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A Link Between Chemicals in Personal Care Products, Childhood Obesity and ADHD

Updated on October 12, 2015

Copyright 2011 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

A class of toxic chemicals, phthalates, have recently been linked to obesity in children in a new research study.

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that are typically used as plasticizers in flooring, #3 plastics, paint, pesticides, medical devices, food packaging, and personal care products (e.g, lubricants, lotions, shampoos, soaps, cosmetics).

Most recently, they have also been found in several prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements.

Research studies in the last few years have found significant levels of phthalates in over 90% of the U.S. population. These chemicals are endocrine-disruptors that have the ability to mimic the body's natural hormones.

In 2007, a study done at the University of Rochester Medical Center, found that low-dose exposures to phthalates and similar chemicals may contribute to the reduction of testosterone levels in men. Lower testosterone levels or reduced testosterone activity leads to in increased risk of obesity rates and Type 2 diabetes.

In 2009, a study published in Journal of Psychiatry found a correlation in children between these chemicals and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The higher the concentration of phthalates in the urine of those in the study, the worse the ADHD symptoms. That study suggested that environmental exposure may contribute to behavioral and cognitive problems in kids.


High levels of phthalates found in children

In addition to the 2009 study on ADHD in children, a study in 2008 found that infants recently treated with baby lotions, shampoo, lubricants, and powders were more likely to have higher levels of phthalates in their urine compared to infants that were not treated with such products.

In addition, this class of chemicals have been found to cause subtle changes in the reproductive organs in baby boys and has been attributed to an increase in runny noses, allergies, and eczema in children.

In general, the concentration can be higher in children. Their exposure to these products can be the same as adults, but because they have a smaller body mass, the phthalates become more concentrated.

Children are exposed to these chemicals not only through personal care products, but through toys, "sippy" cups, food packaged in or cooked in plastic, and playing on flooring surfaces made with plasticizers. Phthalates can easily leach out of these products. Children absorb them in through skin contact, sucking or chewing on toys and cups, and by breathing the chemicals that off-gas from products.

Childhood obesity linked to phthalates

This month (January 2012), Mount Sinai researchers report that in a study of 387 black and Hispanic children in New York City, more than 97% of the children had significant levels of phthalates in their system. Furthermore, those with the highest levels had an increased body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference. BMI is often used as a measurement for obesity.

This is the first study of its kind in children so the correlations are preliminary. However, when taken into consideration with previous studies that linked phthalate exposure in men to an increased risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, it's worth taking note of.

In the U.S. over 20% of children between the ages of 6-11 are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity rates have almost tripled in the last 30 years and are predicted to continue rising. A number of variables are attributed to increased childhood obesity rates and phthalate exposure may very well be one of these factors.

Decreasing phthalate exposure in infants and children

Parents who want to decrease their baby's exposure to phthalates should consider the following steps:

  1. Limit the amount of baby "personal" care products used (use lotions and powders only if medically needed).
  2. Heat baby foods in glass rather than plastics.
  3. Use glass baby bottles rather than plastic.
  4. Avoid buying processed baby foods in plastics.
  5. Try to find non-plastic items for teething.

Beyond infancy, parents can still take steps for reducing exposure in their children:

  1. Find safe personal care products that do not contain phthlates. Phthalate-free personal care products are available - see the for guidance.
  2. Store foods in non-plastic containers.
  3. Use stainless steel or glass water bottles.
  4. Avoid cooking and reheating in all plastic containers (this includes "microwave safe" plastic containers).
  5. Avoid using plastic cooking spoons and spatulas.
  6. Avoid keeping foods in plastic bags for long periods of time. Phthalates are often used in food packaging.
  7. When new plastic items, flooring, etc are purchased, try to air out the house frequently.

It's impossible to avoid all phthalates but little changes here and there can go a long way to reducing the overall body burden of these toxic chemicals!

Other chemicals in household and personal care products linked to obesity

Several other chemicals in common household products have been linked to obesity, two examples include:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA) - used in some plastics
  • Tributyltin (which used as a heat stabilizer in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride plastics)

These chemicals have been shown to leach out of plastics over time and enter the body through contact or ingestion (BPA is found in some water bottles and used as lining in many canned foods). Prenatal exposure to these chemicals has been linked to weight gain and obesity after birth.

In addition, it's been found by several non-profit organizations -- including the Breast Cancer Fund and the Environmental Working Group -- that many top-selling fragrance products contain a dozen or more chemicals are not listed on the labels.

