June 28th, 2011

PHTHALATES: Hidden Dangers in Everyday Products

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phthalates in cosmetics
I think we can all agree that this “going green journey” can at times be overwhelming. There are so many things to consider and remember when it comes to the safety of our families and the planet. At the top of my greenie “to do” list is avoidance of all toxic chemicals that could potentially make me and/or my family sick.

Sounds simple, yet it’s not. Especially when it comes to phthalates.

What are phthalates?

Phthalates are chemicals used as softeners or plasticizers in polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl) products. They can be found in hundreds of products: pre-2009 toys, wallpaper, cling wrap, shower curtains, nail polish, perfume, blood bags, cosmetics, personal care products, shampoos, carpeting, wood finishes and insecticides (the list could go on and on).  Phthalates have even been known to coat pharmaceutical pills and vitamins.

Manufacturers like to use phthalates because when added to plastic it increases the flexibility and durability of the plastic and allows products such as nail polish, skin products, perfumes, hair gels, wallpaper and paint to cling on and last longer. That new car smell that you either love or hate is partly caused by phthalates.

Should phthalates be avoided?

YES. Phthalates have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts and some preliminary studies show that they may be causing a slow and steady demasculinizing of men.  Other studies have linked phthalates to liver cancer and breast cancer.

How do I know if something has phthalates?

Good question: unfortunately, you can’t always tell.

According to the FDA ingredients have to be listed on personal care products, including cosmetics. So far so good. However, the regulations don’t require the listing of the individual fragrance ingredients; therefore, the consumer will not be able to determine from the ingredient list if phthalates are present in a fragrance. Also, the law doesn’t apply to products used solely by professionals. For example- there is no requirement that products used in a hair salon be labeled as containing phthalates. WHAT??  The FDA has some mighty big loopholes in their regulations.

How to avoid phthalates

  1. Avoid fragrance. Fragrance mixtures are considered a trade secret or proprietary information and this enables companies to get away with not disclosing their “secret” ingredients. If a product lists “fragrance” steer clear.
  2. Use EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database to check the safety level of your personal care products. Find safe alternatives for nail polish and other cosmetics with toxic chemicals.
  3. Avoid buying plastic as much as possible. Get to know your plastics and stick with numbers 2 or 5. Avoid plastic shower curtains and #3 plastic.
  4. Make your own cosmetics. The only way you will know with certainty what was used in your product.
  5. Check the Healthy Toys database for toys bought before 2009 – they may contain phthalates.
  6. Look for products labeled “Phthalate Free”.
  7. Read the ingredients. Avoid anything with:

DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate) are often found in personal care products, including nail polishes, deodorants, perfumes and cologne, aftershave lotions, shampoos, hair gels and hand lotions. (BzBP, see below, is also in some personal care products.)

DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) is used in PVC plastics, including some medical devices.

BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate) is used in some flooring, car products and personal care products.

DMP (dimethyl phthalate) is used in insect repellent and some plastics (as well as rocket propellant)

Take action against phthalates

  • Help Congress pass The Safe Cosmetics Act 2011. This will require chemical manufacturers demonstrate that their products are safe before they’re on store shelves. Click HERE , enter your zip code and show your support.
  • Join Healthy Child Healthy World -stay informed and get involved.
  • Stay informed by joining Safer Chemicals Healthy Families.

Do you try to avoid buying products with phthalates or other toxic chemicals? Do you try to limit your family’s exposure to phthalates?

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[Photo used under Creative Commons from Akira Ohgaki/Flickr]


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25 Responses to “PHTHALATES: Hidden Dangers in Everyday Products”

  1. It’s everywhere! Sometimes I wish I could live in a bubble :) I can’t believe companies are ok with making products that are harmful. Thanks for the helpful advice. I have made a 180 int he products I use and even consume.

  2. I love how you break down the plastics by number, not everyone is aware of how important these numbers are to how long plastic remains on our planet! Also, I can barely pronounce PHTHALATES let alone know about the danger caused by them, so thanks for this post!!

