When doing your best to be healthier, much of your effort might go towards diet, but watching what goes into your body is more than counting macros. There are at least 1,000 human-made chemicals — known as hormone disruptors — in the environment that can enter your body through the food you eat, air you breathe, and stuff you slather on your skin. Once in, these endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, can really make a mess of your endocrine system.
“These chemicals can interfere with the normal functioning of the hormones that our bodies use as messengers for everything from fertility to appetite and fat storage,” says Dr. Kim Hartzfeld, DO, OB-GYN, a Lifeforce Physician. “EDCs can block hormone receptors, mimic hormones, and affect the production or metabolism of your hormones thereby altering not only hormone levels but how they function in your body.”
Studies have linked these disruptions to cancer, fertility problems, cognitive development, thyroid disease, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.
“Fetuses, babies, and children are at the greatest risk for adverse effects,” says Heather Patisaul, PhD, a professor of biological science at North Carolina State University’s Center for Human Health and the Environment. “But many EDCs are also known obesogens,” she says. “Meaning, they can disrupt insulin signaling and thyroid hormone signaling and cause people to gain weight uncontrollably.”
Hormone-disrupting chemicals are in products we use every day — from personal-care products and home goods to food and water — so it may feel impossible to live an EDC-free life, but don’t freak out just yet. There are certainly ways to reduce your toxic load.
“What’s important is just being mindful of where these endocrine-disrupting chemicals are coming from and avoiding them as much as possible,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “While we can't get rid of chemicals in our environment, we can certainly reduce our exposure.”
Although we still need more studies to truly understand the risk to humans, here are some tips to reduce your exposure to EDCs.
6 Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals and How to Avoid Them
1. Swap Out Your Plastics and Cans
The culprits: You probably already know of bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in certain plastics, resins, and the lining of cans and other food-packaging materials. The infamous chemical imitates the sex hormone estrogen and has been linked to breast and other cancers, diabetes, obesity, hormone imbalances in women, and low semen quality in men.
But BPA is just one of many known or suspected endocrine disruptors commonly found in food packaging that can migrate into food and drinks. Bisphenol-S (BPS), for instance, is a replacement for BPA that has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Phthalates are another endocrine-disrupting class of chemicals used in plastics to make them flexible. You’ll find them in vinyl, cling wrap, and some soft children’s toys. Studies have linked phthalates to birth defects in the male reproductive system, premature birth, lower male sex hormones, childhood obesity, and impaired glucose tolerance.
The solution: “Avoiding plastics is a huge way to minimize exposure,” says Patisaul. “They leach a lot of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and other harmful chemicals.”
Avoid plastic containers and plastic wrap. Shatterproof polycarbonate plastics, which are marked with the recycling label 7, are often made with BPA or BPA-replacements. Glass, ceramic, and stainless steel containers are safer alternatives.
Buy fresh and loose foods. Shrink wrap, cling wrap, sandwich bags, and any plastics with the recycling code 3 contain phthalates. Choose fresh produce and foods in the bulk section of the store. At home, use reusable silicone baggies and beeswax cloths instead.
Shop smart. Ever been to a supermarket that wraps all its produce in plastic? Do not pass go, do not put that plastic-wrapped apple in your cart! Instead, shop grocers that don’t actively work against you. Patisaul suggests vetting your options through Mind the Store’s Retailer Report Card, which ranks stores by their actions to eliminate toxic chemicals.
Kick the can to the curb. Cans used for foods are lined with BPA to prevent corrosion. Even cans labeled “BPA-free” may use a similar chemical that hasn’t been proven to be safer. Foods that come in aseptic “brick” cartons or glass are better options.
Find plastic-free alternatives. Anytime you’re in the market for something plastic, research whether safer products exist. For instance, bamboo toothbrushes, stainless-steel reusable water bottles, and wooden toys. You can also scan for safer brands with the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living app.
2. Go Fragrance-Free
The culprit: Phthalates aren’t only in plastics. This problematic family of chemicals makes cosmetics glide on smoothly and stick to your body. But phthalates aren’t only lurking in your makeup — they are found in all sorts of products with added fragrance, such as personal care products, home goods, and cleaning supplies.
The solution: “Fortunately, fragrance isn’t necessary for a product to function well or be effective,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “Do we really need scented garbage bags in our lives?”
Avoid fragranced products. Don’t buy anything that has fragrance or phthalates on the ingredients list. If it’s a scent you crave, opt for essential oils.
Choose cleaner cosmetics. Nail polish, hair spray, aftershave lotion, cleanser, and shampoo can contain phthalates. In general, the fewer the ingredients, the better. Check the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for non-toxic options. If you shop at Sephora, the company’s Clean at Sephora products are labeled as such for being formulated without phthalates, sulfates, parabens, and other toxins.
Forgo the Febreeze. Air fresheners might not list phthalates as an ingredient, but even some advertised as “all-natural” or “unscented” have them. Freshen up your indoor air by opening windows and buying fresh flowers. You can also use baking soda to absorb odors instead of perfumes to mask them.
3. Stay Away from Slippery Surfaces
The culprit: PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals that make cookware nonstick, clothing waterproof, and upholstered furniture stain-resistant. Convenient? Yes, but also toxic and nearly indestructible, which is why they’re nicknamed “forever chemicals.” PFAS includes more than 4,700 chemicals — some of which have been linked to cancer, obesity, impaired glucose tolerance, female hormone dysfunction, decreased sperm quality, and developmental defects.
