Do Pretty Products Affect Hormones, Early Puberty, Birth Defects, and other Health Problems?

By Claire Karlsson and Diana Zuckerman, PhD

Updated 2015

Pretty ProductsMedical experts wonder why so many third grade girls have already developed breasts and pubic hair. Early puberty in boys is less obvious but also of concern. There is mounting evidence that suggests harmful chemicals in personal care products could be a potential cause of early puberty and other health issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found measurable levels of phthalates in the general population in their Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Phthalates are types of chemicals that mimic hormones and are linked to birth defects in animals, especially in the male reproductive system, and are also considered a potential cause for early puberty in boys and girls in early elementary school. The CDC report collected data on the levels of 13 types of phthalates in over 2500 adults and children and included data from previous surveys conducted starting in 1999 to 2004.  There were measurable levels of several types of phthalates among the study participants, indicating that exposure to phthalates may be widespread in the U.S population. Particular types of phthalates found in cosmetics and other personal care products like soap and body washes were found at higher levels among the women in the CDC study.

Not Too Pretty, a research report conducted by three environmental groups, Health Care Without Harm, Coming Clean and the Environmental Working Group, tested 72 name-brand, widely used beauty products by a national laboratory in 2002. Almost three quarters of the products were found to contain phthalates, but most of these products did not label those ingredients.1 In response to growing public awareness, Revlon, L’Oréal SA and Unilever announced that they no longer are using phthalates. Follow-up studies led by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that many popular personal care products such as Pantene hair spray and Secret deodorant reduced phthalate levels after 2002.2 They also list popular products that do not contain the toxic chemicals, such as Urban Decay and L’Oreal nail polish, Lady Speed Stick and Soft & Dri anti-perspirants, Vaseline Intensive Care, Neutrogena Hand Cream, and Lubriderm Moisturizing Lotion.

However, in many cases, companies make some products with phthalates and other similar products without them, making it tricky to distinguish safe brands and products on the store shelf. Many body mists and perfumes such as Calgon, Charlie, Calvin Klein, and Prince Matchabelli list ambiguous ingredients like “fragrance” that obscure their chemical content from consumers. In addition, many cosmetic companies, such as Estee Lauder, have not publically pledged to reformulate for global markets based on the higher safety standards set by the EU.3

A 2014 study highlighted particular concern for young African Americans using personal care products. The researchers selected eight hair and skin products ranging from Cocoa Butter Skin Cream to Oil Hair Lotion that are commonly used among African Americans and tested them for the presence of chemicals that disrupt the body’s hormones. Seven of the products contained chemicals that affect hormones in ways that could harm sexual development or health.4.  For more information about the risk of birth defects in boys, see

Each child and adult has hormones in their body, and it is not healthy to expose them to chemicals that mimic hormones or can affect children’s own hormones.  Many products with phthalates are used by children and youth as well as pregnant women and teens. For that reason, their impact on hormones is of great concern.

There are many tools available to help consumers buy personal beauty products that don’t use phthalates or other chemicals that can harm the body’s normal growth and development. The Think Dirty App allows you to scan the bar code of a cosmetic or personal care product before you buy it and see ingredient details and a safety ranking on a scale of 1-10. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website also details the chemicals to watch out for when buying different personal care products and suggests companies that make safer and more sustainable products. Since many safe alternatives exist, it is becoming easier for informed consumers to reduce pregnant women’s and children’s exposure to chemicals linked to hormone levels and early puberty.


  1. Not Too Pretty. (2002). Retrieved from  
  2. A Little Prettier. (2008). Retrieved October 13, 2015, from  
  3. Market Shift. (2011). Retrieved October 13, 2015, from href=””>  
  4. Myers, S., Yang, C., Bittner, G., Witt, K., Tice, R., & Baird, D. (2014). Estrogenic and anti-estrogenic activity of off-the-shelf hair and skin care products. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol, 25(3), 271-277. doi:10.1038/jes.2014.32. PMCID PMC4318791