A new study has found that vaginal douching by American women of childbearing age may increase their exposure to hormone-disrupting phthalates and contribute to racial and ethnic differences in exposure to the chemicals.
Phthalates are a widely used group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to problems of the reproductive system, including hormonal changes, thyroid irregularities and birth defects in the reproductive systems of baby boys. Used as a plasticizer, they are ubiquitous in household products such as food containers, children’s toys, plastic wrap made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as well as many cosmetics and personal care products. In cosmetics, phthalates are typically used to maintain the scent of fragrances in many colognes, perfumes, hair products, deodorants, lotions, body washes and much more.
Researchers from the George Washington University and the University of California San Francisco used federal data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for 2001-2004 and found that the feminine hygiene practice of vaginal douching was strongly associated with increased levels of a metabolite, or breakdown product, of diethyl phthalate, in women’s urine. The more frequently a woman used a douche, the higher was the concentration of the metabolite. Women who douched more than two times a month had 152 percent higher concentrations of the metabolite than women who didn’t use douches.
The authors, Francesca Branch, Tracey J. Woodruff, Susanna D. Mitro and Ami R. Zota, also found differences among races in both feminine hygiene practices and phthalate concentrations. Black women reported higher rates of vaginal douching, and their metabolite levels were higher than those of other women, putting them at a higher risk of the potentially harmful effects of phthalates.
“Our findings showing that black women may be at higher risk is important,” Dr. Zota, one of the authors, said. “It shows that some subpopulations are disproportionately exposed and that personal care product use may be driving these exposure disparities.”
Dr. Zota noted that the study, published in the journal Environmental Health, is one of the few that has been done on potentially harmful chemicals in feminine care products and said there is a lot of potential for future research on this aspect of women’s health.
Women shopping for feminine care products and cosmetics should check the label to avoid phthalates. Keep in mind that they are not always explicitly identified on the ingredient list, so also be wary of ingredients such as “fragrance,” a vague term that can hide a multitude of ingredients.
You can find phthalate-free cosmetic products using EWG’s Skin Deep Database.