Phthalates: A Quick Guide

Somewhere along the way you heard that phthalates were bad news.  And you’re right, they are.  But beyond that, you may not know much about them.  So, this is meant to give you a quick, easy to read guide, so you know what phthalates are, where they are found, and some consequences to their exposure- as well as some ways to avoid them in the future.

How do you pronounce ‘phthalate’?

First and foremost, we should be able to pronounce what we are talking about.

“thal – late”

It sounds like the ‘tha’ of the word ‘that’ followed by ‘late’.

What are Pthalates?

Phthalates refers to a wide range of odorless, oily, colorless synthetic liquid chemicals that are used as plasticizers.  There are low and high phthalates, referring to the number of carbon atoms in their makeup, and the range is quite specific to purpose.  The most common low phthalates are di phthalate (DEHP) and dibutyl phthalate, DBP.  The most common high phthalates are diisononyl phthalate (DINP and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), and dipropylheptyl pthalate (DPHP)

Low phthalates are commonly used in medical devices, general purpose PVC, adhesives, inks, and cosmetics, while high phthalates are primarily used in vinyl, construction equipment, automobile materials, etc., because of their durability, flexibility, temperature tolerance, and weather resistance.

What is the purpose of phthalates?

These chemicals make plastics less brittle, and more flexible to prevent breakage.  They are used in fragrances to lengthen scent.   And they can be added to solvents, to maintain a liquid state. 

Where are phthalates found?

They are found in innumerable products, from toys, vinyl home products, furniture, clothing, food and beverage containers, fragrances, body care products, such as soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics. 

A notable bit of information is that they are not just found in items they’ve been added to.

We can find them in food now, such as cheese and milk– a consequence of the tubing utilized for the milking process. 

Can phthalates be absorbed through the skin?

Yes, they can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or ingested.

Are phthalates dangerous?

Many chemical companies will argue that there is not enough evidence to claim that phthalates are dangerous to humans, however, as more research delves into possible effects, it is becoming harder to ignore their connection to health risks. Shortcomings of studies in the past is that they have focused on animals, and not human subjects, and are not considering phthalates in combination with other chemicals.

And phthalates refers to a family of chemicals, so research into each type would be necessary to narrow down the ones that are safe for consumer products and those that should be banned from production and use. 

There are a few within the family that have been banned, in fact: DBP, BBP, DEHP are commonly found in children’s toys.  Each of these chemicals has shown to cause serious adverse health effects in animals, but have not yet been proven to be cancerous or harmful to humans (beyond skin irritation).  The connection is suspected, however.

Other phthalates have demonstrated a direct cause to nausea, dizziness, vomiting, endometriosis, skin irritation and red eyes in humans, and can damage the reproductive system, kidneys, liver, and lungs. Exposed lab rats suffer tumors, cancer, and reproductive abnormalities.

Phthalates are so pervasive, that our exposure to them is inevitable.  Animal testing demonstrates serious health risks, and now, as more studies are undertaken, we are finding risks to human health linked to phthalate exposure.

Who is most susceptible to health risks from phthalates?

Children under the age of three, due to their size and exposure to toys made with phthalates, seem to be very susceptible to phthalate exposure.

Teenagers, in a fragile hormonal state, appear to be heavily susceptible to phthalates.

According to the CDC, adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men, likely due to more frequent exposure to phthalates in body care products such as soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics.

Male fetuses may experience genital effects from their mother’s exposure, as phthalates can pass through the placenta.

Why are phthalates not banned?

In the US, phthalates fall under the FDA’s purview. 

Unfortunately, phthalates are not a substance that is controlled in totality.  Instead, each individual department under the FDA, such as medical supplies, cosmetics, and food, manage regulations in isolation.  There is not a single point of control for a chemical across the board, and its use is allowed or prohibited within each faction of individual departments.

In fact, in the cosmetic division, for instance, the FDA is responsible for proving the existence of harm from a chemical, instead of the onus of proof of safety lying with the manufacturer of such products. 

Cosmetics are not approved by the FDA prior to their release and sale in public.  However, the FDA can regulate cosmetics, if they are in violation of safety regulations. Manufacturers and sellers of cosmetics are responsible for the safety of the ingredients, but there are no required tests for cosmetics to prove safety, and cosmetic product companies are not required to share their safety information with the FDA.

The FDA also cannot authorize recalls on products. 

So, in actuality, there is limited control over the substances that are used in cosmetics, for instance.

How do you limit your exposure?

The good news about phthalates is that they do not bioaccumulate.  They pass through the body quite quickly, through urine or feces.  To avoid exposure, however, consider the following:

  • Look for the ‘phthalate-free” label. Products will rarely list them, even when they are an ingredient.
  • Avoid ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient.  This usually means phthalates are used. This can be in perfumes, lotions, shampoos, and cosmetics.
  • Reduce dairy and meat consumption. 
  • Avoid fast food take out containers.
  • Use glass food storage containers- avoid plastic.  Never reheat food in plastic that may contain phthalates.  Heat triggers their release.
  • It’s just good practice to select plastic alternatives whenever possible.  It won’t always be, but selecting natural materials when you can will help limit your exposure to these untested chemicals.

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