womb may be particularly sensitive to maternal exposure to air pollutants.

Heavy metals can displace vital nutritional minerals from where they should be in the body to provide biological function. For example, enzymes are catalysts for virtually every biochemical reaction in all life-sustaining processes of metabolism. But instead of calcium being present in an enzyme reaction, lead or cadmium may be there in its place. Toxic metals can’t fulfill the same role as the nutritional minerals, thus their presence becomes critically disruptive to enzyme activity.

While it can be difficult to eliminate these EDCs from our lives completely, awareness of the ways we come into contact with them can help us find ways to limit our exposure.

How to limit your exposure to heavy metals:

  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke - You can also be exposed to toxic metals in cigarette smoke. Smoking or being around others who smoke increases cadmium levels in your body.

  • Wear personal protective equipment if you work in a place where heavy metals are used (e.g. batteries, metal coatings, and plastics). Wear specialized protective equipment when necessary and always remove your work clothes and shower before returning home.

  • Stay indoors when pollution is highest, where possible - Environmental protection agencies in most countries advise people to stay indoors as part of guidance to reduce exposure on high air pollution days. In the US, the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) includes “good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive individuals, unhealthy, very unhealthy, and hazardous” bands, which you can check on their website.

  • Know that your exposure may be highest on sunny days - Ambient air pollution levels vary by season, weather, events and time of day. One of the big factors is actually sunshine. That’s because ultraviolet light from the sun activates the reactions that form ozone, a molecule harmful to air quality. That means there are usually higher concentrations of ozone in late morning to early evening. Basically, pollution can be higher on sunny days - exactly when everyone wants to be outside!

  • Breathe through your nose while sitting in traffic - Your nose is a more effective natural air filter than your mouth, which means water-soluble gases and vapors are less likely to reach your lungs.

  • Avoid exercising outside on heavy smog days - if you live in a place that has lots of smog, avoid extended outdoor activities when the rates are higher. Physical exertion will increase your breathing and opportunity to inhale harmful heavy metals.

  • Avoid exercising outside alongside heavy roadways - You can avoid inhaling air pollutants by running, cycling, walking, etc. in less congested areas such as parks. Pollution concentrations fall rapidly starting about a third of a mile away from the traffic. If you do need to get active around traffic, for example, if you cycle to work, then you might consider one of the increasingly common respirators “face masks!” Their ability to remove contaminants does vary depending on fit, brand and type of filter, though, so make sure to buy from a reputable source.

  • Consider a portable or central air purifying system - These devices have been shown to reduce concentrations of indoor air pollutants, of either outdoor or indoor origin.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the air inside a typical American home is on average 2-5 times more polluted than the air outside and, in extreme cases, up to 100 times more contaminated.

They attribute this mostly to the contribution of household cleaners and pesticides.

There are many natural, organic and chemical-free or low-chemical alternatives to traditional cleaning and personal care products now on the market - as each item you use is finished, consider replacing it with a natural alternative!


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