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We've been hearing a lot lately about how phthalates (plasticizing chemicals used to stabilize fragrances in shampoos, lotions, and other personal care products) might impact little boys. Think penis deformation, undescended testicles, and less aggressive play behavior. Not fun stuff.

Now there is evidence that exposure to these hormone-disrupting chemicals might interfere with the reproductive development of little girls, too, by speeding up puberty. The study (published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives) tested urine samples from 1151 girls aged 6 to 8 to find their level of chemical exposure, then followed up one year later. Those who were exposed to the highest chemical levels were more likely to have begun the early stages of puberty; all told, 30 percent of the girls had begun to develop breasts, while 22 percent had pubic hair.

Early puberty means more than an extension of a girl's most awkward years -- it can also increase the risk for breast cancer and other health complications later in life.

"Our research shows a connection between chemicals that girls are exposed to on a daily basis and either delayed or early development," said Mary Wolff, professor of preventive medicine and oncological sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "While more research is needed, these data are an important first step in continuing to evaluate the impact of these common environmental agents in putting girls at risk."

Freaked much? I know. But there is stuff you can do.

1. Buy safer personal care products. Check the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database to find less toxic brands, or look for products labeled "phthalate-free." Avoid anything that lists fragrance as an ingredient; that's really an umbrella term for "proprietary formulas," which can contain a whole host of chemicals, phthalates included, that manufacturers don't have to reveal.

2. Tell your favorite brand to get the fragrance out. Cosmetic companies listen to consumers. If enough of us stop buying products with phthalates, they'll stop using them. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a guide to contacting cosmetics companies here, plus more ideas for action.

3. Join the fight for chemical policy reform. Phthalates and other toxins are in consumer products because the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 says it's okay. The Coalition for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is pushing to change that. Get involved.