Most men know the risks of shaving — namely, you might nick yourself with the razor and have to leave the house with a band-aid or a spot of toilet paper stuck to your face. But new research suggests that for men using certain products, shaving could carry a distressing unseen risk: a lowered sperm count.
A study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that phthalates, a type of chemical compound commonly found in shaving cream and other personal hygiene and household products, could have detrimental effects on a man’s ability to reproduce.
The team of researchers studied 48 couples they recruited at a local IVF clinic. They collected a single urine sample from the men the same day they donated sperm and analyzed the phthalate levels.
What researchers found is that phthalates can alter the DNA in sperm by attaching chemical modifiers to the proteins that make up genetic material. This can have adverse effects on sperm and, as a result, whatever progeny that sperm ends up creating.
The danger, says Richard Pilsner, the health scientist who led the study, comes during a period when sperm are being produced and maturing in the testicles. If a man has high phthalate levels during that time, there’s more of a chance that their sperm will be affected, and that means a possible reduction in sperm count.
“There has always been this heavy concern in the past with expectant moms not smoking and not drinking, for example, to protect the fetus,” Pilsner said in a UMass statement announcing the study. In the 72 days it takes sperm to mature, however, we now know that men are also vulnerable to environmental exposures like phthalates. “So in the same way mom needs to be careful, dad also needs to,” he said.
Pilsner noted, however, that his team still isn’t completely sure what the phthalates actually do to sperm DNA. They identified 131 different genetic regions where the phthalates had an effect, many of which were related to genes that governed growth, development, and cellular function or maintenance, but the team needs more research to connect the final dots.
If Pilsner’s research is well founded, it might be best for prospective fathers to refrain from phthalate-heavy products for three months or so before seriously attempting to conceive a child. You don’t necessarily need to chuck every $18 bottle of luxury shaving cream you own in the trash, but this research could force a change in how some household products are made.
Look on the bright side, though: Now you have the perfect excuse to grow a beard.
By Jack Crosbie