Phthalates - Definition, Hazards, and How to Avoid Phthalates

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What Are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a commonly used group of chemicals found in an alarming amount of consumer products. Phthalates act as a solvent in products such as cosmetics, hairspray, and fragrances. As a softener for plastic products, phthalates are found in PVC, vinyl, and other forms of plastic. These chemicals have been shown to easily leach into substances they are in contact with including food, your skin, and the air.

Growing Evidence of the Danger of Phthalates

In 2005, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) conducted a National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Although the CDC is quick to point out that more research is needed, trends suggest that phthalates can cause reproductive harm, especially among young males. In lab tests, rats exposed to higher concentrations of phthalates produced male offspring with reproductive abnormalities. Health concerns associated with high phthalate exposure include reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy, and other reproductive harm.

Numerous other independent studies have shown similar findings, and have called on the Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict phthalates in many consumer products.

In light of the growing concern over phthalates in products marketed to children, the European Union has banned or restricted six types of phthalates from use in children’s toys. According to the CDC, phthalates have not been used in the US to manufacture pacifiers, soft rattles, and tethers since 1999. However, other children’s toys, bath products, and other items may still contain phthalates.

How to Limit Your Exposure to Phthalates

Women of childbearing age - the group most at risk for phthalate-related harm - show the highest concentration of phthalates in their bodies. Researchers have suggested that the occurrence of phthalates in personal care and beauty products may be to blame. Phthalates were found in nearly three-quarters of the products tested (such as commonly used deodorants and perfumes) in the Environmental Working Group’s report on phthalates in beauty products, Not Too Pretty.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a collaborative project of several nonprofit public and environmental health organizations, calls for manufacturers of personal care products to replace hazardous ingredients, such as phthalates, with non-toxic alternatives. To see whether your regular brand has signed the campaign, search here.

Limiting your phthalate exposure from everyday products is a difficult task. If possible, avoid using PVC and vinyl products in your home by making changes such as using a non-vinyl shower curtain and wearing non-vinyl rainwear. Do not install vinyl flooring or carpet in your home - opt instead for natural flooring materials sealed with low-VOC sealers. Do not drink from your garden hose.

The fragrances in many products contain phthalates, so whenever possible use products that are unscented or scented only with essential oils. Choose cleaning products with plant-derived surfactants and make use of the natural cleaning powers of vinegar, baking soda, and borax.