Cosmetics may contain chemicals that raise risk of obesity and diabetes

Researchers have linked a chemical used in make-up and self-tanning lotions to weight gain.

Scientists found that those who were exposed to phthalates, colourless man-made substances included in a variety of common consumer products, were more prone to weight gain. And subjects with even 'modest' levels of the substance in their bloodstream were twice as likely to develop diabetes.

One billion tons of phthalates are produced worldwide each year and they have been widely used as gelling agents in cosmetics, cleaning products and to make plastic bottles for more than half a century. Now evidence shows the negative health impact of these chemicals which finds that these chemicals could be prompting the body to store more belly fat and become resistant to insulin as they disrupt the hormone balance.

Lead researcher Monica Lind, associate professor of environmental medicine at Uppsala University in Sweden, said, “Those pollutants containing phthalates are making people obese and now we find they could get diabetes. These products need to be tested. Many are used in body products, like face creams, fake tan, make up and perfumes. Not only does the packaging contain them, but they are absorbed into the body and bloodstream through the skin. In perfume, we inhale the phthalates that are used to delay the scent and increase the lifetime of the perfume.”

For the study the team looked at data from 1,000 people aged over 70 and in total 119 had diabetes while 88 of them had a history of the condition. After taking into account factors that are known to cause type 2 diabetes, including obesity, smoking and high cholesterol, they found people with higher levels of phthalates in their blood were more likely to develop insulin resistance.

In addition they found that in men phthalates have an anti-testosterone capacity linked to weigh gain, while in women they disrupt the hormone balance similar to those that might occur during the menopause or at puberty.

A spokesperson from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said, “Phthalates are found in about 70 per cent of fragrance containing personal care products (that's everything from perfume and cologne to fragrance-containing shampoos and deodorants). They are not listed on labels because fragrance is considered a trade secret so companies don't have to disclose what's in it.”

In 2003 the European Union passed legislation banning some phthalates in cosmetics and has kept three phthalates out of toys since 1999. Following the publication of the findings in the journal Diabetes Care, Prof Lind added, “Although our results need to be confirmed in more studies, they do support the hypothesis that certain environmental chemicals can contribute to the development of diabetes. Consumers should ask for labeling. As it is now it’s impossible know which products contain the chemical. We should also ask for better regulation. There's lots of also lots of other health problems (asthma, allergy, obesity, reproduction problem etc) which has been shown to be linked to the phthalates. We now know enough to regulate these chemicals. In general all chemicals should be tested for safety before they go on the market not afterwards.”

Johanna Congleton, a senior scientist  from the Environmental Working Group, a U.S. environmental organisation, said the study gives further reason for the cosmetics industry to ban the use of phthalates completely. She said, “The implications of this study enforce the notion that environmental chemicals can act as 'obesogens' and alter biological functions involved in fat metabolism, which can influence body weight. Avoiding exposure is a good precautionary measure, and consumer product manufacturers should phase out the use of these compounds.”

However Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK raised concerns over the recent study and the sample selected. He said, “This paper attempts to link the presence of phthalates in the bloodstream and the presence of Type 2 diabetes in an elderly population. It is a difficult area to research and this study was based on a relatively small number of white adults over 70 years old. It shows an association between some metabolites, which are breakdown products, and the presence of Type 2 diabetes, but does not show that their presence causes Type 2 diabetes.” He added, “We would be concerned if the reporting of this study diluted the very simple and evidence-based message that limiting the amount of calories in your diet and being regularly physically active is the best way of maintaining a healthy weight and so reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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