Bisphenol A, a.k.a. BPA, has become notorious in recent decades—and for good reason. The research has piled up and the list of known negative health effects that BPA exposure can lead to has grown long.
Because of this, a lot of companies have taken BPA out of their water bottles, travel mugs, canned goods, and other consumer goods. You can barely even buy these kinds of products without finding “BPA-Free” labels on them.
But whenever a certain chemical is removed from products, it’s generally a smart question to ask: “With what is it being replaced?” In the case of BPA, manufacturers began using “sister chemicals” like bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF) instead of BPA.
The question is: are these “BPA-free” alternatives really safe?
Let’s take a look.
Table of Contents
- First: What’s Polycarbonate Plastic?
- Bisphenol Basics
- How Does BPA Affect the Body?
- BPA Bans (& the Rise of BPA Alternatives)
- So, What Does BPA-Free Actually Mean?
- Are BPA Alternatives Really Non-Toxic?
- Tips for Reducing Bisphenol Exposure
- 1. Avoid Plastic For Food & Drinks
- 2. When You Do Use Plastic, Keep It Away From the Heat
- 3. Choose Fresh Food When Possible
- 4. Look for “Bispenol-Free” or “Phenol-Free” Labels Instead of Just “BPA-Free”
- 5. Limit Contact with Paper Receipts
- 6. Take a High-Quality Probiotic
- More Bisphenol FAQs
- How can you tell if your cans are BPA-free?
- Are most plastics BPA free?
- Can you microwave BPA-free plastic?
- Is BPA-free plastic safe in hot water?
- Which plastic numbers are BPA-free?
- Is BPS worse than BPA?
- Is stainless steel BPA-free?
- Does #7 plastic contain BPA?
- Is BPA Used in All Plastics?
First: What’s Polycarbonate Plastic?
Before we start talking about BPA and its alternatives, it’s important to know in what kind of plastic you’re most likely to find these chemicals, and that’s polycarbonate.
Polycarbonate is hard and sturdy; it’s one of the most durable kinds of plastic. It’s not only used for things like water bottles but also blenders, food storage containers, food processors, etc.
When it comes to the type of plastic, polycarbonate plastic falls into the “Other” category, which means you’ll find the #7 resin code on products made with polycarbonate.
Most of us have heard about BPA, but there is less talk about the larger class of chemicals that BPA belongs to: bisphenols.
BPA is a kind of bisphenol, but there are other kinds too, like BPS, BPF, and more. This is important to keep in mind when it comes to choosing BPA-free products, but we’ll come back to it in a minute. Since BPA is by far the most widely known and widely studied bisphenol, let’s start with that one, and then we’ll talk more about BPA alternatives.
What Is BPA (Bisphenol-a)?
In addition to the polycarbonate plastic products mentioned above, BPA is also used as a liner in metal cans (for things like soups and sodas) in order to prevent corrosion.
It’s also used in thermal paper, like what is used for cash register receipts as well as various kinds of tickets, tags, and labels.
Some lesser-known things that BPA is used in include certain kinds of flooring, paint, and even some dental composites.
BPA was invented in the late 1980s and at first was considered for use by the pharmaceutical industry as a synthetic estrogen (more on that in a minute). Even though BPA didn’t end up being used for drugs, it began to be used in plastics in the 1950s.
These days, anywhere from five to nine billion pounds of BPA are produced annually worldwide. Like so many other synthetic chemicals have become, BPA is nearly ubiquitous in our bodies and environments. Although the data is a bit old now, 2003/2004 data from the CDC found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of Americans (and that included children). More recent research from 2019 over in Canada found BPA in nine out of ten Canadians.
How & Why Bisphenols Are Used
BPA and other bisphenols have various different functions, depending on the application. In plastic products, it’s used to make the plastic sturdier. For canned goods, it’s used to prevent corrosion. For receipts, it’s used as a part of the heat-activated printing process.
Although we can get BPA into our bodies through absorbing it through the skin (such as by handling receipts), a lot of our BPA ingestion comes from food and drinks. In one study that looked specifically at children, 99% of kids’ BPA exposure came predominantly through dietary ingestion.
