Ingredient Spotlight: The Science Behind Phthalates

By now you may have heard of a class of chemicals called phthalates, which are commonly used in personal care and plastic products. Today I’m going to break down what the science says about these chemicals, where they are found, and how to avoid them.

First, why should you care?

Phthalates are a class of chemicals (meaning there are different types of phthalates that have similar chemical structures, but serve different functions in products) that have been linked to hormone disruption, birth defects (now called “phthalate syndrome” by some health practitioners), and asthma. Now that I have your attention…

How do you pronounce phthalate?

Phthalate is pronounced like the name “Hal” (thal-ate), avoid using a hard A.

Will I see phthalate on the ingredient list?

No. Especially not in personal care or beauty products. Phthalates commonly used in beauty products are designed to help fragrances bind to your skin and clothes. Since fragrances are kept secret under international IP law, phthalates do not need to be listed on the ingredient list.

How can I avoid phthalates in beauty products?

Avoid any product that has undisclosed fragrances. This can easily be spotted by looking on the ingredient list for words like “fragrance” or “parfum”.

If you have time to do a little research, I recommend heading to the companies website and see if they proactively share that they formulate without phthalates. If you want a simple solution you can check out my favorite clean beauty products HERE or search the EWG Skin Deep database which gives products a safety ranking.

Are phthalates found in other products?

Yes. I actually started my career in environmental health working to ban phthalates in children’s toys (we were successful, see below). These chemicals are used to create:

  • Flexible and pliable plastic
  • Fragrances, perfumes, cologne
  • Toxic vinyl (avoid any vinyl plastic at all costs)
  • Beauty products
  • Air fresheners, candles, some essential oils
  • Conventional (non-organic) produce
  • Shower curtains
  • Food packaging and processed food
  • Plastic wrap

Phthalates are also widely found as contaminants in dairy products (you can read more about that here). For products that pass through pliable plastic tubing during the manufacturing process (this includes dairy, processed food, beauty products etc) there will be some range of phthalate contamination. Research on phthalate contamination from tubing dates back to the 1990s, and shows a huge opportunity to transform the manufacturing sector to reduce exposure to such chemicals.

Established consumer safety and health organizations have been asking people to avoid processed cheese (including Mac and Cheese) after studies found high levels of phthalates in cheese and cheese products. Since phthalates are not intentionally added to the dairy product, according to the New York Times, the organic versions were also contaminated.

<<This doesn’t mean throw in the towel, it’s just a little piece of insiders information for the NEXT wave of consumer safety. First we need to get companies to stop knowingly use this class of chemicals.>>

Phthalates are also used to help pesticides stick to the leaves of crops (similar to perfume on our skin) and researchers have pointed to this as being another reason to buy organic produce when possible.

Tell me something good…starting to get depressed

Win #1: In 2008, I was part of a campaign to ban some phthalates (DBP, BBP, and DEHP) from children’s toys. This federal bill passed, and as a result, levels of these phthalates have dropped in the North American population.

Win #2: A tremendous amount of personal care products are now avoiding phthalates in their formulations and many companies are opting for fragrances (natural or synthetic) that do not rely on phthalates.

Win #3: Global production of phthalates is down 18% from 2005.

Win #4: Less people are wearing perfume and cologne (phew!).

Win #5: Innovation is happening. The number of patents for non-phthalate plasticizers has skyrocketed since 2005.

Here’s what you can do:

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