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What is estrogen doing in my face cream? Well, not estrogen exactly, but ingredients that have estrogen-mimicking compounds. They could be a good thing since loss of estrogen due to menopause can result in aging skin. But could they also be a bad thing, especially for those at risk of estrogen-related cancer? I have to admit that this question has bugged me for a few years and the answer has usually evaded me. This being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I decided it was time to try to get some answers.
What are endocrine disruptors?
These are compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. The endocrine system has a delicate equilibrium and hormonal imbalances have wide-ranging health effects, including cancers of the prostrate, breast and ovaries.
You won’t see estrogen, or specifically the three types of human estrogen — estroidiol, estriol and estrone — listed on your beauty product’s ingredient list (although they can appear in some vaginal lubrication gels). In topical skin care, there are mixed reports as to whether they work.
What about phytoestrogens?
In cosmetics, you are more likely to see ingredients that contain compounds said to have estrogen-mimicking actions. They tend to appear in anti-aging creams and serums as plant derivatives, such as black cohosh or isoflavonoids derived from soy. Here again, there are mixed messages. Some scientists argue that black cohosh may not even be a phytoestrogen.
Soy isoflavones, on the other hand, are a class of estrogen-like compounds, specifically genistein and daidzein. There are a few studies that suggest soy is promising. In 2004, European researchers found that soy extract resulted in increased collagen and HA synthesis and it “appears to rejuvenate the structure of mature skin.”
The roots of wild yam (dioscorea villosa) and claims for its medicinal prowess date back to the 1960s. Wild yam contains something called diosgenin and it was discovered that this is the precursor for the semisynthesis of progesterone. By converting diosgenin in the lab to progesterone, scientists produced the first combined oral contraceptive pills. Despite the debate, there does seem to be credible research showing that wild yam is beneficial for postmenopausal women.
Red clover has also been found to contain high levels of isoflavones. I found a study on rats that were induced to have menopausal effects, then given red clover extract with 11 percent isoflavones. The epidermis of these rats remained normal with uniform thickness while collagen actually increased.
One of red clover’s isoflavones is now called biochanin A, which is classified as a phytoestrogen. One thing that biochanin A is good at is inhibiting 5-alpha-reductase. Hence, it is deemed helpful for preventing hair loss and — in the interest of full disclosure — it should be noted that it is in my hair growth serum Truth Vitality Advanced Complex ($59-$79 in the shop).
Should we be concerned about phytoestrogens?
The short answer is that there isn’t any conclusive research to justify concern. In fact, in the case of yam, researchers speculated that these effects might actually reduce the risk of breast cancer. When a member of the Truth In Aging community and breast cancer survivor asked if she could test the Truth Vitality Advanced Complex, I pointed out the presence of red clover and asked her to seek advice from her doctor first. Her oncologist said there was no research to suggest that she should avoid phytoestrogen in a hair care product.
As far as soy is concerned, the Breast Cancer Fund points out that the research (there is a ton from China where a lot of soy is consumed) is contradictory. Also, it is all on dietary soy, not on the effects of topical application. Overall, the BCF concludes that it seems to be beneficial and preventative, at least if consumed by adolescents. In a 2012 paper, it was concluded that soy consumption was beneficial
My take is that phytoestrogens applied topically are unlikely to increase the risk of breast cancer.
What should we be concerned about?
The Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research at Cornell University lists the following cosmetic ingredients as possible sources of estrogen: parabens, placental extracts and benzophenones.
The problem, as I have written in the past, is that this conclusion, while appearing to be clear, is also considered controversial. Take parabens for example: BreastCancer.org says that parabens have been found in breast tissue, but it doesn’t mean much as they are found in all parts of the body. Having said that, new research has linked parabens to birth defects.
Finally, some sunscreens, including oxybenzone, octinoxate and homosalate, have been studied and shown to be hormone disrupters. They should probably be avoided.