What are Phthalates?

This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!

Ingredient:

Phthalates (pronounced “thal-āts” — just ignore that first “ph.” We know, it’s weird!)

What they are:

Phthalates are a group of chemicals that have been in commercial use since the 1920s and more than 18 billion pounds are produced and used globally each year (1,2).

There are many types of phthalates that are commonly used including:

  • BBP: butyl benzyl phthalate
  • DBP: di-n-butyl phthalate
  • DEHP: di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate
  • DEP: diethyl phthalate
  • DiDP: di-isodecyl phthalate
  • DiNP: di-isononyll phthalate
  • DnHP: di-n-hexyl phthalate
  • DnOP: di-n-octyl phthalate

What they do:

Often called plasticizers, phthalates are usually used to soften plastics (3). But they also are used as solvents for other materials (3). Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous in everyday products: food packaging, fragrance, toys, soaps, shampoo, hair spray, nail polish, vinyl flooring, shower curtains, IV tubing, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils…the list goes on (3)! With this kind of prevalence, it should come as no surprise that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population — studies have shockingly found them in the bodies of 98% of people tested (4).

Why we’re featuring them today:

Phthalates are included in our Honestly Free Guarantee because of the growing body of evidence that links them to a number of human health issues, and we want to help you protect your family and yourself.

Phthalates are classified as “endocrine disruptors,” which are chemicals that have the potential to interfere with the body’s hormone system and can produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects (5). There are a number of studies that have found adverse health effects linked to exposure to phthalates including:

  • Increased incidences of asthma and eczema in children (6-9);
  • Male reproductive defects (10-12);
  • Negative impacts on thyroid function (13-15); and,
  • Neurotoxicity (16,17).

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that phthalates are shown to be more concentrated in infants and children due to children’s mouthing behaviors and increased dosage per body weight (18). As parents, this is disturbing to say the least.

Want your home to be Honestly Free of phthalates? Here are the most important steps you can take:

The main way we’re exposed to phthalates is food (sadly) — specifically food that’s been in contact with plastic that contains phthalates (18). Phthalates can also be absorbed or inhaled when used in personal care products, and ingested or inhaled from indoor air and dust (18). Here are five simple ways to reduce your phthalate exposure:

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less fatty foods. Food tests have found the highest levels of phthalates in fatty foods like dairy, meat, fish, and oils (18). Also, fresh, whole foods have less of a chance of being contaminated since they haven’t been processed or packaged in plastic.
  • Avoid PVC plastic. Because phthalates do not have a covalent bond with the PVC plastic, they can leach out during use or be released into the air when plastic breaks down and ages (18). When possible, opt for glass, porcelain, ceramic, or stainless steel containers, particularly for hot food, fatty foods, and liquids.
  • Avoid products with the catch-all ingredient “fragrance” (which often includes hidden phthalates) (19). Although at the present time, FDA does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk, the FDA very clearly states: “The regulations do not require the listing of the individual fragrance ingredients; therefore, the consumer will not be able to determine from the ingredient declaration if phthalates are present in a fragrance (20).”
  • Avoid used plastic toys. While six types of phthalates are currently banned for use in children’s toys and certain child care articles, these phthalates can still be found in old toys.
  • Dust regularly and wash hands frequently. Since phthalates are often found in dust, get rid of it regularly (21,22). And wash hands before eating to avoid eating any dust that naturally ends up sticking to them.

Have any questions about phthalates? Let us know in the comments. We’re always happy to help!

