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Endocrine disruptors: 5 chemicals that could impact fertility

Endocrine disruptors: 5 chemicals that could impact fertility

6 min read

This article was last updated December 30, 2021.

Many of us know that plastics can have harmful effects on the environment… but using plastics is potentially linked to adverse effects on our fertility, too. The reason for this: endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs aren’t limited to plastics, though — they can be found in a number of household products and items you might be using every day.

In this article, we’ll break down what EDCs do, how they can affect your fertility, what products you can find them in, and simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure.

The biggest takeaways

  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) do their best impression of the hormones produced by the endocrine system — interrupting endocrine function and confusing the body into over- or under-producing important hormones.
  • EDCs can impact fertility hormones (estrogen and testosterone) and thyroid hormones.
  • Researchers are currently studying a possible link between EDCs and conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), uterine fibroids, and endometriosis.
  • Research has reported mixed findings, but most EDC experts agree that reducing exposure (not bringing it down to zero!) still likely has a positive effect on reproductive and overall health.

What are EDCs?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals, or combinations of chemicals, that interfere with the way the body’s hormones work. They’ve been linked to developmental, brain, immune — and notably — reproductive complications. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, EDCs can:

  • Mimic the body's natural hormones
  • Decrease or increase normal hormone levels
  • Interfere with the natural production of hormones in the endocrine system

Later we’ll discuss how exactly to reduce your exposure to EDCs, but for now it’s important to know that EDCs are found in our environment, our food, and items that we use each day— including beauty and cleaning products.

How do EDCs function in the body?

Chemicals aren’t inherently bad — they’re an important and essential part of life. But artificial EDCs mimic the hormones your body produces, which interrupts the endocrine system: the collection of glands that produce the hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things.

These “estrogenic” chemicals can trick your body into thinking there are more hormones being produced than there really are. In turn, your body may respond by either shutting down its own production of hormones, or by ramping up hormone production.

How may EDCs impact your fertility?

A 2009 Scientific Statement from The Endocrine Society suggested that EDCs may impact the body’s levels of fertility hormones like estrogen and testosterone, as well as thyroid hormones. Hormones are essential to reproduction so it makes sense that out-of-range hormone levels can impact your fertility and many parts of the reproductive system, such as ovulation and sperm count.

Since then, additional research has found that exposure to certain EDCs — such as parabens and pesticides — is associated with adverse fertility outcomes, including reduced gestational age, weight, pregnancy gain, as well as increased risk for miscarriage. Smaller studies also observed an association between increased risk of miscarriage and BPA (another common EDC) and a link between exposure to phthalates and worse fertility outcomes.

All that being said, other studies (like this one and this one) have reported mixed findings  — calling for additional research with larger sample sizes and clearer outcomes in order to showcase causation. To be safe however, most EDC experts agree that reducing exposure to these chemicals is likely beneficial for reproductive and general health.

The relationship between EDCs and conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), uterine fibroids, and endometriosis is also being studied. These conditions may impact how often you ovulate, how likely a fertilized egg is to implant, and how likely a pregnancy is to be carried to term. (More info on how these conditions impact chances of conceiving here.)

How can you reduce your exposure to EDCs?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the goal is not to reduce your exposure to *zero*. These chemicals are everywhere, unfortunately, and it’s impossible to completely avoid them. Our recommendation is to take a few measured steps to reduce exposure to some of the biggest offenders.

1. Bisphenol A (BPA)

BPA is an industrial chemical used to make plastic. It can be found in plastic products like water bottles and food storage containers.

How to reduce exposure:

  • Store food in glass and swap plastic water bottles for glass or stainless steel. (Some “BPA-free” products use BPA replacements with the same endocrine-disrupting effects — just because they haven’t been studied as rigorously as BPA doesn’t mean they’re safe.)
  • Opt for digital receipts when checking out at stores. Printed receipts come on thermal paper which is often coated with BPA, potentially leading to higher BPA concentrations in your body.
  • Limit canned food and switch to frozen food or foods stored in glass (though it’s worth noting that more and more canned foods aren’t using BPA in their lining).

