Over the past few weeks, you may have heard about the class action lawsuits filed against Tresemmé for its shampoo containing formaldehyde-releasing preservative DMDM hydantoin allegedly causing hair loss. Switching to products without formaldehyde is a great start, but it's not the only ingredient worth paying attention to in your beauty products. Another big category is phthalates, which are hormone-disrupting ingredients that can be included in beauty products under the label of "fragrance"—and which can have significant health repercussions.
So, what are phthalates? According to Shanna Swan, PhD, author of Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race and a professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai hospital, the ingredients, pronounced "thal-ates," are often added to personal care products and cosmetics to maintain color and scent and help formulas absorb better. They're also used as a plasticizer to make tons of household objects more flexible, and in pesticides to make them absorb into insects.
Phthalates are ubiquitous in modern life, and that's not at all good, because dating back to 2000, researchers have found that they have the ability to block the production of testosterone, according to Tracey Woodruff, PhD, director of the University of San Francisco's program on reproductive health and the environment. If testosterone is blocked during the prenatal period, research shows it can lead to male reproductive developmental conditions like cryptorchidism and hypospadias, testicular cancer, or even subtle measures of male feminization, like a decreased anogenital distance (AGD). That distance holds meaning: In 2015, Swan found that a shorter AGD is linked to male infertility and low sperm counts, and that prenatal phthalate exposure can impact it even at low levels.
Further, a 2018 study out of California found that mothers who were exposed to levels of 1 phthalate, monoethyl phthalate, in pregnancy had daughters with earlier onset puberty. According to lead author Kim Harley, PhD, the Associate Director for Health Effects at Berkeley's Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health, earlier puberty increases the risk of reproductive cancers like breast cancer or ovarian cancer, as well as increasing the risk of mental health issues and risk-taking behaviors in girls who enter puberty earlier.
So it's definitely a smart decision to switch to phthalate-free products while pregnant. But given how pervasive they are in daily life, Swan says phthalates aren't something only pregnant people should worry about, but a population-level problem that everyone should make a concerted effort to avoid. It's all going down the drain, and if we can easily eliminate 1 source of artificial hormones, humans and wildlife will be better for it.
Swan adds that much of the research on phthalates is focused on the reproductive effects because fertility-impacting chemicals become a hot topic when people are trying to conceive, but there are very few studies on what phthalates' effects are postnatally and in adulthood. For perspective, she compares their health impact to cigarettes, or how lead in gasoline once lowered children's IQs.
So, why don't you see phthalates listed alongside all the other ingredients in your personal care products and cosmetics? There's a loophole built into the beauty industry where the FDA allows manufacturers to include thousands of ingredients, per the International Fragrance Association, under the name "fragrance," "perfume," or "flavor" in order to maintain trade secrets—despite the fact that today's chemists can work backwards, so the secrecy only impacts shoppers.
In October, California lawmakers passed the Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Right to Know Act, which requires manufacturers to disclose their products' fragrance and flavor ingredients to the state's Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control. But until the Act goes into effect in January 2022, Swan advises avoiding any product with "fragrance" listed as a phthalate giveaway.
Thankfully, many beauty brands are now conscious of the health risks (or at least shoppers' desire to avoid phthalates when they can), and sell shampoos and other products specifically labelled as phthalate-free. And avoiding "fragrance" doesn't mean heading into a life of bland-smelling products, as many instead rely on low levels of essential oils to deliver a gorgeous scent. Below, shop the best phthalate-free shampoos, and take an easy step towards a healthier world and lower infertility rates.
Clocking in at only $7, shoppers can't say enough good things about how nicely this lemon-scented shampoo cleanses hair of build-up, either from hard water or stubborn styling products. Where some that get the job done can veer harsh, Avalon Organics' is non-stripping, leaves hair shiny, and smells "incredible."
On the other end of the price spectrum is Hask's beloved Argan Oil shampoo, which has more than 650 5-star Amazon ratings and much praise from those with dry, color-treated hair they want to keep fully intact. Shoppers say it doesn't weigh hair down, keeps frizz at a minimum, and creates shine in its "crisp, citrusy" wake.
If you want to be truly impressed by a shampoo, just look to Innersense and its many accolades from shoppers. According to reviewers, the price is justified: Just a "tiny bit" translates to "unbelievable results," according to a shopper who also writes, "[I] was very, very impressed with how much better my hair looked and behaved when I used this." Even people with dry, flaky, seborrheic, and oily scalps are united in their love for the Hairbath, and those with chronic hair thinning say it pumped up their hair's volume as well.
This 100-percent vegetarian, cruelty-free option draws on gardenia, pineapple, papaya, and aloe to silkify strands into smooth, manageable hair. Per shoppers, the gardenia smell is an instant trip to Hawaii, or at least a bountiful garden. And it lasts: One person with hair to their waist writes that they only need a teaspoon to get their hair clean.
One reviewer of HiBar's shampoo bar calls it "actually [a] little nugget of gold," adding "These damn little bars have changed my life.. Honestly. I now always have good hair days." Another person seconds that notion, writing, "I have thin, very fine hair and many shampoos weigh it down. Not this one! My hair dries naturally with a bit of fluff, even without styling it." Professionals also flock to it: "As a hairstylist, I can say that this product out-does itself!"
People with curls of all types adore Briogeo's shampoo, which "leaves hair feeling bouncy, hydrated, and clean." It's almost a styling product in itself, shoppers write, since they emerge from the shower with curls that are "not only refined, but also feeling so much more hydrated!" The shampoo's gentleness is key, reviewers say, as it avoids stripping moisture and protects curls' natural pattern.
Pura D'Or Original Gold Label shampoo is practically a legend on Amazon, with more than 17,000 5-star ratings attesting to its power to help regrow hair where hope was once lost. Shoppers say the shampoo "saved [them] from going bald" and renewed their formerly minimal hair growth, switching dark days into happy ones full of thicker, fuller, stronger, and shinier hair.
Tea tree oil works wonders for acne, and it's equally effective at turning oily scalps into well-adjusted, clean, and soft heads of hair. Even just 1 use has shoppers' friends remarking on how shiny their hair looks, and it's that impressive nature that has people losing count of how many bottles of it they've gone through.
When it comes to your kids' bath products, you want something that they like using, makes bath time as smooth as possible, and is as safe as can be. TotLogic's is so good, one parent writes that after using it on their 5 and 7 year old, they immediately went and reordered, because their kids "LOVE" the smell and couldn't stop touching their soft hair afterwards. It covers all bases, from "super thick, heavy hair that gets matted" to "thin, long hair that tangles horribly," according to a shopper who writes, "this shampoo manages both perfectly."
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