- The blog Mamavation would have you believe that a study showed that men using Axe Body Spray are less likely to get someone pregnant
- The actual study was preliminary, did not study body sprays, was done in a very specific population of men, and did not look at their ability to father children
Scientific studies can be weaponized to further an agenda. Any bit of information, really, can be spun in someone’s favour, but research findings are particularly malleable in this way. Very few people have the expertise to read, much less interpret, a scientific paper. Combine this with the fact that science is messy and that a single paper can contain an impressive amount of contradictory and wishy-washy data, and you get the perfect putty which interest groups can mould to their liking.
Case in point: Mamavation.
Mamavation is a blog that shouts its mission statement in bold, scratched letters: “empowering women through eco-wellness.” Its social media reach is not to be ignored: @Mamavation has almost 45,000 followers on Twitter, while its founder, Leah Segedie, commands more than twice that number. A quick look at the Mamavation tweet history reveals an insistent focus on chemophobia: McDonald’s restaurants and artificial ingredients, glyphosate levels in Cheerios cereals, and GMO labelling.
This is not a comprehensive dismantling piece on Mamavation. Instead, I want to use an illustrative example of the distortions that happen when an interest group sees a study they can mould to further advance their agenda.
The target of Mamavation’s ire? Axe Body Spray.
In a blog post titled “Study: Fragrance Ingredients in Axe Body Spray is Connected With a Lack of Virility & Fertility” [sic], we are told that this specific brand of body spray may be “robbing you of your manhood.” That’s right. The good folks at Mamavation translated this complicated scientific paper for us and their conclusion is that “you are less likely to get someone pregnant one day.”
You may thus be confused when I tell you that the researchers whose work is distorted here did not study Axe Body Spray. They did not look at body sprays at all. They also did not report that women were having a hard time getting pregnant. And they certainly did not claim that men were losing their precious virility.
What the study looked at was the association between the levels of a particular family of chemicals in the urine of men trying to procreate using in vitro fertilization and how the subsequent embryo looked like three to five days after conception. That’s it.
The chemical in question is the much-maligned phthalate (pronounced without the initial “ph” so as to avoid sounding like you have a mouthful of peanut butter). Phthalates are plasticizers. They add flexibility to the materials we manufacture, and they also end up in perfumes and body sprays as solvents and fixatives.
The authors of this paper acknowledge something that is very important and that, of course, is often brushed aside by mommy blogs and click-baity worry holes: “There is limited research on their role in male and female reproductive health.” Indeed, the authors go on to state that only one cohort study has investigated this potential link. Their paper is the second.
It would be dishonest or ignorant to call their study definitive. It is an early, exploratory look at the situation, full of limitations and potential traps. For example, they recruited 50 couples (not a lot) from a fertility clinic. The fact that the couples visited such a clinic and wanted in vitro fertilization reveals that they almost assuredly had difficulty conceiving naturally. Any finding here may not be generalizable.
The scientists did not look at a single phthalate concentration in the men’s urine; rather, they tested 17 different chemicals. As phthalates are metabolized by the body, they get modified and broken down, and so researchers had 17 distinct molecules to test for, 17 possibilities for a positive result. If I give you a single dart and ask you to hit the bullseye, you may not be happy with the outcome, but if I give you 17 chances, your odds will certainly increase. The same is true for science, which is why interpreting these results require care.
And, funnily enough, the concentration of these metabolites in the urine was “not found to be associated with fertilization.” What they found, instead, is that at day 5 (but not day 3), the amount of some of these phthalate derivatives (but not others) in the urine of the men was associated with embryos that looked less than perfect but could very well be fully viable. There was no follow-up to look at how the babies turned out.
These preliminary and often dense results were just putty in the hands of Mamavation. “Phthalate metabolites” were rolled into the much more specific “Axe Body Spray”. A connection to fertility, absent from the paper, was simply appended. Finally, grabbing a bit of putty from a different tub, they tossed in fear-mongering about virility and manhood.
Beware the Putty Man of activist and interest groups. The dough at its core may be scientific, but it’s been rolled, stretched, moulded and smoothed out beyond recognition.
Want to comment on this article, view it on our Facebook page!