However, according to Dr. Lora Shahine, MD, FACOG, a leading expert on toxins and fertility, even when products are labeled as "BPA-free," they may have other EDCs that the FDA doesn't require to be listed. These EDCs could still impact reproductive health. Dr. Shahine cites bisphenol (BPS) as a common example of this. (Watch a replay of our live virtual event with Dr. Shahine here!)

2. Parabens

Parabens are one of the most popular artificial preservatives used around the world in cosmetic, skincare, and beauty products. Shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, face cleaner, sunscreen, deodorant, toothpaste; they can all contain parabens!

How to reduce exposure:

3. Pesticides

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill or repel plant or animal life, prevent mold or mildew, and prevent the spread of bacteria. We most commonly associate pesticides with food, but they can be found in body oils, essential oils, and cocoa butter too.

How to reduce exposure:

  • If you can, opt for organic produce, body oils, and related products whenever possible.
  • Wash fruits and veggies on the “dirty dozen list” before eating them.

4. Phthalates

Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics more flexible (aka plasticizers). They can be found in plastic packaging and cosmetic, skincare, and beauty products, as well as many consumer products with “fragrance” listed in their ingredients (though you can’t always rely on labels to provide fragrance ingredients).

How to reduce exposure:

  • Store food in glass when possible, and transfer food to non-plastic dishes for eating or storage if you get takeout.
  • Review the ingredients of your skincare, cosmetics, and other beauty products. Reduce use of products that list added fragrances.

5. Sulfates

Sulfates are chemicals used as cleansing agents. They can be found in household cleaners and even shampoo.

How to reduce exposure:

  • Choose "sulfate-free" cleaning, skincare, cosmetic, and other beauty products whenever possible.

More EDC reduction tips to protect your fertility

The following tips are useful for cutting back on exposure to a broad range of EDCs.

  1. Avoid microwaving plastic food containers or putting them through the dishwasher. Phthalates and BPA in plastic food containers may get into your food when you heat up the containers. Instead, microwave food in microwave-safe glass or ceramics.
  2. Counteract the effect of EDCs by getting enough folic acid through your diet or supplements like prenatal vitamins. Two studies (here and here) show that high levels of folic acid can protect against the negative effects of BPA or phthalates in people with ovaries who are trying to conceive without assistance or through IVF. Some of the most folate-rich foods are spinach, asparagus, brussel sprouts, and liver.
  3. Look for EDC-free personal care products that you’re using or thinking about buying in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database (the hub offers ratings based on the ingredients in each product and potential health effects of the chemicals).

As an aside, products that market themselves as “clean” may still contain EDCs. (The FDA has not defined the term “natural” and does not have regulations for the term “organic” for cosmetic labeling, either.)

How can you check in with your current hormone levels?

Below are a few ways to go deep with your hormones, including the ones potentially impacted by EDC exposure: estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid-stimulating hormone.

  • The Modern Fertility Hormone Test measures the same fertility hormones that a doctor would test in a fertility clinic (for a fraction of the price) and helps you understand how your fertility is changing over time. Our hormone test gives you insight into the number of eggs you have and can help you identify red flag issues — like PCOS or thyroid conditions — that could affect your reproductive health down the line.
  • The Modern Fertility Ovulation Test works like magic with our app to help you pinpoint your LH levels to predict your 2 most fertile days. With our test, you’ll get more insight than just a positive or negative result — you’ll be able to see your LH change daily and track low, high, or peak levels. This is key for understanding whether you're in your fertile window and approaching ovulation (when you have the highest chances of pregnancy).
  • The Modern Fertility Pregnancy Test is just as accurate from the day of your missed period as leading pregnancy tests — and is also more affordable. It also works like magic with our app.The Modern Fertility App helps you find your fertile window more easily by logging and tracking your periods, sex or insemination, and Ovulation Test results. With the app, you'll get a countdown on when to test for pregnancy.

For more on EDCs, watch our virtual event with Dr. Shahine:

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sharon Briggs, Modern Fertility’s head of Clinical Product Development.

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Hannah Levy

Hannah is the head of content at Modern Fertility. When she's not obsessively researching reproductive health, she's cooking with her daughter and Googling "how to save houseplants."

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