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What Are Phthalates? (And Why Should You Avoid Them?)

This is the next instalment in our ongoing series about chemicals often found in home and personal care products. Here, we make an assessment of ingredients so you can make informed choices about the products you buy.

Today, we’re looking at phthalates.

Phthalates are odourless, colourless chemicals that are everywhere around us. They’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat, our drinking water, and in hundreds of products we use every day.

They're also:

  • endocrine disruptors,
  • reproductive and developmental toxicants,
  • and possible carcinogens

Some countries have already banned the use of phthalates in cosmetics and children’s toys. Unfortunately, these chemicals are still in many other consumer products. Phthalates are so ubiquitous they've been found in the urine of virtually everyone tested.

But how bad are they really? Let’s find out.

What are phthalates?

Phthalates (THAL-ates) are a group of chemicals that make plastics, especially PVC plastics, softer and more flexible. They also act as lubricants, binders, and solvents.

Phthalates are in things like:

  • vinyl flooring,
  • raincoats,
  • garden hoses,
  • plastic packaging sheets,
  • wires and cables,
  • detergents,
  • adhesives,
  • insecticides,
  • medical tubing,
  • blood storage containers,
  • children’s backpacks,
  • school supplies,
  • and lunch boxes

Phthalates enhance the skin penetration of moisturisers, keep nail polish from chipping, and make scents from cosmetics and cleaning materials last longer.

We take in phthalates every time we bathe, put on makeup, eat food from plastic containers, drink bottled water, and inhale the air inside our homes and offices.

When you smell that new shower curtain, you're breathing in phthalates. That new car smell? Also phthalates.

Infants are exposed to phthalates through breastmilk and by drinking from plastic bottles and chewing on plastic teethers and toys.

In a 2008 study, scientists found that infants whose mums had recently applied infant care products had more phthalates in their urine than babies whose mums didn’t use these products.

What’s the problem with phthalates?

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with the normal functioning of hormones. Our hormones regulate important processes like metabolism, growth, sexual development, behaviour, and fertility.

Studies have linked phthalate exposure to:

A 2016 study linked phthalate exposure to an increased risk of miscarriage. Another showed that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy may lead to excessive weight gain and impaired glucose tolerancetwo major risk factors for gestational diabetes.

Researchers have also found that exposure to phthalates in the womb or at a young age may lead to:

Phthalates are associated with insulin resistance and increased waist circumference in adult males. In adult females, they are linked to breast cancer and endometriosis.

In the United States, the National Toxicology Program and the Environmental Protection Agency have classified certain phthalates as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Phthalates also wreak havoc on the environment.

In animals, these chemicals cause:

Phthalates are regulated as hazardous wastes when they are dumped by industry into the environment. Ironically, there are few regulations on phthalates in food, drinking water, cosmetics, and other products.

What the experts say about phthalates

The phthalates DEHP, BBP, and DBP are banned in cosmetics sold in the European Union.

In the US, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel said that DBP, DEP, and DMP are safe for use in cosmetics. Likewise, the US Food & Drug Administration decided that there’s no need to regulate cosmetics that contain phthalates.

In 1999, the EU permanently banned certain phthalates in toys and childcare items. The US did the same in 2008 and Canada followed suit in 2011. In 2010, Australia banned the sale of children’s plastic products containing more than 1% by weight of DEHP.

How to avoid phthalates

Look for these acronyms for common phthalates:

  • DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate)
  • DEP (diethyl phthalate)
  • DEHP (di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate)
  • BBP (butyl benzyl phthalate)
  • DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
  • DNOP (di(n-octyl) phthalate)
  • DINP (diisononyl phthalate)
  • DIDP (diisodecyl phthalate)
It can be hard to avoid phthalates entirely because they’re in so many different products. Confusingly, it's not always clear from the label if a product contains these chemicals.

One way to reduce phthalate exposure is to avoid products that have “fragrance” or “parfum” on the ingredient list. When you see these words, it just about always means that you’re getting an added serve of phthalates. Look for skincare products that say “phthalate free” or “no synthetic fragrance,” or that use only essential oils.

Choose safer plastics. Plastics with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5 are better than plastics marked with a 3 or a 7 (these are more likely to contain both phthalates and BPA). See Hello Charlie’s Guide to Safer Plastics for more useful information. 

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