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Endocrine disruptors: 5 chemicals that could impact fertility

Endocrine disruptors: 5 chemicals that could impact fertility

5 min read

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 is what are called “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 reducing 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.

How EDCs function in the body

Chemicals aren’t inherently bad — they’re an important and essential part of life. But artificial endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) mimic the hormones your body produces, which interrupts the endocrine system: the collection of glands that produce 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 hormone production up.

How EDCs may impact your fertility

EDCs may impact your body’s levels of fertility hormones like estrogen and testosterone, as well as thyroid hormones. In turn, these out-of-range hormone levels may impact your fertility: There is growing evidence that hormone changes caused by EDCs can impact many parts of the reproductive system, like ovulation or sperm count.

The relationship between EDCs and conditions like 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.)

As with most health conditions that are studied, there are conflicting findings: While high concentrations of EDCs have been associated with worse fertility outcomes in some studies (like this study on human exposure to phthalates), other studies (like this one and this one) have reported mixed findings. That said, most EDC experts agree that reducing exposure to these chemicals is likely beneficial for reproductive and general health.

How to reduce your exposure to products containing 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 use a stainless steel or glass bottle for drinking water instead of plastic bottles. (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.)
  • Avoid printed receipts (called “thermal receipts”) when checking out at stores — thermal paper is often coated with BPA. Opt for digital receipts when you can.
  • 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).

But 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.

2. Parabens

Parabens are artificial preservatives that are found in cosmetic, skincare, and beauty products.

How to reduce exposure: Review your skincare, cosmetics, and other beauty products and choose "paraben-free" products when possible.

3. Pesticides

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill or repel plant or animal life, prevent mold or mildew, or prevent the spread of bacteria. They can be found in food sources, body oils, essential oils, and cocoa butter.

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

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

1. Avoid microwaving plastic food containers and avoid 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 in your diet or through 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. 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.) Search for the products you’re using or products you’re thinking about buying in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. They give ratings based on the ingredients in each product and potential health effects of the chemicals.

How to check in with where your hormone levels are today

We offer 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.

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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