How Does BPA Affect the Body?
BPA and other chemicals used in plastic products can leach out from the plastic material and into the food or water next to them. Then when you eat or drink that substance, you ingest the BPA and other chemical components.
Have you ever had a tupperware container permanently turn orange from pasta sauce? This is an example of how leaching happens. Molecules from the sauce become infused into the plastic, and in turn, plastic molecules get infused into your sauce.
At this point, there has been a lot of research done on BPA, linking it with a wide range of negative health concerns such as:
- Heart disease
- Cancer (like breast and prostate)
- Metabolic disorders (like diabetes)
- Childhood asthma
- Fertility issues (such as reduced sperm count and recurring miscarriages)
- Birth defects
- Developmental, behavioral, and learning issues like ADHD and aggression
- Mental health concerns like anxiety and depression
- Inflammatory bowel disease (including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease)
Many of these problems are a result of BPA being an endocrine disruptor, which means it disrupts the natural (and sensitive!) hormonal functions of the body.
We’ve actually known that BPA had the ability to affect hormones for almost 100 years. Back in the 1930s, BPA was studied and considered for use by the pharmaceutical industry, but they ended up going with diethylstilbestrol (a.k.a. DES) instead.
As a quick but noteworthy sidebar: DES is a synthetic estrogen drug that was widely used from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. It was used for things like recurrent miscarriage, estrogen deficiency, hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms, cancer treatment, and more. It was given to millions of pregnant women because it was falsely believed to help prevent complications and miscarriage.
It turns out, DES is extremely toxic and can cause all kinds of devastating health effects: infertility, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, preeclampsia, preterm birth, stillbirth, infant death, menopause prior to age 45, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and vaginal cancer. Yikes.
DES is so notorious that people born to women who were given DES have become known as “DES daughters” and “DES sons,” and it’s recommended that they undergo regular medical screenings to look out for these types of conditions.
Needless to say, DES is almost never used anymore. But it’s an obvious example of the potential implications of synthetic hormone disruption.
Take a look at the chemical structure of DES and BPA. The fact that BPA and DES are so similar is cause for concern.
It Doesn’t Take Much…
Unlike other classes of chemicals (like PFAS, for example), bisphenols actually have a pretty short half-life. This means they can biodegrade and they don’t stay in our bodies for very long. (There is some debate about exactly how long BPA stays in the body; however, it’s unclear if measurable amounts are really because BPA actually sticks around or simply because of the fact that it’s so ubiquitous in the environment.)
On one hand, the fact that our bodies can relatively easily get rid of BPA is of course a good thing. It means that if we intentionally try to decrease our exposure to bisphenols, we can actually decrease the measurable amount of BPA in our bodies in a matter of days.
It also means that if we were to stop producing goods with bisphenols as a society, we could probably noticeably reduce their negative effects within just a few years.
On the other hand, however, just because BPA can be processed and eliminated quickly doesn’t mean it’s any less damaging than the chemicals that stick around longer. Bisphenols and other endocrine disruptors can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time.
This is also why “detoxing” from these types of chemicals doesn’t really do all that much good. Your body can actually naturally detox them pretty quickly… It’s what happens in that short amount of time that’s the big problem. For that reason, avoidance should take precedence over “detoxification.” (We’ll talk more about how to reduce your exposure to bisphenols later on.)
Economic Consequences of Bisphenols
Another thing to consider when it comes to chemical toxicants like BPA is the economic toll they take on society. Look at that list of negative health consequences above and then consider all of the costs associated with those conditions—from medical bills to lost work to disability payments and more.
Although it can obviously be quite difficult to parse out the cost of one specific chemical when there are so many things that can contribute to health issues, it’s been estimated that “In the United States and Europe, the costs of BPA exposure in 2010 were $2.4 billion and $2.0 billion respectively.”
If you’d like to dive deeper into this issue, I highly recommend the book Sicker Fatter Poorer by pediatrician and environmental medicine scientist, Dr. Leonardo Trasande. (That’s where the above quote is from.) You’ll learn a lot more about BPA, other endocrine disruptors, and their costs on society.
