Are Pretty Products Causing Early Puberty?

Medical 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. Not Too Pretty, a report based on studies conducted for three environmental groups, suggests a possible answer. (The report is available at

The research report conducted by the Environmental Working Group, Health Care Without Harm, and Coming Clean provides the results of research by a national laboratory to test 72 name-brand, widely used beauty products. The lab evaluated the presence of phthalates, a large family of industrial chemicals that are linked to permanent 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.

In response to pressure from several nonprofit organizations resulting from the report, Revlon, L’Oréal SA and Unilever announced in early 2005 that they no longer are using phthalates. In October 2004, a European ban on two types of phthalates took effect.

In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that they found seven phthalates in the bodies of 289 people that they tested. Although phthalates in nail polish must be labeled, there are no such requirements on the 72 other products tested in this study, none of which listed the chemical on its label. Many of these products are used by children and youth as well as pregnant women and teens (thereby potentially affecting the fetus). Popular youth products containing phthalates include several types of Maybelline and Sally Hansen nail polish; Nivea cream; Jergens Skincare; deodorants made by Arrid Extra Dry, Ban, and Secret; Pantene and Herbal Essence Mousse and Hair Gels; Aussie and Helene Curtis Salon Selective Mousse; LA Looks, Suave and Dep hair gels; and body mists and perfumes by Calgon, Charlie, Calvin Klein, and Prince Matchabelli. The highest levels were found in some of the most popular fragrances.

The report also lists popular products that did not contain the chemicals, such as Urban Decay and L’Oreal nail polish, Lady Speed Stick and Soft & Dri anti-perspirants, and Vaseline Intensive Care, Neutrogena Hand Cream, and Lubriderm Moisturizing Lotion. In many cases, companies make some products with phthalates and other similar products without them, and these different products are also included in the report.

Needless to say, it would be unethical to intentionally expose children or pregnant women to high levels of these products in order to determine their effects. However, studies of animals show a range of serious birth defects, making one wonder why the Food and Drug Administration (which is studying the problem) hasn’t done more to warn the millions of pregnant women and children who are currently exposed to them everyday. Meanwhile, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has also been testing the presence of these chemicals in humans. Since alternatives exist, parents may want to minimize their children’s exposures to these chemicals — and try to protect pregnant women and other adults from exposure as well.