References:

  1. Graham, P. R. (1973). Phthalate ester plasticizers–why and how they are used. Environmental health perspectives, 3, 3.
  2. Hannon, P. R., & Flaws, J. A. (2015). The effects of phthalates on the ovary.Frontiers in endocrinology, 6.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Retrieved December 12, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/phthalates_factsheet.html
  4. Zota, A. R., Calafat, A. M., & Woodruff, T. J. (2014). Temporal trends in phthalate exposures: findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001–2010. Environmental health perspectives, 122(3), 235.
  5. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved December 12, 2015, from http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/
  6. Jaakkola, J. J., & Knight, T. L. (2008). The role of exposure to phthalates from polyvinyl chloride products in the development of asthma and allergies: a systematic review and metaanalysis. Environ Health Perspect, 116(7), 845-53.
  7. North, M. L., Takaro, T. K., Diamond, M. L., & Ellis, A. K. (2014). Effects of phthalates on the development and expression of allergic disease and asthma. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 112(6), 496-502.
  8. Bornehag, C. G., & Nanberg, E. (2010). Phthalate exposure and asthma in children. International journal of andrology, 33(2), 333-345.
  9. Just, A. C., Whyatt, R. M., Perzanowski, M. S., Calafat, A. M., Perera, F. P., Goldstein, I. F., … & Miller, R. L. (2012). Prenatal exposure to butylbenzyl phthalate and early eczema in an urban cohort. Environmental health perspectives, 120(10), 1475-1480.
  10. Barlow, N. J., Mcintyre, B. S., & Foster, P. M. (2004). Male reproductive tract lesions at 6, 12, and 18 months of age following in utero exposure to di (n-butyl) phthalate. Toxicologic pathology, 32(1), 79-90.
  11. Main, K. M., Mortensen, G. K., Kaleva, M. M., Boisen, K. A., Damgaard, I. N., Chellakooty, M., … & Andersson, A. M. (2006). Human breast milk contamination with phthalates and alterations of endogenous reproductive hormones in infants three months of age. Environmental health perspectives, 270-276.
  12. Hoppin, J. A. (2003). Male reproductive effects of phthalates: an emerging picture. Epidemiology, 14(3), 259-260.
  13. Boas, M., Frederiksen, H., Feldt-Rasmussen, U., Skakkebæk, N. E., Hegedus, L., Hilsted, L., … & Main, K. M. (2010). Childhood exposure to phthalates: associations with thyroid function, insulin-like growth factor I, and growth. Environ Health Perspect, 118(10), 1458-1464.
  14. Boas, M., Feldt-Rasmussen, U., & Main, K. M. (2012). Thyroid effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Molecular and cellular endocrinology,355(2), 240-248.
  15. Shen, O., Wu, W., Du, G., Liu, R., Yu, L., Sun, H., … & Song, L. (2011). Thyroid disruption by Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) and mono-n-butyl phthalate (MBP) in Xenopus laevis. PloS one, 6(4), e19159-e19159.
  16. Cho, S. C., Bhang, S. Y., Hong, Y. C., Shin, M. S., Kim, B. N., Kim, J. W., … & Kim, H. W. (2010). Relationship between environmental phthalate exposure and the intelligence of school-age children. Environmental health perspectives, 1027-1032.
  17. Holahan, M. R., & Smith, C. A. (2015). Phthalates and neurotoxic effects on hippocampal network plasticity. Neurotoxicology, 48, 21-34.
  18. Shea, K. M. (2003). Pediatric exposure and potential toxicity of phthalate plasticizers. Pediatrics, 111(6), 1467-1474.
  19. Bridges, B. (2002). Fragrance: emerging health and environmental concerns.Flavour and fragrance journal, 17(5), 361-371.
  20. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm128250.htm
  21. Rudel, R. A., Camann, D. E., Spengler, J. D., Korn, L. R., & Brody, J. G. (2003). Phthalates, alkylphenols, pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and other endocrine-disrupting compounds in indoor air and dust.Environmental science & technology, 37(20), 4543-4553.
  22. Abb, M., Heinrich, T., Sorkau, E., & Lorenz, W. (2009). Phthalates in house dust. Environment International, 35(6), 965-970.

This post was revised as of 1/26/2016.

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  • Honestly!

    An “honest” look at phthalates?!? What a joke! There is virtually NO sound science linking high molecular weight phthalates (those that the body gets rid of quickly and that are most common in consumer products) to negative human health effects. In fact there are literally thousands of studies to the contrary. I mean if you’re writing with a mission, then state so up front, but don’t literally lie and start off by saying this drive-by article was an “honest” look at anything.