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'The Ugly Truth'

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For the record

Can perfume make your unborn baby infertile?

On the 1st September, following a Scotland on Sunday article entitled ‘Women warned not to wear perfume during pregnancy’, the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and newswires ran stories about the need for pregnant women to avoid cosmetics, perfumes and scented body creams as they may increase the risk of unborn boys developing infertility in later life. You can read the Scotland on Sunday article here and the Daily Mail here.

These stories were based on a conference paper that Professor Richard Sharpe, who is based at the MRC’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit, is presenting at the Simpson symposium in Edinburgh. Professor Sharpe’s work is looking at male fertility problems and investigating how these may be caused. His work does not look specifically at the effects of wearing cosmetics, perfumes or scented body creams and he has not issued a warning for pregnant women to avoid these products.

Professor Sharpe here explains his research and clarifies his position:

“Our research, which is published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and which is being presented at the Simpson symposium in Edinburgh on Tuesday (Sept 2nd 2008 ) provides new insights into how common disorders of the reproductive system that affect newborn boys (incomplete testis descent; hypospadias - a disorder in which the opening of the urinary tract on the penis is misplaced) or young adult men (low sperm counts, infertility) may all have their origins during fetal development. This is probably at around 8-12 weeks of pregnancy i.e. very early. Our research, which is in laboratory animals, highlights that each of these disorders may result from lack of hormones called androgens, which are the hormones that cause masculinsation of the fetus (i.e. which literally ‘make a man’ ). Our research also provides a simple new way which may predict at birth whether a boy may be at later risk of a low sperm count when he is an adult.

Common environmental chemicals can affect the processes described above in experimental studies in laboratory animals, which raises concerns as to whether they might also cause, or contribute to, these disorders in humans. At present we do not know whether or not this is true and obtaining conclusive evidence one way or another is an extremely difficult task which will take several years.

This ‘uncertainty’ is the present reality but often begs the question, especially from pregnant mums, “but what can I do to avoid these chemicals, just in case they might do harm?” My answer is that for much of our general environmental exposure (e.g. via air, food, fabrics of our house etc) there is not a lot that one can do, but if you are very concerned, you could alleviate your anxiety by avoiding personal care products like cosmetics for the first 3 months of pregnancy. This is not because we have conclusive evidence that these chemicals will harm the baby in any way, but because feeling anxious about chemicals will not do pregnant women or the babies any good. However, by far and away the most important thing that a woman planning a pregnancy can do for her baby is to not smoke, not drink alcohol and to eat a sensible well balanced diet. We know without doubt that if you smoke and drink it is not good for the baby, so avoiding these is one of the best possible investments that a mum can make for the lifelong health of her baby.

I would like to distance myself from ‘scare story’ journalism such as that triggered by the headline in the article in Scotland on Sunday which led to a succession of similar headlines in other newspapers. It does not accurately reflect the science on which it is based (which, as always, has uncertainties). It insults the commonsense of the public and does them a disservice because it desensitizes them to these stories so that, if and when we have a health recommendation to make that is based on strong scientific evidence, it may mean that the public do not take it seriously when they actually need to.”

For further information about perfumes and cosmetics you may want to visit the following pages from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association website: here and here.

Author: Sense About Science

Document type: For The Record

Published: 4 September 2008

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