Gender-Benders: How Safe are Chemicals in Cosmetics? -- A Guest Commentary

For the first time in a human study, scientists have discovered that some of the most common industrial chemicals, called phthalates, actually alter male sexual and reproductive development in the womb.

For the first time in a human study, scientists have discovered that some of the most common industrial chemicals, called phthalates, actually alter male sexual and reproductive development in the womb. They are calling these effects by ominous sounding names like “phthalate syndrome” and “testicular dysgenesis syndrome”. An investigation by Peter Waldman on the front page of the Wall Street Journal October 4th, reveals serious new questions about these chemicals.

In the latest studies reviewed by Waldman, researchers have demonstrated a highly significant relationship between a mother's exposure during pregnancy to phthalates and changes in the ways that baby boy's genitals develop. The “demasculinized effects” in baby boys include low sperm counts, undescended testes at birth, and benign testicular tumors later on.

Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are found in all sorts of everyday products from face creams and food wrap, to pills and plastic toys, In 2000 the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported phthalate exposure was very widespread across the population but higher in women of childbearing age than in men. When the CDC tested thousands of people again in 2003, they confirmed surprisingly higher levels in women and CDC experts theorized that women might have higher exposures due to their greater use of beauty products with skin penetrating properties.

But no one seems to know what exposure level, if any, is safe. By law, companies do not have to test and prove the ingredients are safe before selling the products in the U.S. Exposure guidelines set by U.S. government agencies are based on old studies. Meanwhile phthalates aren’t even listed on many product labels because of loopholes in the labeling laws. So how is a consumer supposed to know what products contain these chemicals?

The current issue of The Green Guide and its website,, will give you an update on the latest research on phthalates and other reproductive hazards as well as simple ways to reduce exposure to them. The site provides a “Dirty Dozen” list of ingredients to avoid in personal care products.

To be on the safe side, last year the countries in the European Union banned certain phthalates in cosmetics and toys. Plus they are reviewing a huge range of additional products that may pose risks. As a result, the European market for one of the most common phthalates DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate) is collapsing and the manufacturer will stop producing in Europe. But production in the U.S. and elsewhere will continue according to the Journal article.

A coalition of public health and environmental groups concerned about reproductive toxins in cosmetics, has urged U.S. companies to follow suit. According to the Environmental Working Group, which has been in the forefront on this issue, dozens of companies have promised to address these concerns. Their investigation is detailed on their website at: To help you make safer product choices, the group also provides a “Searchable Product Guide” where you can select information on brand name products by product category and other user-friendly methods.


An award-winning broadcast journalist and new media executive whose credits include a wide range of environmental and "green consumer" websites and programs, Joyce H. Newman is a Trustee of the Green Guide Institute, a nonprofit, independent publisher of consumer health and safety advice, product reviews, and shopping tips. She currently heads Newman Productions, specializing in strategic communications for a variety of national nonprofit organizations.

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