Endocrine disruptors are linked with a growing number of health issues. They’re said to be found in everything from food and drink to beauty products. They imitate the effects of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone and disrupt the body’s natural balance. Unsurprisingly, endocrine disruptors are linked with a host of hormone-related health issues. Androgenetic alopecia, also known as pattern hair loss, is a hormone-related condition. So is there a link? Do endocrine disruptors cause hair loss?
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the body’s endocrine (hormone) system.
They’ve gained a great deal of attention in recent years as more and more everyday products are found to exhibit these hormone-mimicking properties. Some of the most infamous endocrine disruptors include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Antidepressants (SSRI)
Every year, it seems like this list gets longer. As does the list of health issues associated with them.
But it’s not just hysteria.
BPA, for example, has been shown in numerous studies to behave like the female hormone estrogen. It’s found in a load of products we eat and drink. It’s used to make plastic bottles, food packaging, and to line the insides of tinned food and soda cans. It’s been shown to have negative effects on male and female fertility and is linked with the 50% drop in sperm counts seen over the last 40 years.
The range of products made with high fructose corn syrup – another endocrine disruptor – has also grown dramatically during this time. This sweet-tasting ingredient has been shown to rapidly increase blood sugar levels, potentially leading to insulin resistance and diabetes. Interestingly, blood sugar and pattern hair loss seem to be linked, providing another mechanism by which corn syrup might exacerbate pattern hair loss.
Basically, endocrine disruptors are bad news for your health. And they’ve become increasingly common over the last few decades. The incidence of pattern hair loss has increased during this time too – both in men and women. Is this just coincidence?
Hair loss and hormones
It is well established that hormones play a crucial role in pattern hair loss.
But the baldness hormone is not testosterone as is often claimed. Instead it’s dihydrotestosterone (DHT) – a distinct but closely related hormone.
DHT is formed when testosterone interacts with 5-alpha reductase. Drugs, such as finasteride and dutasteride, reduce levels of 5-alpha reductase and therefore DHT. This can be reasonably effective at slowing the progression of hair loss but may cause negative side effects in some men.
Estrogen, the female hormone, is generally considered to be beneficial for hair. After all, baldness is typically something associated with men, not women.
So what’s changed? Why are more and more men and women losing their hair compared to a few decades ago?
Endocrine disruptors and hair loss
The increased prevalence of pattern hair loss corresponds with an increased prevalence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in everyday life.
Since it was first introduced in the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup has found its way into more and more food products. Antidepressant prescriptions have increased significantly in recent years. Over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the US alone each year.
With so many potential endocrine disruptors – many of which might have opposing effects – it’s hard to say for certain whether they have any impact on pattern hair loss.
Some reports linked BPA with androgenetic alopecia after a hair loss clinic in Bangaluru revealed that 92% of patients had BPA in their blood.
This might sound compelling until you consider that 93% of the entire population has BPA in their system too – not just those suffering from hair loss. BPA also mimics estrogen, not testosterone, so it’s hard to see how this might cause an increase in hair loss.
But one endocrine disruptor that might plausibly be to blame for hair loss is tetrabromoethylcyclohexanes (TBECH).
TBECHs are used as a flame retardant stuffing for cushions and furniture as well as household insulation – so exposure to them is highly likely in most individuals. This study examined the effect of TBECHs on androgen receptors (AR) and found that:
“TBECH-γδ (50:50) binds to the AR with 22% of DHT s binding affinity and all diastereomers induced expression of the downstream target prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in vitro.”
Essentially what this means is that TBECHs act like a weak version of DHT. They bind to the same receptors (albeit with a weaker affinity) which should, in theory, cause the same effect: increased hair loss.
But the same study also looked at another famous endocrine disruptor, the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT):
“In addition to AR antagonistic effects of DDT, p,p’-DDE at high concentrations has been shown to function as an inhibitor of 5α-reductase, responsible for converting testosterone to DHT thus it is likely that these compounds interfere with androgen signaling at multiple sites of action.”
So DDT (and DDE) appear to have the reverse effect: they might actually prevent hair loss by reducing DHT levels.
Correlation or causation?
It’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions about endocrine disruptors and hair loss from current data. So far, research has focussed mostly on more serious health issues – not androgenetic alopecia.
For example, there is now a substantial body of evidence that endocrine disruptors increase the risk of prostate cancer1,2,3,4. Interestingly, prostate cancer is itself strongly linked with pattern hair loss. Could it be that endocrine disruptors exacerbate both conditions?
Of course, this could just be coincidence. Without studies that look specifically at endocrine disruptors and hair loss all that’s safe to say is that more research is needed.