Phthalates. Have you heard of it? It’s a word with a funny spelling, but not so funny meaning. First, let’s look at what phthalates are.
What Are Phthalates?
First off, how do you pronounce this funny looking word? The ‘ph’ in phthalates sounds like ‘f’.
Phthalate is pronounced as ‘fal-ate’.
Next, what does phthalates mean?
The Phthalates Definition According to the Dictionary:
The dictionary definition for phthalates is “a salt or ester of phthalic acid”.
The Phthalates Definition According to the CDC:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines phthalates as “a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials.”
The Phthalates Definition in Laymen’s Terms:
Basically, phthalates are colorless, odorless liquids that are a class of plasticizing chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. They also can act as a solvent or carrier for the chemicals that create scents in a fragrance. It allows them to stick to skin and not to dissipate.
Phthalates cover a huge class of chemicals!
While companies are not always required to list phthalates on product ingredient labels (especially if it is in a fragrance), you may have seen their acronym listed on an ingredient label of your beauty or skincare product?
Have you heard of any of these?
- di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)
- diethyl phthalate (DEP)
- butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP)
- dibutyl phthalate (DnBP)
- di-butyl phthalate (DBP)
- benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)
- diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP)
- diisononyl phthalate (DiNP)
- di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP)
- dipentyl phthalate (DPP)
- di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP)
- di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP)
- di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP)
- di-isohexyl phthalate
- dicyclohexyl phthalate (DcHP)
- di-isoheptyl phthalate
Read More: Why You Should Pay Greater Attention to the Everyday Household Products You Buy
What Products are Phthalates Found In?
Phthalates are used in hundreds of products.
I would guess the average person has many products which contain them in their home.
Some products which could contain phthalates are:
- nail polish
- personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, skin moisturizers)
- aftershave lotion
- household cleaners
- automotive plastics
- plastic clothing (i.e. raincoats)
- food packaging
- vinyl flooring
- garden hoses
- inflatable toys
- some children’s toys
- shower curtains
- vinyl miniblinds
- wood finishes
- plastic plumbing pipes
- building materials
- medical tubing
** Be sure to read all the way to the bottom for tips to limit your exposure to phthalates
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You Are Being Exposed to Phthalates Everywhere You Turn!
There are many ways you can be exposed to phthalates. You can be exposed to low levels of phthalates through the air, water, or food.
Phthalates can be:
- inhaled (breathing in air that is contaminated with phthalate dust or particles)
- ingested (by eating and drinking foods that are wrapped or stored in containers which have phthalates), or
- absorbed (by using cosmetics, hair care, or personal care products which are not phthalate-free)
Just think of the ways in which you can be exposed…
Breathing in dust off of vinyl miniblinds, or new flooring, putting on cosmetics or cleaning your home with commercial cleaners.
Your children can be exposed by crawling on the carpet or chewing on older vinyl toys. There are so many different ways we are being exposed to them! Even eating fast food which is in a wrapper.
Speaking of food…
Phthalates in Food
Do you like to eat out on a regular basis? Eating out can add to your chemical load (in more ways than one).
A 2018 study found that “people who reported consuming more restaurant, fast food, and cafeteria meals had phthalate levels that were nearly 35 percent higher than people who reported eating food mostly purchased at the grocery store… Many products contain phthalates, including take-home boxes, gloves used in handling food, food processing equipment, and other items used in the production of restaurant, cafeteria and fast food meals. Previous research suggests these chemicals can leach from plastic containers or wrapping into food.”
Even when eating at home, you can still be exposed.
“Scientists have detected phthalates in many types of food. They have found particularly high concentrations in dairy and meat. These man-made compounds may contaminate food during processing or packaging, presumably from contact with polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastics.”
“Milk packaged in glass may have passed through plastic tubes on its way from the cow to the bottle, taking DEHP along with it. “Milking machines use a lot of plastic and DEHP is free and very lipophilic (fat soluble), and milk is full of lipids, so it just pulls the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk,” explains Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center and the lead author on several landmark phthalate studies.”
Phthalates in Cosmetics, Skin Care, and Cleaning Products
Since phthalates are found in fragrance, you can only imagine how many of these chemicals you are being exposed to, especially if you’re a woman.
