Chemicals in Common Products that Harm Your Fertility

From plastic bottles to popcorn bags, painkillers to perfume, there are unfortunately too many chemicals in the everyday products we use that affect our hormones.

The FDA is known for being laxer than regulation agencies in other countries when it comes to censoring what chemicals go into cosmetics and other beauty products. More and more studies are showing the repercussions of this, as chemicals in common products are linked to cancer, disruption of the reproductive system, and even harm to a developing fetus. Even male fertility could be impacted. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives noted that “data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that male reproductive problems, including undescended testicles and hypospadias, doubled between 1970 and 1993. Environmental chemicals are strongly suspected to be contributing factors.”

Though you can’t avoid every product on the market, there are some chemicals you should be aware of. This article will cover:

  • PFCs—what are they and how could they be impacting you?
  • Common beauty ingredients you should avoid
  • Ways to avoid Endocrine Disruptors
  • Painkillers and fertility 


Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), the most common of which are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), are synthetic chemicals often found in fast food packaging, paper plates, stain-resistant carpets, carpet cleaning solutions, windshield washing fluid, adhesives, cleaning products, and even personal care products; and the list goes on. Just from this, though, you can see how both male and female fertility could be impacted by environmental factors. Most people don’t think about this since the emphasis often centers around beauty products and fertility.

A study published in Human Reproduction showed that women with higher levels of perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in their blood, chemicals often present in food packaging, pesticides, clothing, upholstery, carpets and personal care products, took longer to become pregnant.

Pesticides often contain PFCs; going organic is a good way to combat this.

One of the study’s authors, UCLA researcher Chunyuan Fei, noted that “Perfluorooctanoate and perfluorooctane sulfonate were considered to be biologically inactive, but recently animal studies have shown that these chemicals may have a variety of toxic effects on the liver, immune system and developmental and reproductive organs. Very few human studies have been done, but one of our earlier studies showed that PFOA, although not PFOS, may impair the growth of babies in the womb, and another two epidemiological studies linked PFOA and PFOS to impaired fetal growth.”

Though there is not much you can do about PFCs since they are present in so many products, first be assured that the United States isn’t the worst when it comes to regulating PFCs. China actually increased production of PFOS in 2003. In contrast, the United States has made efforts to reduce PFCs—for example, by banning most PFOS in 2000 and by reaching an agreement with companies to reduce PFOA emissions.

We still have a long way to go in censoring these chemicals, though, so in the meantime, you can do a few things to attenuate your exposure to them:

  • Wash your hands before eating to reduce your consumption of PFCs from things you have touched throughout the day
  • Reduce consumption of fast foods and packaged foods (like foods in pre-wrapped plastic or microwaved popcorn)
  • Don’t purchase stain or dirt-repellant clothing or clothes with Teflon or Scotchgard tags, which means they’ve been treated with PFCs
  • Avoid personal care products with PTFE, fluoro, or perfluoro listed as ingredients—in particular, lotions, nail polish, and shaving cream
  • Use real plates, not paper ones
  • Swap cast iron and stainless steel cooking supplies for non-stick pans and utensils
pots and pans

Toxic Beauty Ingredients You Should Avoid

While PFCs are common in a wide array of products, there are a specific set of chemicals used in personal care products that also pose a danger because they are often applied directly to the skin and used routinely.

1. Phthalates

Commonly found in? Synthetic fragrance, nail polish, perfumes, lotions, and hairspray.

Why could it be harmful to you? An animal study showed that exposure to phthalates can alter sex hormones and increase the likelihood of losing a fetus. Another study of infertile couples found that infertile women had an increase of exposure to certain types of phthalates. Furthermore, Phthalates have also been known to cause male reproductive issues as well.

perfume bottle

2. Parabens

Commonly found in? Body lotion, shampoo, face cleanser, body wash, foundation, and pomade.

Why could it be harmful to you? Parabens mimic estrogen in the body. Estrogen is a hormone responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system. One recent study suggests that a mother's exposure to certain types of parabens during pregnancy can lead to increased anxiety and behavioral changes in her offspring.

3. BHA and BHT

Commonly found in? Lipsticks, eye shadow, moisturizers, diaper creams, blush, and face powder.

Why could it be harmful to you? Animal studies have shown that exposure to high doses of BHA and BHT may result in problems with both the male and female reproductive systems.

4. Octinoxate and Oxybenzone

Commonly found in? Sunscreen, moisturizers, aftershave, lipstick, nail polish, skin creams, foundations, fragrance, hair products.

Why could it be harmful to you? Animal studies have shown that Octinoxate can change the weight and structure of both male and female reproductive organs. Another study shows that high exposure to oxybenzone-related chemicals affects the ovaries of female fish, reducing their egg production. It is also a concern for the male reproductive system.

5. Triclosan

Commonly found in? Antibacterial liquid soap, shaving cream, soap bars, and toothpaste.

Why could it be harmful to you? A study suggests that Triclosan, an endocrine disruptor, could lead to implantation failure, which is when a fertilized egg does not attach to the uterus properly, therefore preventing pregnancy. Triclosan has also been linked to decreased sperm quality in men as well.

hand washing

Make sure to check the ingredients on your beauty product bottles for all five of those potentially harmful chemicals. And remember, if a product has an undisclosed fragrance (as in there is no list of ingredients for the fragrance at all), then there still could be harmful chemicals in the product. If “fragrance/parfum” is the only thing listed as an ingredient, then the company is purposefully keeping the chemicals used in the product a secret, which means the ingredients used may or may not be harmful. Just to be safe, avoid these products.  

