Ingredient Intel: Phthalates
This is the fifth installment of our ongoing series aimed to help you better understand the ingredients—both desirable and undesirable—in your home cleaning and personal care products. We arm you with information and provide a solid assessment of each ingredient so you can make educated decisions for yourself and your family.
Ingredient: Phthalates, pronounced “tha-lates.”
What It Is: A family of synthetic chemicals primarily used to soften plastic, but also used to lubricate other substances, help lotions penetrate and soften the skin, and extend the life of fragrance.
Where It’s Found: Phthalates are a widespread contaminant in America’s buildings and waterways.
- As a plasticizer, they can be found in food packaging, beverage bottles, soft toys, vinyl floor tile, vinyl seating in cars, diaper changing and yoga mats, polymer clays, furniture, water pipes, building materials, and electronics. Most products containing PVC (polyvinyl chloride or vinyl, recycling code #3) contain phthalates.
- In household products they’re found in detergents, soaps, laundry supplies, and home decorating materials.
- Cosmetics and personal care products contain a host of phthalates. You’ll find them in deodorants, shampoos, nail polish (where they prevent chipping), hair spray (where they prevent stiffness), perfumes, lotions, creams, and powders.
- Phthalates are found in medical and dental devices, such as catheters, IV bags and tubes, and orthodontia supplies.
What’s the Problem?: Phthalates belong to a set of toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors, meaning they attack the hormone system. They’ve been linked to breast cancer, abnormal development of the male reproductive system, insulin resistance, thyroid problems, infertility, reduced testosterone, asthma and allergies.
How Are You Exposed?: Because phthalates are not chemically bound to the products they’re added to, they’re continuously released into the air or food or liquid. Humans are exposed by ingestion, absorption, and inhalation. Children are especially vulnerable. Phthalates cross the placenta, so they can be passed from mother to infant in utero.
In 2002, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) tested 72 name-brand cosmetics, and found phthalates in three-quarters of them. Testing humans in 2008, CDC found the highest levels in women of childbearing age, presumably because of their use of cosmetics.
How Can You Avoid Phthalates?
- Look for products marketed as phthalate-free.
- Check ingredient labels. It may be listed as DBP (dibutyl phthalate), DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate), DINP (disononyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate), DEHP (di 2-ethylhexl phthalate), DIDP (diisodecyl phthalate), DnHP (di-n-hexyl phthalate), DMP (dimethyl phthalate), and DnOP (di-n-octylphthalate).
- Avoid cooking or microwaving in plastic.
- Don’t give soft plastic toys to children or pets.
- Choose personal care products, detergents, and cleansers that don’t have the word “fragrance” on the ingredients list. Even if the label says “fragrance free” the product may still contain phthalates.
- Paints and other hobby products may contain phthalates as a solvent, so provide plenty of ventilation when using them.
- Vinyl shows up in a variety of products—lawn furniture, garden hoses, even raincoats.
- Switch to a non-vinyl shower curtain.
- Avoid most commercial air fresheners.
- Check out the database of safe household and personal care products at EWG.org, site of the Environmental Working Group.