How Hormones Pass from the Environment to Our Bodies

How Hormones Pass from the Environment to Our Bodies

Bethany Burgoyne Bethany Burgoyne

Over the past 50 years, monumental shifts in food and pharmaceutical industries have transformed the world we live in. Supermarkets are able to offer an abundance of choice all year round. Cosmetic companies cater to the diversity of skin tones and hair textures. And, the ability to source products from other countries was made possible by the development of global transportation. However, these privileges come with a worrying amount of consequences directly impacting the health and fertility of women (and men) worldwide (1). Understanding how hormones and hormone disruptors work their way into our bodies is a crucial step in helping women make informed decisions relating to their menstrual health.

In recent years, efforts have been made to regulate the use of growth hormones and chemicals in dairy, meat and agricultural farming (2). Despite these changes, there is still growing concern for the levels of growth hormones, micropollutants and synthetic oestrogen filtering into the environment and our food chain. Pair this with toxic products we innocently apply to our skin and ever present pollution levels in the atmosphere, and the outlook appears a little grim. However, by living with an awareness of what products and places could cause harm to our health, women are able to have more autonomy over the wellbeing of their bodies. Alongside diet choices and lifestyle habits, we encourage you to track your cycle using tools such as the inne App and observe any patterns or changes to your menstrual health.

How Micropollutants Affect Hormone Health

Micropollutants are toxic substances detected at a very low level, commonly found in a wide  range of natural and synthetic chemical compounds. These are found in pesticides, hormonal contraceptives, and cosmetics such as shampoo and makeup. Micropollutants include a group of compounds known as endocrine disruptors which destabilise the endocrine system. This system is a network of glands that release and regulate hormones responsible for a range of bodily functions including reproduction and sexual development (3). Endocrine disruptors can interfere with the functioning of these hormones due to chemicals binding to receptors which react to hormone production and activity. This can affect the metabolism of hormones, making them active for a longer amount of time, and can increase a risk to reproductive health - and diseases can develop (4). One of the most concerning sources of endocrine disruptors are from the synthetic chemicals found in plastic, called bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is widely studied for its oestrogen-like action, with results showing it plays a lead role in several genital and reproductive disorders. This includes precocious puberty (early onset) in girls, PCOS, and infertility (5).

Studies over the past decade have shown that micropollutants from the prevalent use of hormonal contraception are dangerously impacting the levels of oestrogen found in soil and water (6). With more than 100 million women using the combined oral contraceptive pill worldwide (7), synthetic oestrogen is being excreted into wastewater systems and filtered through into the environment. Despite the water being treated to remove toxic oestrogen compounds, such as EE2 and MeEE2, there has been a notable rise in the hormonal toxicity of water systems universally (8). Though studies note how oestrogen passed from humans to the environment is relatively small, it's necessary to observe how a little really does add up. Research has shown fish becoming intersex due to the presense of EE2 in European lakes and rivers as well as in Central and South America (1,9). This has led scientists to demand oestrogen be listed as a toxic organic pollutant, affecting water, soil and the way plants absorb and metabolise oestrogen, which in turn impacts human health (6).

Foods and Our Hormones

The conversation surrounding growth hormones and the use of antibiotics in farming has been closely linked to the regulation of oestrogen and insulin-stimulating hormones used in dairy and meat farming (10). For the past 20 years the EU has banned the use of growth hormones in beef, dairy, egg, and poultry farming, however countries such as Australia and the US are yet to abide by the same standards (11). Recognising how oestrogen is an unavoidable, naturally produced hormone in non-vegan diets, with 60-80% coming from milk and dairy products, high levels of consumption can promote cancer growth in hormone dependant tumours (such as breast and endometrial tumors) (8, 12, 13).

Such concerns also bring to light the prevalent use of pesticides, another micropollutant, in agricultural farming. Studies show how exposure to organophosphate (OP) pesticides through ingestion of food and water, inhalation of air and skin absorption can impact the fertility of women and cause problems in children's motor and neurological development (14, 15). Sadly, pesticides are still widely used in organic farming, making it difficult for consumers to control just what micropollutants they may be digesting (12). Eating local and home grown produce is one way to monitor the quality of your produce.

