Can a little vanity lead to diabetes?

A recent study led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) researchers has revealed a correlation between increased concentrations of phthalates in the body and an increased risk of diabetes in women. But why would you worry about phthalates, and how would you get them into your body?

Phthalates are actually quite common in our everyday life. These chemicals are found in many personal care products, such as moisturizers, nail polishes, cosmetics, and perfumes. They’re also used in adhesives, electronics, toys, soft plastic wraps, and a variety of other products. Phthalates are thought to disrupt the normal functioning of hormones such as insulin, and, thus, exposure to these chemicals could present a risk for diabetes.

In addition to diabetes, other studies have drawn a connection between phthalate exposure and increased health risks, including poor reproductive outcomes, endometriosis, obesity, and adverse mental, motor, and behavioral development. Responding to such research, consumer products company Johnson & Johnson has committed to removing phthalates and several other potentially harmful chemicals from all their personal care products by 2015.

The study, led by Tamarra James-Todd, PhD, a researcher in the Division of Women’s Health at BWH, analyzed urinary concentrations of phthalates in 2,350 women who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.  Dr. James-Todd’s team found that women with higher levels of phthalates in their urine were much more likely to have diabetes. For instance, women who had the highest levels of two types of phthalates – mono-benzyl phthalate and mono-isobutyl phthalate – were twice as likely to have diabetes as women with the lowest levels of those particular chemicals.

Dr. James-Todd is careful to note that her research is not based on a longitudinal study (observations over a long period of time), and, therefore, doesn’t reveal whether increased phthalate exposure leads to diabetes. Since phthalates are prevalent in medical tube packs, IV bags, and other medications used by diabetic patients, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the high phthalate concentrations in the study’s patients with diabetes developed after they were diagnosed with diabetes.

“This is an important first step in exploring the connection between phthalates and diabetes,” said Dr. James-Todd. “We know that in addition to being present in personal care products, phthalates also exist in certain types of medical devices and medication that is used to treat diabetes, and this could also explain the higher level of phthalates in diabetic women. So, overall, more research is needed.”

Are you concerned about chemicals in your personal care products? Please share your thoughts in our comments section.

– Chris P

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