BPA Bans (& the Rise of BPA Alternatives)
Once the research on the serious consequences of BPA started to pile up, many countries and states started banning it.
In 2010, Canada became the first country to ban BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. The U.S. followed in 2012. In 2015, BPA was added to California’s Prop 65 list, which means products that contain over a certain amount of BPA must come with a warning label. France’s ban is probably the most strict as of right now; the country banned the use of BPA in all food containers (as of 2015) and in infant food packaging (as of 2013).
At the time of publication, there is a new regulation on the table in the E.U. that would slash the the recommended “tolerable daily intake (TDI)” by a factor of 100,000!
Of course, in addition to regulation, there has also been a healthy amount of consumer pressure that’s led companies to start taking BPA out of their products even when it’s not legally required. This is where BPA alternatives such as BPS and BPF come in.
So, What Does BPA-Free Actually Mean?
You’ve likely seen “BPA-Free” labels on things like water bottles, canned goods, and other types of products.
But does “BPA-Free” actually mean it’s safe and non-toxic?
The short answer is: no.
(Almost) No Regulation
The first thing to note is that in the U.S., there are currently no laws requiring products are free from BPA, with the exception of baby bottles and sippy cups.
That means companies are putting these labels on their products voluntarily. There is no one testing to make sure they’re telling the truth and there are no consequences for lying about it. That doesn’t mean “BPA-Free” products definitely contain toxins, but it’s just worth keeping in mind that there’s essentially nothing and no one holding brands accountable for these claims.
A Marketing Play (Are “BPA-Free” Labels Just Greenwashing?)
Most companies put “BPA-Free” labels on their goods because they know it’s what more consumers want and therefore it can make them more money. But “BPA-Free” does not always mean safe or non-toxic.
Also, pay attention to what kinds of products come with this label. If you see a glass storage container that comes with a “BPA-Free” sticker on it, you know you’re just being marketed to because glass never had BPA in it in the first place!
Are BPA Alternatives Really Non-Toxic?
Okay, now let’s get to the dirt on BPA alternatives. Is it safe to use a BPA-free plastic product? Should you drink from a BPA-free plastic water bottle? What about food storage?
Here’s the thing: The chemical structure of BPA alternatives are extremely similar to BPA itself, and therefore their health effects are almost the same… In fact, early research is showing that some BPA alternatives may be even worse than BPA!
These are what we call “regrettable substitutions,” (And unfortunately, it happens all of the time in the world of synthetic chemicals. This is a big reason why we need safety regulation on entire classes of chemicals, not just individual ones.)
What About Tritan Plastic?
There are some types of plastic that are not only BPA-free but also free from all other bisphenols. Tritan is one of those plastics—it’s used for things like Vitamix blenders, certain countertop water filters, and more. You can learn more about Tritan right here.
Tips for Reducing Bisphenol Exposure
So now that you know why avoiding BPA and other bisphenols is so important, how can you actually go about doing that? Here are some tips:
1. Avoid Plastic For Food & Drinks
One of the easiest things you can do is avoid eating and drinking out of plastic. Store your leftover food in glass instead and get a stainless steel reusable water bottle.
Sometimes, drinking from plastic water bottles is actually the safer option (such as when traveling internationally or in water crisis situations like what has occurred in Flint, Michigan). The hope, however, is that these situations are short-term and that you can go back to drinking safe, filtered water out of plastic-free containers in the long run.
2. When You Do Use Plastic, Keep It Away From the Heat
Heat speeds up the chemical-leaching process. So if you are going to use plastic food storage containers, at least avoid putting them in the microwave. If you’re drinking from plastic water bottles, avoid letting them sit in the sun or the hot car. Hand-wash plastic containers instead of putting them in the hot dishwasher.
3. Choose Fresh Food When Possible
Although it’s not plausible 100% of the time, try to choose foods and drinks that are free from plastic packaging when you can. That means buying fresh produce and choosing condiments packaged in glass containers.