Environmental Oestrogens in Cosmetics

In recent years there has been a curtain lifted on the types of toxic ingredients used in make-up and personal care products. Meaning it’s not only what we ingest, but what we put on our skin that can have a negative effect on our bodies. Parabens are commonly used as a preservative in both cosmetics (as well as processed food), UV filters are found in sunscreen, insect repellant and make up, and steroidal and non-steroidal oestrogens can be found in moisturisers and conditioners. These are all ingredients that can imitate the role oestrogen plays in our body having adverse effects on the endocrine system and damaging reproductive health and sexual development (16).  Despite certain chemicals, such as dioxins and BPAs being banned within the beauty industry, there are still many companies using toxic ingredients which we innocently use in our day-to-day lives.

In 2014, a study in America showed that products ranging from cocoa butter skin cream to oil-hair lotion contain chemicals that affect hormones in ways that could negatively impact sexual development and health (16). With the rise in youngsters using cosmetics from an earlier age, there is a concern for what harm may be caused pre-puberty. By challenging the beauty standards glorified within society to look younger and have flawless skin, one can hope that women will feel less pressure to invest in cosmetics to change their appearance, thereby protecting themselves from unnecessary harm. Whatever your view on this, if a product makes your skin react or eyes sting it’s likely your body is rejecting it for a reason. This could be due to pre existing allergies or a response to whatever is in the product. Therefore, try to stay aware by looking at the ingredients in cosmetics, being weary of labels that list “fragrance”, and try to buy botanical, natural products and mineral make-up. Read on to learn about which apps can help you with this.

Pollution and Female Health Concerns

The knowledge that pollution rates are continuing to rise around the world- in particular, in industry towns and high populated cities, comes with a list of devastating side effects. In the last few years, there have been correlations made between air pollution, adverse birth outcomes and the irregularity of teenage girls' menstrual cycles. In 2018, a study in American found that girls exposed to air pollution showed a longer time to achieve regularity in their teen years (16).  For women exposed to high levels of air pollutants, in particular, particles from diesel exhausts, they can experience inflammation, and direct toxic effects on the placenta and fetus (18). Though we may not be able to control our habitual environments directly, small steps can make a big difference. Lowering your own carbon footprint is a step in the right direction to helping reduce air pollution, while limiting your time spent in high pollution spaces can be a way to look after your own health. For a long time, it has also been known that smoking affects fertility and pregnancy outcomes as well as fetal and child development. Despite the percentage of women smoking lowering, it's important to note that nicotine is one of the most toxic substances to affect reproductive health (19). So if you’re trying to give up the habit, maybe now is the right time.

Conscious Hormonal Living

Although the ability to live free of micropollutants and toxins can seem pretty slim, there are many tools available to help you live a more conscientious lifestyle. Making small adjustments to your daily routine such as exercising in less polluted areas and staying away from toxic skin products can be a great place to start. There are also apps available, such as Think Dirty, and EWG’s Healthy Living that allow you to scan the barcode of cosmetic, personal care products and food to see details of what's inside giving you a safety ranking based on toxic ingredients. EWG (Environmental Working Group) also provides online resources to help with conscious consumerism.

Additionally, observing how diet and lifestyle affects your menstrual health can help you take control over your own life. By tracking your mood, skin, and length of cycle alongside your nutritional intake, you can tune into your body's hormonal patterns and any issues that may appear. We’ve been enjoying seeing the work of female health expert Maisie Hill and hormonal nutritionists Melissa Groves Azzaro and Krista King who are providing women with resources for conscious living. Their understanding and advocacy for eating and living in sync with the ever fluctuating hormones of our reproductive lifespan provides a bright light for the future of understanding women's menstrual health.

Melissa Groves Azzaro - The Hormone Dietician
Maisie Hill - Period Power
Krista King - Holistic Hormone Nutrition


  1. Danieli Lima da Cunha 1,2 Samuel Muylaert Camargo da Silva 2 Daniele Maia Bila 3 Jaime Lopes da Mota Oliveira 1 Paula de Novaes Sarcinelli 1 Ariane Leites Larentis 1, Regulation of the synthetic estrogen 17α-ethinylestradiol in water bodies in Europe, the United States, and Brazil, Cad. Saúde Pública, Rio de Janeiro, 32(3):e00056715, mar, 2016

  2. Belachew B. Hirpessa, Beyza H. Ulusoy, Canan Hecer, "Hormones and Hormonal Anabolics: Residues in Animal Source Food, Potential Public Health Impacts, and Methods of Analysis", Journal of Food Quality, vol. 2020, Article ID 5065386, 12 pages, 2020.

