What They Are
Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a common class of chemicals used in consumer products. They’re used as a plasticizer to make plastic more flexible in products like toys, vinyl flooring, wall covering, vinyl mattress covers, shower curtains, and plastic food packaging. They’re used as solvents or dissolving agents in things like detergents and lubricating oils.
Phthalates are typically found in personal care and household items as one of the fragrance ingredients used as carriers to help make the scent linger, and can be found in nail polish, hairsprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, and other fragrance preparations. Because these chemicals are not tightly bound to the other molecules in the plastic, they often “migrate,” moving from the plastic and finding their way into our bodies.
Some notable phthalates include dibutyl phthalate (DBP), used in nail polish to reduce cracking; di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP), used in eyelash glue, and diethyl phthalate (DEP), used as a solvent and fixative in fragrance.
The Health Concerns
Phthalates have been linked to a wide range of health concerns, including endocrine disruption (both developmental and reproductive toxicity). According to Women’s Voices for the Earth’s What’s That Smell report, phthalate exposure in males has been linked to lower sperm counts and altered sperm quality, and in females exposure can affect thyroid levels and alter thyroid function. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report), where CDC researchers found that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. and adult women had higher levels of urinary metabolites for phthalates used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics and other personal care products compared to men.
The European Union (EU) has banned phthalates from cosmetics. The U.S. banned some phthalates in 2008 from children’s toys. Unfortunately, these chemicals are still so widespread that studies show phthalates are present in the urine of 99% of people tested.
How to Avoid Them
Phthalates can be difficult to avoid, as most labels will simply list “fragrance” or “perfume” and keep secret the ingredients that make up that fragrance. However, you can:
- Reduce your use of fragranced products where possible because they probably contain phthalates.
- Opt for products that disclose all fragrance ingredients on the label, sourcing scent only from pure essential oils.
- Read labels on nail polishes and avoid ones that list DBP as an ingredient.
- Reduce your use of plastic products and plastic wrap made from PVC. Try and eat less food packaged in plastics, as exposure occurs from drinking and eating foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates.
- Write your favorite food companies and tell them you want phthalate-free packaging.
- Never microwave plastic, as high heat allows chemicals to leach from the plastic into the food or liquid inside.