4. Look for “Bispenol-Free” or “Phenol-Free” Labels Instead of Just “BPA-Free”
Although these labels are much more rare (as of right now), “Phenol-Free” labels indicate a higher level of safety than just “BPA-Free.” Here’s a recent Costco receipt as an example!
5. Limit Contact with Paper Receipts
When you can, decline paper receipts and other products made with thermal paper (such as boarding passes) and opt for e-receipts and digital downloads instead.
If and when you do handle receipts, there are still some things you can do to decrease your exposure:
- Don’t use it in conjunction with hand sanitizer, as it can significantly increase exposure levels.
- If you’re a cashier or your job requires you to handle a lot of thermal paper, considering wearing gloves.
- Wash your hands after handling (especially before eating).
You could also try asking your company to switch to phenol-free receipt paper. Now that some of those large corporations listed above have done it, you can point to them as examples!
6. Take a High-Quality Probiotic
Even though avoidance should be our #1 tactic, it’s pretty much impossible to 100% avoid bisphenols at this time. But there are a few things that might help us combat the negative effects of BPA.
Even though we still need more research in this area, early animal studies indicate that certain probiotics (specifically Bifidobacterium breve and Lactobacillus casei) may be protective against BPA.
Seed’s Daily Synbiotic is a great option for a super high-quality pre- and probiotic that contains both of those specific strains and supports intestinal synthesis of bioavailable forms of folate.
As always, make sure you check with your doctor before starting supplementation.
More Bisphenol FAQs
Here are some more commonly asked questions about BPA and its alternatives:
How can you tell if your cans are BPA-free?
Usually cans that do not contain BPA are labeled as such. However, as we talked about above, BPA-free does not always mean non-toxic. Look for cans that are labeled “Phenol-Free” or “Bisphenol-Free” instead of just “BPA-Free.” Don’t be afraid to reach out to your favorite canned goods brands and ask for more information. Consumer pressure does work!
Are most plastics BPA free?
It just depends. The plastics that are most likely to contain BPA and other bisphenols are hard, sturdy plastics that have the resin label #7 on them. PVC (which comes with the resin code #3) may also contain BPA, but it just depends on the product.
Generally, more flexible plastics (like Ziploc bags, for example) do not contain BPA. (However, these plastics are more likely to contain other toxic plastic components like phthalates!)
Can you microwave BPA-free plastic?
No. You really shouldn’t microwave any kind of plastic because it can cause leaching of other potentially toxic chemical components (not just BPA).
Is BPA-free plastic safe in hot water?
No. Just like you should keep all plastic out of the microwave, you should also try and keep all kinds of plastic out of hot water because the heat can cause leaching of other types of toxins found in plastic. This is also why you should keep plastic from sitting in direct sunlight or in the hot car for a long period of time.
Which plastic numbers are BPA-free?
Although you can’t necessarily 100% guarantee that a certain type of plastic is BPA-free, the numbers that are least likely to contain BPA are 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6.
Is BPS worse than BPA?
Probably. Part of the reason we know how bad BPA is is simply because it’s been researched more than other similar chemicals. But as more research is done on BPA alternatives like BPS and BPF, we are discovering that these “sister chemicals” are just as bad, if not worse.
Is stainless steel BPA-free?
However, when it comes to things like canned goods (which are often made from stainless steel or aluminum), it’s a different story. Many of these cans are still lined with BPA and/or toxic BPA alternatives.
Does #7 plastic contain BPA?
Plastic products with the resin code #7 are most likely to contain BPA. However, not all #7 plastic contains BPA. (The #7 resin code is the “Other” category of plastic, so it contains a lot of different kinds of plastic formulations.)
Is BPA Used in All Plastics?
No, BPA is not used in all kinds of plastic. Plastic products that have the code number 7 on them are most likely to contain BPA and/or other bisphenols (although a number 7 does not guarantee that a product has these chemicals).
In many ways plastics have made our lives much easier, but in the long run, certain plastics (including many “BPA-free” ones) may actually be more harmful than choosing alternate materials such as glass for our everyday uses.