- Girls exposed to chemicals commonly found in personal care products may hit puberty earlier, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
- The results stem from a study that followed 338 children to document how early environmental exposures affect childhood development.
- Kim Harley, one of the study's researchers, told INSIDER that girls who experience early puberty have an increased risk of developing reproductive cancers and mental health problems.
- Harley says minimizing exposure to these chemicals is easy; it simply requires being a "savvy consumer" and reading labels very carefully.
You might know what you put in and on your body during pregnancy can have lasting implications on your baby. But a new study suggests that the personal care products used long before you're pregnant can also affect your future child.
According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, girls whose mothers used chemically-loaded personal care products — like makeup, toothpaste, and soap — are more likely to hit puberty early.
The findings, which will be published in the December 4 issue of the journal Human Reproduction, are part of a longitudinal study that followed 338 children from utero to adolescence to document how early environmental exposures affect childhood development. This particular study found that girls born to mother who had high levels of diethyl phthalate and triclosan in their bodies during pregnancy experienced puberty up to six months earlier than their peers.
Though several other studies have examined the effect chemicals in personal care products have on puberty in girls, this is the first one to look at chemical exposure in utero.
"The in utero period is a particularly sensitive time and susceptible window for exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals, " Kim Harley, an associate adjunct professor in the School of Public Health and one of the study's researchers, told INSIDER. "We were able to look at exposure in the womb not just exposure in childhood."
The first phase of the study began 20 years ago, when Harley and her team tested urine samples for chemicals
In order to determine the mother's exposure to the chemicals associated with early onset puberty, Harley and her team had to examine their urine.
"When you put these chemicals on your body, they get into your body," Harley said. "Once they're in our bodies, they are quickly metabolized — within 24 to 48 hours — and excreted out of our bodies in the form of urine."
They then divided the sample into four categories: low, medium, high-medium, and the highest chemical concentration of diethyl phthalate and triclosan.
As the children of these women began to approach 8 and 9 years of age, Harley and her colleagues saw an opportunity to see how chemical exposure in utero impacted puberty. They began to track various signs of puberty, including growth of pubic hair and earlier on-set menstruation.
In time, they discovered that girls born to mothers with the highest levels of diethyl phthalate were developing pubic hair six months earlier than those born to mother with the lowest levels. Similarly, girls born to mothers with the highest levels of triclosan experience menstruation four months earlier than those born to mother with the lowest levels.
The same trend, however, was not observed in boys.
Early puberty can have serious health implications later in life
Experiencing puberty significantly earlier than your peers is not just an awkward situation; it can pose a serious risk to one's health. As Harley told INSIDER, earlier puberty is associated with a higher risk of developing reproductive cancers, like breast cancer and ovarian cancer, later in life.
A 2014 study published in Breast Cancer Research found that an increased breast cancer risk was associated with earlier breast duct development and earlier periods in girls. Additionally, according to Scientific American, higher levels of estrogen are linked to both early puberty and breast cancer diagnoses."
Exposure to estrogen-mimicking compounds, like diethyl phthalate, triclosan, bisphenol-A, and phthalates, only increase those risks. An excess of estrogen may also lead to fertility issues, as Healthline reported.
Read more:10 subtle signs of breast cancer
As Harley noted, early puberty can also increase a girl's chance of developing mental health issues. A 2017 study from Cornell University supports this theory. In a study of almost 8,000 women, depression and antisocial behaviors were more common among those reporting menstruation between ages 7 to 10 compared to those who who began menstruating at around 12 years old.
"While more research is needed, people should be aware that there are chemicals in personal care products that may be disrupting the hormones in our bodies," Harley said.
Harley acknowledges that this study is not enough to make a definitive statement about the chemicals in personal care products and how they impact girls.
"It's very difficult to prove something when you're doing a human observational study," she told INSIDER. "We need to build up a body of evidence."
The next step is to conduct more human studies — specifically, she noted, studies focusing on other, more diverse populations, as Harley's study was limited to Latina farm workers in the Salinas, California area.
"I don't think personal care products would affect them differently than they affect other people," Harley said of the experiment's subjects. "But it was a specific population and it needs to be replicated in other populations to make sure there's not some weird thing that happened by chance."
If you are currently pregnant, or have plans to get pregnant, it's not too late minimize exposure
"One of the things about these chemicals is they don't stay in our body long," Harley said. "It only takes a few days to flush them out of our body so you also see immediate results."
This means making a switch to products free of these particular chemicals, which Harley said can, "reduce the level of these chemicals in your body by 25 to 40%."
Though the task may seem daunting, Harley said it's as simple as being a "savvy consumer" and reading labels. And if that is still overwhelming, there are a number of apps and websites to help.
For at-home shopping, Harley recommended the Skin Deep Database, which provides the ingredients of any product you search. When in the store, she suggested apps like Think Dirty, GoodGuide, and the Environmental Working Group app, which reveal ingredients after a barcode scan.
As with all health matters, continuing to self-educate is imperative.
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