The solution: Life can get a little messy, and that’s all right. You can avoid a lot of PFAS exposure by getting rid of products that contain them. That might mean scrubbing your pans a little harder and washing your hiking gear a bit more often, but you’ll be healthier for it.
Ditch nonstick pans and kitchen appliances. Labels that promote a nonstick product being “PFOA-free” or “PFOS-free” are misleading since those two particular chemicals have already been banned in the U.S. and there are many other PFAS-containing substitutes in widespread use. The safest cookware is made of stainless steel, ceramic, aluminum, cast iron, and carbon steel, which becomes naturally nonstick with use.
Don’t be afraid to get a little wet. Products with water- and stain-repelling properties often contain PFAS, including clothing, furniture, and carpet treated with Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Polartec, or Gore-Tex. Check out PFAS Central by the Green Science Policy Institute, which offers a list of PFAS-free outdoor gear and apparel.
Forgo processed foods. Shiny grease-proof food wrappers are often treated with PFAS. Shop the bulk foods section when possible and avoid single-serving packaging. For instance, pop loose popcorn kernels on the stove or in a popcorn maker instead of buying microwaveable popcorn bags, which are lined with PFAS chemicals.
4. Filter Your Tap Water
The culprits: PFAS use has contaminated our drinking water, and as a result, the people who drink it. Since 1999, the CDC routinely tests the blood serum of a national sample for PFAS chemicals and has found it in nearly all participants. But tap water can contain a bevy of other hormone disruptors, including pharmaceuticals, lead, perchlorate (a byproduct of rocket fuel), and atrazine (a weedkiller widely used on corn crops). Lead can disrupt the hormone signaling that regulates the body’s major stress system. In animal studies, it also lowers sex hormones. Perchlorate competes with iodine, which the thyroid gland needs to make hormones that regulate metabolism in adults. Atrazine has been linked to childhood leukemia and Parkinson’s disease, and was shown to turn male frogs into females that produce viable eggs.
The solution: "You absolutely should filter your water,” says Patisaul. “Consumers should not have this onus put on them, but unfortunately the Clean Water Act doesn’t measure all the harmful chemicals we know are in our water.”
Use an NSF-certified water filter. Many faucet and pitcher filters can reduce lead and some other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. (Check the packaging to see which ones.) For people that have particularly high PFAS levels in their water, a reverse-osmosis system is the only way to go, says Patisaul.
5. Buy Organic
The culprits: According to EWG's 2023 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, nearly 75% of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides, some of which have been linked to certain cancers and reduced semen quality.
The solution: Reduce your exposure by eating organic produce, which isn’t grown with chemical pesticides.
Eat lower on the food chain. Toxins accumulate in the tissues of animals, especially the fat. “Every time you're eating any animal fat, you increase your risk of getting some EDCs,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “If and when you do eat meat, avoid the fatty parts.”
Buy local. Small farms are generally more safe and transparent than commercial farms. Much of the produce supermarkets sell comes from other countries, which might use pesticides that have been banned in the U.S., such as DDT.
Eat pasture-raised animal products. Buy meat, eggs, and dairy from farmers who feed their animals a pesticide- and hormone-free diet. If that’s not possible, look for “American Grassfed” or “Animal Welfare Approved” animal products.
Wash your food. “Scrub your non-organic produce with Dr. Bronner’s castile soap,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. “lt will help remove some toxins that might be present.”
6. Clean Smarter
The culprits: Flame retardant chemicals are used in many common household products even though they’re linked to hormone disruption and cancer. These shed from mattresses, upholstered furniture, electronics, and insulation and collect in your household dust where you can ingest them and absorb them through your skin. While cleaning, many of us also introduce harmful chemicals, including phthalates, into the home via cleaning products.
The solution: If you’re ready to get rid of old furniture, make sure you replace it with something that doesn’t have flame retardants. Until then, clean your home to remove accumulating toxins without introducing other toxins from cleaning supplies.
Dust and vacuum often. Clean the house by dusting with a damp cloth and using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which traps small particles of dust instead of blowing them around the house. If you’ve got young children in the house, Dr. Hartzfeld recommends doing this at least once every two weeks.
Buy safer cleaning products. “Sometimes it’s as simple as whipping out the vinegar and baking soda,” says Dr. Hartzfeld. If you can’t stand the smell of vinegar, look for the EPA’s Safer Choice label on cleaning products, which contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment. And remember, avoid cleaners with added fragrance.
Find a greener dry cleaner. Some cleaners use a gentler process than the toxic chemicals of yore. Find one near you and ask them not to wrap your stuff in plastic. Patisaul’s dry cleaner even gives their customers a reusable cloth bag.
Looking for more healthy swaps and lifestyle support? A Lifeforce Membership gives you access to biomarker testing (including a full hormone panel) every three months, plus ongoing personalized advice from a Lifeforce clinician and health coach. Learn more here.
The article was medically reviewed by:
Kimberly Hartzfeld, DO, ABOG American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, IFMCP Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner
Vinita Tandon, MD, ABIM Board Certified in Endocrinology and Metabolism