Many of these have been found to be hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to cancers and other medical problem including asthma and obesity and most have never been tested for safety on humans.

Sample References:

Miyawaki, J., (2007). Perinatal and postnatal exposure to bisphenol A increases adipose tissue mass and serum cholesterol level in mice. J Atheroscler Thromb. 14:245-52.

Stemp-Morlock, G. (2007). Chemical Exposures: Exploring Developmental Origins of Obesity. Environ Health Perspect. 115: A242

Further reading:

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie


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    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 6 years ago from Thailand

      Voted up, interesting and scary (well, useful as there wasn't a button for that lol). It is surprising what makes it into our food products now. Worrying, especially after years of being encouraged to cook food in plastic containers :-s.

      SOCIALLY SHARED, you have some interesting hubs!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 6 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Very good information here! I have stopped re-heating in plastic some time ago. I don't store anything in plastic either. I need to pay more attention to what else I do with plastics. I am sharing this with all my grown children, they all have small children of their own now. Thank you for SHARING this information. Voted up and useful! Have a great day!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @tammyswallow - I'm glad to hear you are trying to go organic when possible! With sunscreens, one of the big concerns beside the chemicals in "nanoparticles" I wrote a hub on nanoparticles that focused on food but I also touched on suncreens.

      Engineered Nanoparticles in Food - Are They Dangerous?

      I'll be checking into the sunscreens more myself. I have a very light skin tone and need to where suncreens all the time when outdoors (I've had two skin cancers removed). So, I want to be sure that I find something that not only works but is still safe to use!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @phdast7 - thanks for your comments and for sharing!

      @John Sarkis - I agree, some days I wonder how it is we are still around. It's becoming clear, scientifically, that many of these things we are exposed to contribute to the higher incidence of cancer and other diseases.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 6 years ago from North Carolina

      It is scary what we didn't know even 30 years ago. We can't undo the damage to ourselves, but we can help the younger generations. This is so informative. I try to go organic when I can with my baby girl. I am currently looking for information on the dangers of sunscreen and etc. for children. As Kevin Trudeau says, if you can't eat it, don't put it on your skin. Perhaps you can also shed some light on this with your expertise. Thanks so much for your professional look at these things.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Kris,

      What a unique and interesting hub. I must say, the things we find out everyday are shocking. Our world is so modern/nuclear that its so wonder we're still around. The days when people raised chickens in their farms using leftovers from their dinner table are over. It's scary....

      Voted up on your wonderful and interesting hub


    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Informative Hub on an important topic. I was completely unaware of this new chemical that is apparently especially injurious to our children and grandchildren. Thank you for the warning and the suggestion for reducing exposure to the chemicals. I will be sharing this with others.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Vinaya - thanks for taking the time to stop by. I hope you found the article useful - this whole area research is really starting to turn up some eye opening results.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 6 years ago from Nepal

      Is it so? It did not know about this. You have an eye for observation. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Julie-Ann - thanks for stopping by. I hope with time that more people will learn about these chemicals and perhaps make some wise choices not only for themselves but for their children.

    • Julie-Ann Amos profile image

      Julie-Ann Amos 6 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

      Great information thanks - not enough people realize the hazards!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @cherylone - I'm glad to hear you will be sharing this with you daughter. The ADHD research is still fairly new but from what I've seen so far, the more exposure to the this class of chemicals the more severe the ADHD. What they have not tested yet is to take those with severe ADHD and carefully monitor and reduce exposure to see if, over time, the severity declines a bit. I'm sure that research is in the works though!

    • cherylone profile image

      Cheryl Simonds 6 years ago from Connecticut

      Thank you so much for this information. I had not heard of this before and will discussing it with my daughter because my granddaughter has ADHD pretty severe. thanks again :)

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 6 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Thanks for the very useful and important info. Passing it on.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @baygirl33 - thanks for leaving a note. I'll have to see if I can catch part of that program online. I wonder if they will re-air it. The research JUST came out this month so I'm not surprised to hear the media jumping on it:)

    • baygirl33 profile image

      victoria 6 years ago from Hamilton On.

      Hi Kriss! Thought I wrote you already but lost it.So I'm thanking you again for sharing.Funny thing is I was watching a program about that very thing tonight on CBC.

      I think it was The Passionette Eye.

      Great hub!voted you useful.