Ways to Protect Your Fertility from Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

We come into contact with a variety of chemicals in everyday life through the products we use, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. Most of these chemicals, when exposed to in small amounts, are harmless to the human body. A certain group of chemicals called EDCs, or endocrine-disrupting chemicals, can affect sperm and egg health, embryo quality, and reduce a couple’s chance of having a healthy baby.

As already alluded to in the previous section, EDCs can be found in common household items – recognize the names “BPA,” “phthalates,” and “parabens?” They occur naturally in many foods and the environment, but post-WWII industrialization led to an increase of harmful chemicals in what we consume.  95% of people have EDCs in their bodies, but recent studies show that higher levels of EDCs can lead to infertility or struggles with conceiving.

So what can you do to avoid these EDCs? Check out these tips from Mark Green – lecturer of reproductive biology at the University of Melbourne School of BioSciences – to avoid EDCs and perhaps help your fertility:

Read labels and packages

EDCs are present on fresh fruits and vegetables from pesticide sprays and the coatings on plastic food packaging and canned goods. Be sure to wash all fresh produce prior to eating and avoid processed, pre-packaged foods. Labels on foods will tell you about additives, preservatives, and antibacterial agents that you should also avoid. Limit your consumption of oily fish – salmon, tuna, sardines, and other fatty meats – because these foods contain higher quantities of EDCs.

Still, eat fish and fatty meats, but just limit your consumption of it.

Heat Carefully

EDCs can be found in takeout containers, cling wrap, and aluminum foil. When heating, these EDCs can be absorbed into the food. To solve this problem, store and heat your food in China or glass and cover with a paper towel or plate when reheating.

Avoid Soft Plastics

Plastic bottles for water and sodas are made with EDC-containing plasticizers. Plastic bottles, when sitting in a hot environment, can release high levels of EDCs into your drink. To solve this problem, drink out of glass or hard plastic bottles (like most reusable bottles). However, even bottles that specify “BPA free” contain other EDCs like BPS, which can be just as harmful!

plastic containers

Keep the Air in Your Home Clean

When it comes to EDCs, basically anything you can smell in your home exposes you to them. Scary right? As much as possible, avoid air fresheners, smoke, strong chemicals, bug sprays, and plastic smells and fumes. The best way to avoid these issues in your home is through the use of air purifiers and allowing the fresh air in through windows whenever possible.

Clean “green”

Many household cleaning products contain harmful EDCs. Although it’s nearly impossible to avoid detergents, hand sanitizers, cleaning agents, carpet cleaners, paints, glues, and varnishes, much of your exposure to EDCs can be reduced by using “green” alternatives whenever possible. White vinegar and baking soda are two of the easiest alternatives to common cleaning products.

Use Paraben-free Products

EDC’s known as “parabens” can be found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dye, body washes, cosmetics, and lotions. Many products are advertised as paraben-free so you don’t even have to search through the labels.  

These changes, although seemingly drastic, are often simple solutions to reduce your EDC intake. With even a few of these changes, you could be greatly influencing the health of you, your family, and your future child.

The Deal on Painkillers

Again, another common thing we all use that we might not second guess for a second. The questionable use of painkillers during pregnancy has already been recorded in multiple studies for their effect on infant fertility—typically, female fetuses. Guidelines suggest that paracetamol, more commonly known as acetaminophen, should be used as sparingly as possible and that ibuprofen shouldn’t be used at all during pregnancy.

However, researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently published a study that provides evidence that acetaminophen and ibuprofen should be avoided as well for its effect on male fetuses. Furthermore, the study suggested that acetaminophen and ibuprofen could affect human fetuses on a molecular level down to their DNA.


How do painkillers affect egg-producing cells?

Germ cells (not to be confused with germs) produce sperm and egg cells while in the womb. Researchers observed that treating ovaries with acetaminophen for one week lowered the percent of egg-producing cells by more than 40 percent. Even worse, ibuprofen nearly halved the number of egg-producing cells.

These percentages are particularly concerning because women are born with a set number of egg cells. If they are born with half the number of cells that could produce eggs, then they are at risk for early menopause.

How do painkillers affect sperm-producing cells?

For male fetus fertility experiments, researchers grafted mice with human fetal testicular tissue and exposed these tissues to painkillers. These grafts mimic how testes grow and function while developing in the womb. After a single day of treatment with human-equivalent doses of acetaminophen, the number of sperm-producing cells dropped by 17 percent. A week lowered the number to almost one-third fewer cells.

So women who take painkillers during pregnancy risk significantly reducing the number of eggs that their daughters will be born with as well as how much sperm their sons will be able to produce. Researchers suspect that the effect of painkillers on germ cells are caused by their effect on prostaglandins, which play major roles in both ovaries and testes because of their hormone-like properties.


How do painkillers affect DNA?

Painkillers mess with a fetus’ epigenetic marks. Epigenetic marks are like crossing guards in your DNA. While nearly all cells share the same DNA, epigenetic marks decide which genes are expressed in each cell. Altering epigenetic marks could affect small details such as hair color to more significant ones such as susceptibility to genetic diseases. Not only could painkillers affect your child but also generations of your progeny.

Think of this as an update on how painkillers could affect the development of your child during pregnancy. Dr. Rod Mitchell, who led the research at the University of Edinburgh's MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, and other researchers still encourage women to follow basic guidelines by taking painkillers at minimum dosage only when necessary.

Overall, if you’re struggling with fertility, it might be worth going the extra mile and eliminating some of the chemicals in your everyday life. Don’t get overwhelmed and try to control everything, though—that will defeat the purpose of balancing out your hormones. However, finding more wholesome ways of living, like cooking more food at home or using a simple vinegar solution to clean, could both improve your general health and fertility.

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