  3. I gave up all perfume and cosmetics due to phthalates and parabens and have never looked back. Great article!

  4. Great post! Very informative. I’m a bit of a fatalist when it comes to chemicals — I avoid the ones I can, but accept that I live in a contaminated world and will, in all likelihood, die of cancer. I think I prefer your more proactive attitude. :)

  5. Thanks Jennifer. Your approach made me chuckle-there is probably some truth to it since the chemical situation is completely out of control. I guess I like to feel as though I have a small amount of control over a situation that is headed for disaster unless something is done quickly. Why not be proactive-can’t hurt, it can only help!

  6. Thanks Tiffany! Did you give up all cosmetics-or did you switch to some that are phthalates and paraben free? Just curious if you went cold turkey. I don’t use much, but what I do use is free of all toxic chemicals.

  7. It is a hard one to pronounce Tiffany! Plastics are certainly a complicated group-so many potential hazards and long term issues. It’s frustrating that the dangers are often hidden from the consumers and we have to dig around to discover the ugly truth. Thanks so much for your comment :)

  8. Hi Meg! We shouldn’t have to live in a bubble, but that seems to be the only way we can steer clear of all the potential toxins in our products. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either that companies are making these products in the first place. Hopefully the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 will pass and companies will have to prove a product safe before it hits the shelves.

  9. I’m with Meg and I like your response Lori. I added myself to the Safe Chemicals Act. I hope together we can make a difference…

  10. So glad you joined in Andrea-I truly believe that together we CAN make a difference.

  11. Going green totally gets overwhelming! I decided to just stop using makeup altogether. It’s so infuriating that all of this is happening without any consequences! I submitted to the Safe Chemicals Act as well. Thanks for spreading the word! It’s so much easier to do these things together :)

  12. Tell me about it! When I found out phthalates hide in products containing fragrance, I felt cheated. I’m not surprised the industry tried to keep us blind, but why do our governments allow this to go on?

    Oh, good to know: instead of “fragrance”, some labels use the term “parfum”, and the same rule applies… phthalates are hiding in it. Ugh.

  13. Great point Andrea-parfum and fragrance are one in the same and both can contain phthalates. I’m with you-so frustrated that products with toxic chemicals can make their way into retail stores. I feel betrayed as well!

  14. […] Lori Alper, Groovy Green Livin’ […]

  15. […] major nail polish companies no longer use the “toxic trio”, toluene, formaldehyde or phthalates, which have been linked to asthma, cancer and reproductive problems. Thankfully there are also […]

  16. […] Hazards of Air Fresheners” in which they found 86% of air fresheners tested contained dangerous phthalates.  Phthalates have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts and some preliminary […]

  17. […] products contained one or more phthalates. A folding chair with a vinyl coating contained 17.1% by weight phthalates (16% DEHP and 1.1% DINP) […]

  18. […] it turns out some school supplies might be releasing “toxic dust” — chemicals known as phthalates – which are linked to serious health problems, including asthma, ADHD, and […]

  19. We currently purchase a laminated plastic zipper bag that has a PET film as the outside layer of the bag and polyethylene on the inside layer touching the food product inside the bag. PET is actually polyethylene theraphthalate. Is this hazzardous?

  20. […] that Walgreens sells containing one or more toxic chemicals. These toxic chemicals include PVC, phthalates, and heavy metals that have been linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, […]

  21. […] Phthalates ,which are currently banned in children’s products were found in water hoses at high levels. […]

  22. […] Phthalates are chemicals used as softeners or plasticizers in polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl) products and can be found in hundreds of products: pre-2009 toys, wallpaper, cling wrap, shower curtains, plastic PVC containers, nail polish, perfume, blood bags, cosmetics, personal care products, shampoos, carpeting, wood finishes and insecticides (the list could go on and on). […]

  23. […] have shown toxic chemicals like phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to birth defects in baby boys and asthma in children, can migrate […]

  24. […] chemicals of concern found in dollar store products tested for this report include: phthalates, linked to birth defects, reduced fertility, cancer, learning disabilities, diabetes, and other […]

  25. […] fragrances that are made up of literally hundreds of chemicals, including hormone-disrupting phthalates, and other ingredients that have been associated with cancer. And they […]

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About Lori

I’m Lori Popkewitz Alper, a recovering attorney, mom of three and the Founder of Groovy Green Livin. Come along with me as I work hard to make the world a little safer for each of us.

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