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Do personal care products affect the health of women working in the industry: Quebec study

A researcher in Quebec is interested at looking at the effects of cosmetic products on those who work in the personal care industry. (Manu Fernandez, The Associated Press) A researcher in Quebec is interested at looking at the effects of cosmetic products on those who work in the personal care industry. (Manu Fernandez, The Associated Press)
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Women working in the personal care industry are exposed to a wide range of chemicals throughout their careers, but little is known at present about the potential combined effect of these products on their health and even that of their offspring.

To remedy this shortcoming, a toxicology specialist at Quebec's Institut national de recherche scientifique (INRS) Centre Armand-Frappier Santé Biotechnologie Research Centre, Professor Isabelle Plante, recently launched a major study for which she is currently recruiting participants from all over the province.

"The premise of this project is to determine whether working with, or being continually exposed to, a variety of molecules present in the products we use every day can have an effect on our health," said Plante.

Products such as shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, varnishes and make-up contain synthetic molecules that can interfere with the functioning of hormones, known as "endocrine disruptors."

This can lead to a range of health problems, including problems with development, fertility and pregnancy, as well as increasing the risk of breast cancer.

The quantity of hair and beauty products that hairdressers, make-up artists, beauticians and others handle on a daily basis increases their exposure to these substances.

What's more, these women are exposed to a wide range of products containing multiple disruptive molecules. When combined, it cannot be ruled out that these different molecules may interact with each other and cause other undesirable effects.

This potential "synergistic effect," about which little is known at the moment, is of particular concern to Plante.

"We have regulations that say, for example, that you can't be exposed to more than so many milligrams of triclosan a day," she said. "But these regulations apply to each product individually. So yes, there's a limit for product A, a limit for product B and a limit for product C. However, these three products can be combined. These three products can be present at the same time in the women who use them, and we don't really know the effect of this mixture on their health."

It is possible that the action of products A, B and C add up, she added, and that "one plus one plus one no longer makes three, but suddenly makes five or six, because there is an amplification effect in the end."

The first stage of the project consists of assessing the participants' overall health with a questionnaire that looks specifically at their reproductive health, their menstrual cycle, the difficulties they have encountered (or not) in getting pregnant, and so on.

Women who wish to get more involved will then be asked to provide urine samples, which will be analysed in a laboratory to determine which substances they are exposed to.

The study will go even further by looking at the health of offspring since the harmful effects of exposure to endocrine disruptors are transmitted from one generation to the next. The study could, therefore, help to better protect the health of these women's children and grandchildren.

"For example, estrogen and progesterone are very important hormones in women," said Plante. "So the fact that we are exposed to several of these endocrine disruptors every day can have quite significant effects on our reproductive health."

The scientific literature already shows that women who work in the beauty industry have greater fertility problems and that these women are major users of products containing endocrine disruptors.

"What is less understood," said Plante, "is whether one is the cause of the other, or what correlation there is between the two."

The scientific data are ambiguous at the moment.

"Some studies find effects, others less so," said the researcher. "But we think that the problem is that they (the studies) are going to look at one molecule as such and not at all the molecules, so the synergistic effect that all these products can have. So that's what's new for us."

Women interested in taking part in this study are invited to contact the researchers, who wish to recruit both women who work in personal care and a control group of women from other sectors.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on April 20, 2024.

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