A Hopkins Health Watch Q&A
Q: Thanks for all you do to keep us informed about hormones—I love your newsletter! My question is about an article I read about men taking testosterone gel and it getting onto their wives, children and pets and having bad effects. This got me thinking about also getting estrogen and progesterone cream on our pets and families, and I wonder what advice you would have.
A: Great question! Transferring hormone creams onto our loved ones, including pets, is a real concern. Even small amounts of testosterone and estrogen can have profound effects on children and pets, and even on spouses. Progesterone can also be transferred, but its effects aren’t as potentially serious. Any type of hormone cream applied anywhere on the body, including over-the-counter cortisol cream, has the potential to be transferred to others. Hormones are lipohilic, or fat-loving, and are quickly and efficiently transported through the skin and into the bloodstream. Hormone creams and gels can be transferred from skin, towels, clothing and bedding.
Although transfer of hormone creams to partners, children and pets can have serious consequences, in a pregnant woman, exposure to estrogen or testosterone products could potentially cause reproductive abnormalities in the fetus. The safest approach when pregnant is to simply not have any type of estrogen or testosterone creams or gels in the house. Period.
Estrogen Cream Transfer Effects
A few months back I received an email from a reader whose husband was inexplicably gaining weight and growing breasts. She ordered a blood spot hormone test for him, and his results showed low testosterone and high estradiol (estrogen), which certainly explained his symptoms. After a bit of digging, we figured out that she was using a vaginal estradiol cream within a few hours of when she and her husband had intercourse. In fact, she considered it a vaginal lubricant. I suggested she switch to a low dose estrogen patch, and recently heard from her that within a matter of weeks her husband had started losing the weight, and after a couple of months his breasts were back to normal and by the way, so was his sex drive. Curious, I looked up the drug information sheet for Estrace vaginal cream and nowhere in the many pages of information is there a warning about transfer of estrogen to men during intercourse.
The last thing that a middle-aged man needs is a regular dose of estrogen, even a small one. His testosterone levels are declining with age, and he’s already exposed daily to the effects of the feminine hormone through cosmetics and fragrances (his shampoo, shaving cream, aftershave, cologne, fabric softeners, scented laundry detergents). Then there are the estrogens in meat, pesticides, plastics and municipal water supplies. If he’s gained weight in the belly, the fat cells there are busy converting his testosterone to estrogen. With all of these factors working against his maleness, he’s gaining weight, growing breasts, losing muscle and sex drive, feeling moody, and spending more time on the couch.
Transferring estrogen to children can have serious consequences. For boys, who again are already over-exposed to estrogenic chemicals in the environment, even small amounts of estrogen can block normal development of male characteristics and stimulate weight gain and breast growth. For girls, exposure to excess estrogen can cause early puberty and menstruation, a known risk factor for breast and ovarian cancer later in life.
Estrogen cream is also easily transferred to pets. The most common symptoms of excess estrogen in pets, male and female, are enlarged breasts and weight gain.
Testosterone Gel or Cream Transfer Effects
Testosterone gel has become notorious for transferring to spouses, children and pets. In women, excess testosterone can cause hair growth on the face and arms, hair loss on the head, deepening of the voice, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), irregular menstruation, anxiety and irritability. It can also increase libido. In children, exposure to testosterone gels or creams can cause enlargement of the genitalia (penis or clitoris), premature development of pubic hair, advanced bone age, increased libido, and aggressive behavior.
Testosterone transfer to pets can cause aggressive behavior and enlargement of the genitalia.
There is a 2.5 mg testosterone patch (Androderm) that works well for most men and avoids the issue of hormone cream or gel transfer.
Progesterone Cream Transfer Effects
Progesterone does not have gender effects, although it can “wake up” estrogen receptors. When a woman is in her third trimester of pregnancy, the placenta is producing 300 mg of progesterone a day so we know it’s safe for the fetus. Progesterone is also the most lipophilic of the hormones, so it is absorbed through the skin more rapidly than the other hormones. Progesterone opposes or balances the effects of estrogen, which is a benefit when we are exposed to so many environmental estrogens.
In spite of the relative safety and benefits of progesterone cream, it’s still not wise to transfer it to others who may not need it. We don’t have research on the effects of progesterone on children, men and pets, and it’s unwise to make assumptions that it’s safe based on theory. There are many men who use a little bit of progesterone cream daily, but hopefully they are aware of the dose they are taking and are testing their hormone levels at least twice a year. Using progesterone cream should be a conscious choice, not a random act of transfer!
Why Not Just Take Hormones in Pill Form?
Hormones taken orally, in pill form, tend to not work as well and have more unwanted side effects. Transdermal application of hormones, via creams, gels or patches, is the safest and most effective way to deliver hormones. Here are links to further reading on the subject of pill vs cream or patch:
Progesterone Cream or Pill – What’s Best?
Estrogen Pill vs. Estrogen Cream or Patch – Which Works Best?
Guidelines for Avoiding Hormone Transfer
1) Apply the creams or gels on areas of the body that won’t come into contact with others.
2) Wash hands after applying the cream, or use a latex glove to apply the cream (you can buy a box of 100 for about $3).
3) Keep the towels of hormone cream users separate from the rest of the family.
4) Be aware that hormone transfer can occur through clothing and bedding.