Yes, you’re reading that correctly.

The name for this group of chemicals, phthalates, begins with four consecutive consonants—contrary to everything you thought you knew about the English language. What?!

Worry not. You don’t need to be a spelling bee champion to understand why these chemicals are dangerous and how you can avoid them. Read on! 

History of Phthalates

Phthalates (pronounced THA-layts) have been around since the 1930s. Like their PFAS cousins, these pesky chemicals are pretty much all over the place, hiding in hundreds of everyday items.

For this reason, they’re often referred to as “everywhere chemicals.”

Phthalates are used in a few different ways. They are plasticizers, meaning they’re added to polyvinyl chloride and plastic to make them soft and flexible. They’re also added to personal care items to enhance fragrance, used as binders and solvents in some products, and even added to a whole range of medical devices.

Common Sources of Phthalates

  • Plastic food packaging and containers
  • Cosmetics and scented personal care products
  • Scented household items, such as candles and air fresheners
  • Household cleaners and detergents
  • Vinyl shower curtains
  • Building materials such as paints, vinyl flooring, sealants, and adhesives
  • Food, especially meat, dairy products, and cooking oils

And here’s a shocker. Phthalates have been detected in first aid supplies and a surprising number of medical devices, including tubing, blood bags, catheters, and more, according to this recent study in Environmental Science & Technology.

Perhaps even more concerning are the phthalates that some of the most vulnerable people in our population—pre-mature babies—are exposed to in the NICU.

In the past, children’s plastic toys (even teething rings and your everybody’s favorite, the rubber ducky) contained phthalates, putting little ones at unnecessary risk.

As the health risks became known, many countries enacted bans against using phthalates (at least some specific types) in toys and other children’s products.

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Routes of Phthalate Exposure

People are most often exposed to phthalates by ingesting food and drinks that have taken on the chemicals.

For example, high temperatures can cause phthalates to migrate from plastic packaging into food (which is why you should never microwave your plastic food containers!)

Milk that passed through plastic tubing during the production process can also be a source of phthalates, as milk fat can draw the chemicals out from the plastic. Phthalates (e.g., DEHP and DiNP) can even be passed from mother to child through breastfeeding.

Another way people ingest phthalates is through household dust that has incorporated the chemicals. Toddlers can ingest this dust as they crawl around, touch dusty objects, and then put their hands in their mouths.

A second common way people are exposed to phthalates is by inhaling them as fragrance chemicals from personal care products (such as perfumes, shampoos, lotions, hair sprays, and nail polish), cleaning products, air fresheners, and other scented items.

Phthalates are often used to make fragrances “stick,” or last longer. Unfortunately, because of what’s known as the “fragrance loophole,” manufacturers are not required to list phthalates on the ingredient list of a scented product. So unless a product explicitly says “phthalate-free” somewhere on the packaging, it’s practically impossible for consumers to know whether or not a fragranced product contains phthalates or not.

In addition to ingestion and inhalation, absorption through the skin can also be a route of exposure to phthalates, whether that’s in a medical setting or through personal care products like lotion.

Harmful Effects of Phthalates

Although some specific types of phthalates have been studied much more thoroughly than others, a growing body of research shows that some phthalates can be associated with serious negative health effects.

  • Chronic exposure to phthalates has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, affect organ systems, and impact pregnancy and child development.
  • The reproductive system is particularly vulnerable. Phthalates can affect how estrogen and testosterone function in the body.
  • Specific effects on males include decreased testosterone levels and sperm concentrations in men and genital abnormalities in baby boys.
  • A recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute linked phthalates to a higher incidence of certain childhood cancers.

For further reading about the effects of phthalates (and other endocrine disruptors), check out the book Count Down by Dr. Shanna Swan.

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Who is Most at Risk

Certain organ systems and groups of people are more likely to be exposed to phthalates and/or may suffer greater effects.

  • As mentioned above, the human reproductive system may be particularly sensitive to the effects of phthalates.
  • Women who use more cosmetic/personal care products are more exposed to the chemicals, and a pregnant woman’s exposure can harm the fetus.
  • Infants and children are at greater risk, as hormonal disruptions can have developmental effects that are amplified with age.
  • People with hemophilia or on kidney dialysis who have frequent contact with IV tubing are also at greater risk.

How to Protect Yourself from Phthalates

  • Watch what you eat. Some studies show that diets high in dairy and meat result in higher phthalate exposure.
  • Avoid heating food in plastic containers, as this may cause the chemicals from the plastic to leach into food.
  • Read product labels, and when possible, choose household and personal care products that say “phthalate-free.”
  • Avoid nail polish that contains dibutyl phthalate (DBP).
  • Avoid personal care and household products with fragrance chemicals. The individual chemicals won’t be listed, so it’s easier if you just avoid any product that has “fragrance” listed as an ingredient. Alternatively, you can buy scented products from brands that either list all of their fragrance ingredients on the label (which is rare) and/or buy from brands that have a third-party certification such as MADE SAFE or EWG Verified.
  • Ventilate well when painting, as phthalates are often used as solvents in many paints.
  • Switch to a non-vinyl shower curtain.

Current Legislation

Sometimes, our best actions as individuals fail to protect us. A 2013 study showed that people on a strict diet of unprocessed and organic foods were exposed to high levels of phthalates by consuming imported organic spices. Yikes! This is why the most effective long-term solution may be better legislation and coordinated international laws.

You can find overviews of the here and here. Most countries have banned the use of phthalates in products designed for children. In the US, the following phthalates are currently banned in toys and other childcare articles: DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIBP, DPENP, DHEXP, and DCHP.

The EU, China, and the US have all taken steps to limit the use of phthalates in food contacts applications. However, the US still allows nine phthalates to be used in these materials. When it comes to cosmetics, though, there is less international agreement. While the EU has aggressive measures in place to limit the use of phthalates in cosmetics, no such legislation currently exists in the US.

On a national level, several states (e.g., California, New York, Vermont, and others) got tired of waiting around for national legislation and pursued their own phthalates regulations instead. 

Clearly more work is needed on national and international levels to limit the harmful effects of these chemicals. 

Stay Informed

Until the day comes when everywhere chemicals become nowhere chemicals, stay up to date on the conversation. The Environmental Working Group has a helpful Phthalates page, which summarizes all the latest news and scientific information. 

You can also sign up for Filtered Fridays, which is our weekly newsletter where we share the latest headlines, quick tips, and more—not just about phthalates but about all kinds of environmental toxins!

About Jen

Jen Ottolino is a global citizen and health writer who recognizes that the planetโ€™s health is inextricably linked to the well-being of all its inhabitants. She has lived and worked on three continents in settings ranging from community hospitals, medical schools, and multinational pharmaceutical companies to refugee camps in Greece and rural villages in Tanzania. In 2019, Jen transitioned into full-time writing and editing with a focus on global health equity and environmental sustainability. She lives on the island of Faial in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores and writes from her renovated farmhouse in a forest between an active volcano and the Atlantic Ocean.

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