  3. Hiller-Sturmhöfel S, Bartke A. The endocrine system: an overview. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(3):153-164.

  4. Diamanti-Kandarakis E, Bourguignon JP, Giudice LC, et al. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: an Endocrine Society scientific statement. Endocr Rev. 2009;30(4):293-342. doi:10.1210/er.2009-0002

  5. Leonardi A, Cofini M, Rigante D, et al. The Effect of Bisphenol A on Puberty: A Critical Review of the Medical Literature. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(9):1044. Published 2017 Sep 10. doi:10.3390/ijerph14091044

  6. Muhammad Adeel, Xiaoming Song, Yuanyuan Wang, Dennis Francis, Yuesuo Yang,Environmental impact of estrogens on human, animal and plant life: A critical review, Environment International, Volume 99, 2017, Pages 107-119, ISSN 0160-4120

  7. Mosher WD, Martinez GM, Chandra A, Abma JC, Willson SJ (December 2004). "Use of contraception and use of family planning services in the United States: 1982-2002" (PDF). Advance Data (350): 1–36. PMID 15633582.all US women aged 15–44

  8. Malekinejad H, Rezabakhsh A. Hormones in Dairy Foods and Their Impact on Public Health - A Narrative Review Article. Iran J Public Health. 2015;44(6):742-758.

  9. Harris CA, Hamilton PB, Runnalls TJ, et al. The consequences of feminization in breeding groups of wild fish. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(3):306-311. doi:10.1289/ehp.1002555

  10. Jeong SH, Kang D, Lim MW, Kang CS, Sung HJ. Risk assessment of growth hormones and antimicrobial residues in meat. Toxicol Res. 2010;26(4):301-313. doi:10.5487/TR.2010.26.4.301

  11. How do UK food standards differ from the rest of the world? Carina Perkins,, article referred to on 19/02/21

  12. Welsh JA, Braun H, Brown N, et al. Production-related contaminants (pesticides, antibiotics and hormones) in organic and conventionally produced milk samples sold in the USA. Public Health Nutr. 2019;22(16):2972-2980. doi:10.1017/S136898001900106X

  13. Jeong SH, Kang D, Lim MW, Kang CS, Sung HJ. Risk assessment of growth hormones and antimicrobial residues in meat. Toxicol Res. 2010;26(4):301-313. doi:10.5487/TR.2010.26.4.301

  14. Venkidasamy B,Subramanian U, Samynathan R, Rajakumar G, Shariati MA,Chung I,Thiruvengadam M, 2021/02/01,1,13, Organopesticides and fertility: where does the link lead to?, 28,10.1007/s11356-020-12155-3, Environmental Science and Pollution Research

  15. Eskenazi, B*; Marks, A R.*; Harley, K*; Bradman, A*; Johnson, C*; Barr, D B.†; Morga, N‡; Jewell, N P.* Organophosphate Pesticides and Neurodevelopment in Young Mexican-American Children, Epidemiology: November 2006 - Volume 17 - Issue 6 - p S102-S103

  16. Myers SL, Yang CZ, Bittner GD, Witt KL, Tice RR, Baird DD. Estrogenic and anti-estrogenic activity of off-the-shelf hair and skin care products. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2015 May;25(3):271-7. doi: 10.1038/jes.2014.32. Epub 2014 May 21. PMID: 24849798; PMCID: PMC4318791.

  17. Mahalingaiah S, Missmer SE, Cheng JJ, Chavarro J, Laden F, Hart JE. Perimenarchal air pollution exposure and menstrual disorders. Hum Reprod. 2018 Mar 1;33(3):512-519.

  18. Carré, J., Gatimel, N., Moreau, J. et al. Does air pollution play a role in infertility?: a systematic review. Environ Health 16, 82 (2017).

  19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (US); Office on Smoking and Health (US). How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); 2010. 8, Reproductive and Developmental

Related Stories