What I’d Like All Women to Know About Toxic Chemicals
Simple steps can help protect you from chemicals in personal care and household products.
As a doctor, I’ve had two “aha” moments when it comes to women’s exposure to toxic substances. The first happened around 2006, when I got a phone call from a California lawmaker asking if women should be worried about lead levels in their lipstick.
I was surprised by the call. Who knew lead could be found in lipstick? I knew I had to learn more to give my patients the guidance they need.
The second moment came when I learned the difference between how medications and chemicals come to market. Before they can be sold, medications must go through years of testing to show they’re safe and effective.
In contrast, there are few studies of new chemicals done before they are used in the products you buy. And once a chemical is on the market, there must be evidence of harm before regulators can remove it.
I want women to be aware of potential toxic chemicals and their risks, but not afraid. There’s a lot you can do to protect yourself when you learn about these substances and how they’re used.
Here’s some key information, advice, and resources to get you started.
Exposure to toxic chemicals can have many harmful effects on health.
These chemicals disrupt the body’s endocrine system, which makes hormones and sends them throughout your body. This means chemicals can affect many parts of your body, including your thyroid gland, brain, reproductive organs, and immune system. Chemicals can disrupt cells and contribute to cancer.
Some exposures during pregnancy may impact the health of the fetus and your child’s future health. In fact, some of these exposures may have lifelong effects. (Learn more about toxic chemicals and pregnancy.)
Since the 1990s, we’ve called substances that have these harmful effects on the body “endocrine disruptors.” But there’s a much longer history of their use. For example, lead was recognized as toxic more than 2,000 years ago.
There are many different kinds of endocrine disruptors, including lead and chemicals called parabens, phthalates, and PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances). PFAS are widely used substances that break down very slowly, so you may hear them called “forever chemicals.” This makes them especially harmful to our health. Lead is a heavy metal that can be detected in blood after exposure, and there is no known safe blood level of lead in children.
These harmful chemicals and substances can be found in the products we buy, and they may also be carried into our homes through dust, soil, water, and air.
Know what’s in your personal care products.
As I learned back in 2006, some cosmetic products may contain small amounts of lead. Beauty and other personal care products can also contain a host of other chemicals of concern, including parabens, phthalates, PFAS, chemicals that make fragrance (scents), and many others.
The best way to protect yourself is to know what’s in the products you buy. Products do not always list every chemical on the label, but these tools can help you find out what’s in your makeup and hair and skin care products:
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database. It offers safety information on more than 9,000 ingredients and 70,000 products.
Breast Cancer Prevention Partners’ Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website. It covers chemicals and products to avoid, as well as tips for reducing toxic exposures.
One easy tip: Choosing soaps and other personal care products marked as “fragrance free” often makes them a safer choice.
Choose safer options for cleaning, cooking, and pest control.
Cleaning supplies are marketed to be very appealing. We all want our houses to smell clean. But cleaning and other household products can contain chemicals that may be harmful to your health.
I suggest cleaning with nontoxic options, such as vinegar and baking soda, for everyday use. You can also search for products that have been certified as safer choices by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And you can learn more with the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
Here are more tips to help you limit toxic exposures at home:
Use a wet cloth or mop to clean floors and surfaces. Toxic chemicals are found in dust, and sweeping and dusting with dry cloths can spread the dust into the air. Wet cloths are a safer way to remove dust.
Be cautious with plastic. Try to choose glass, stainless-steel, or ceramic containers when you can. Plastics can release toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride and phthalates. This happens more easily when they’re heated. Try not to microwave food in plastic or use plastic cups or containers for hot food or drinks.
Consider replacing nonstick cookware with ceramic, cast iron, or stainless steel. The chemicals that give your pans and skillets a slick surface have been linked to health problems.
Use nonchemical options for pest control in your home and garden. Chemical pesticides are often used to kill bugs, rodents, bacteria, weeds, and mold. But they can create serious health risks, especially for children. Learn about safer options from the Natural Resources Defense Council. If you do use pesticides, follow these guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, read more tips for avoiding toxic chemicals.
Stay safer at work.
Some jobs, such as those in agriculture, salons, or dry cleaners, can expose you to many chemicals. Here are some things you can do to reduce your risks:
Ask your employer what chemicals you may be exposed to. Ask for training on protecting yourself from these chemicals, if you have not already received information on how to stay safe.
Follow all the guidelines your employer gives you for handling chemicals. Wear masks, gloves, and hair covers when recommended.
Take off your work shoes before coming into your home after work. Change and wash your work clothes as soon as possible. Wash your work clothes separately from your family’s other clothes.
Learn about chemical safety in the workplace and your workplace rights from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Do what you can and learn all you can.
It may feel daunting to think about all the ways you may be exposed to chemicals. It’s okay if you can’t do everything in this article. Taking any of these steps to protect your health can make a big difference.
The most important thing is to be aware of the risks. The more you learn, the safer you can be. For more advice, browse these tools and resources:
UCSF Toxic Matters: Resources. This list includes top tips and links to dozens of sites with more information.
Environmental Working Group Consumer Guides. These cover food, tap water, and many products.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Learn about the health effects of specific toxic substances.
Toxic Chemicals: Steps to Stay Safer Before and During Pregnancy. These are frequently asked questions answered by ob-gyns like me.
Project TENDR: What You Can Do. Simple advice on protecting yourself and your family, from a group of scientists and health care professionals.
Published: January 2022
Last reviewed: January 2022
Copyright 2023 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. All rights reserved. Read copyright and permissions information.
This information is designed as an educational aid for the public. It offers current information and opinions related to women's health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care. It does not explain all of the proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for the advice of a physician. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.