The CDC states that “research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.”
The FDA’s Role
“Under the authority of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), FDA requires an ingredient declaration on cosmetic products sold at the retail level to consumers. Consumers can tell whether some products contain phthalates by reading the ingredient declaration on the labels of such products.” However, this doesn’t apply to products exclusively used by professionals (like in salons), or when it comes to fragrance.
“FDA rules allow phthalates in foods as “indirect additives,” such as accidental contaminants transmitted via food processing and packaging materials. Manufacturers could also add them directly to food, under rules that allow food companies to determine for themselves whether an additive is safe.”
** Read on for tips to limit your exposure to phthalates
The Harmful Effects of Phthalates
We live in a world of conveniences. Unfortunately, some of those conveniences are coming with a price to our health.
Many different studies have shown that phthalates create many health-related problems. Topping the list are endocrine disruption and reproductive challenges.
CDC scientists measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of over 2,600 people ages six years and older who took part in a natural survey (NHANES). Their research indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S.
In the past few years, researchers have linked phthalates to:
- attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- breast cancer
- type II diabetes
- low IQ
- neurodevelopmental issues
- behavioral issues
- autism spectrum disorders
- endocrine disruptors
- altered reproductive development and male fertility issues
What Do Governmental Agencies Think About Phthalates?
Some governmental agencies have expressed concern over the damaging health effects of phthalates.
The “EPA is concerned about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals.”
The President’s Caner Panel report in the U.S. mentions how phthalates are an area of concern.
Other government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction are also studying the health effects of phthalates.
Europe officially recognized some phthalates as endocrine disruptors and have placed restrictions on their use.
How to Avoid Phthalates
Even though phthalates seem to be in so many of our everyday products, we can still try to take measures to avoid them as much as possible.
Since phthalates aren’t always listed on product labels, if you find a product in question, it’s best to take matters into your own hands and chose a different alternative.
Here are some ways you can try to limit your exposure:
- Use less plastic in the kitchen. Choose glass containers over plastic as much as possible.
- Avoid eating out at fast food restaurants which give you food wrapped in plastic. Eat, real whole foods as much as possible.
- If you purchase food packaged in plastic, remove it from the plastic and store it in glass containers. Some phthalates continue to leech over, so this will help limit the amount of which you will be exposed.
- Avoid products packaged in “recycling-code-3, or 7” plastic.
- Avoid products with synthetic fragrance. Either try making your own products or choose more natural options which are scented with essential oils.
- Use nail polish that doesn’t include DBP.
- Don’t give your children hand me down plastic toys. In 2009, some phthalates were banned from toys.
- Look for products which say they are phthalate-free or DEP-free.
Making wise purchasing decisions and living a more natural lifestyle can go a long way in reducing our exposure to phthalates around the house.
For more information about having a healthier home with less toxic chemicals, be sure to take advantage of the Toxic Home Transformation. Within the online summit, experts share ways you can transform your home into a healthier environment for you and your family.
Read Next: How to Turn Your Toxic Home into a Healthy Home Environment
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Melissa @Real Nutritious Living says
Such an important message! There’s so much we can do to avoid them!
Shelby @Fitasamamabear says
Love this! Phthalates are everywhere- it sucks. And it enrages me the most that they’re in children’s toys!
Thanks Shelby! Yes, it’s ridiculous they’ve been in toys, but fortunately, that’s one area where they are beginning to ban them.
Megan Stevens says
This is such a fabulous and informative article; thank you! So often phthalates get grouped in with other plastics or endocrine disruptors, so it’s helpful to have you isolate them in this post. I learned a lot. Also, I looked up the pronunciation!! so I could read it in my head better here and in the future: \ ˈtha-ˌlāt \ 🙂 (short ‘a’, then long ‘a’ sound, in the two syllables) Thanks again for a great post!
Thanks Megan! I appreciate the feedback! Thanks for adding the pronunciation. It’s definitely a strange looking word.
Teresa, this is such a valuable article and SO thorough. It felt definitely a bit hopeless as I was reading but I was happy to get to the what I can do about it section. I’m going to be even more mindful about my family’s exposure. Thank you for this!
Thanks Daniela! Glad you made it to the end of the article. I appreciate the feedback!