Phthalates – you may have heard this word floating around in environmental or health circuits. Nicholas Kristoff referenced them in a recent New York Times articles (here you go).
When you’ve run across it, you may have ignored it, or maybe hesitated to learn more because it just looks confusing and scientific, or maybe you did investigate but got overwhelmed with the lack of clarity. I’m guilty of all 3 of these. But I’ve come around and you will too because I’m going to spell it out for you right now.
Phthalates are man made chemicals used in all sort of products – anywhere from flexible plastics and PVC products and flooring, to medical devices and cosmetics. There are measurable levels in the blood of almost everyone in the US.
If everyone has them, what’s the big deal?
There are a few existing controversial links right now – a metabolite of one kind of phthalate has been linked to abnormal semen analyses in sub-fertile couples. There are associations between prenatal exposure and changes in genital and sexual development of children, specifically male children.
There is emerging evidence that phthalates may have adverse impacts on the developing brain. Many studies are ongoing, and I think we’ll be hearing about these soon. Remember when BPA was banned from plastic bottles because it was found to be dangerous? Some people think or hope phthalates will be the next ban.
I guess the biggest deal is that they’re used so universally. The medical industry relies on phthalates for the tubing and packaging for some life saving equipment. And the alternative isn’t necessarily better (not that I know what that is … but it’s probably another chemical compound that has’t been studied extensively either). The convenience of flexible plastic and PVC? I don’t know if the economy could do without. In the beauty industry they’ve traditionally been used in nail polish to help with application / texture and perfumes to make the scent last longer.
There is a huge emphasis in the natural beauty community to avoid these chemicals. The advice: avoid cosmetic products with phthalates and you can minimize your overall exposure. But the truth is that cosmetic products are just a small portion of products we use in our day to day life that exposes us to these chemicals.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t care about our cosmetics containing them – we should. There are plentiful cosmetic products that are effective and lovely and phthalate free. I would argue that cosmetic companies that continue to use phthalates are not innovative, or just lazy and not wanting to reformulate, or are exposing their consumers to unnecessary chemicals to make their product more likable (which in turn = more money in their pockets).
But if you’re boycotting phthalate containing beauty products because of the potential harm, you should additionally care about limiting exposure from other sources, in ways that don’t have anything to do with the products we smear on our bodies each day.
My goal right is to break exposures into 2 parts:
- Part 1: phthalate exposure through cosmetics. Let’s go into more detail. Where are they hiding and how can you avoid them?
- Part 2: phthalate exposure elsewhere. What steps can we take to minimize our overall exposure?
PART 1: Phthalates in cosmetics:
There are 3 different phthalates historically used in cosmetics.
- Dibutylphthalate (DBP) : used in nail polish formulas to reduce cracking and brittleness.
- Dimethylphthalate (DMP) : formulated into hair sprays to help achieve a flexible firm feel instead of stiffness.
- Diethylphthalate (DEP) : a solvent and fixative in fragrances to make the scent last longer.
Good news is that the FDA has been tracking phthalates in cosmetics and has shown a significant reduction since 2004. As of 2010 (the time of the last survey), DBP and DMP are rarely seen. DEP seems to be the only phthalate still commonly used in cosmetics, which is why phthalates associated with fragrance and perfume is a key point.
The bad news is that the FDA argues there isn’t sound, scientific evidence to support regulatory action against cosmetics containing phthalates (that’s straight from their website, folks). That’s why we still see them and no one’s regulating them.
You’ve never seen DEP on the list of ingredients? Me either. Do you see “fragrance” or “parfum”? All the time and in almost every single cosmetic product. Fragrance / parfums are considered trade secrets so companies are not required to list the individual components. A company can dump a whole lotta DEP into their trade secret protected “fragrance” or “parfum” and you don’t have the legal right to know it’s there. Pretty sneaky, right?
How can you avoid cosmetics containing phthalates?
Look for DEP on the label. As I said, it’s rare to see it … but if you do, steer clear.
My main advice is to avoid or limit products that list “fragrance” or “parfum”. Unless they specifically say “phthalate free” or some version of that, you’ll have no way of knowing if phthalates are present or not.
For pregnant women, if you’ve used a fragrance or cosmetic products and are unsure if it was phthalate free or not, do not fret – we do not have a direct cause and effect link saying they harm pregnant women or fetuses. Even if a cosmetic product does contain phthalates it’s at a very very low level. Minimizing your exposure moving forward is what you can concentrate on with the above guidance.
PART 2: Phthalates everywhere else
Let’s move on to the other sources of phthalate exposure – our day to day lives, our environment. Here’s a list from the pediatric environmental health specialty unit on how to limit exposure. I’m not saying that you have to do all of these … a nice balance is the key to successful and sustainable change. For me, I’m going to continue to use whole milk in my coffee. But for health and environmental reasons, drastically reducing plastic use makes a lot of sense to me. You find what makes sense for you.
Avoid environmental phthalates:
- avoid high fat foods such as cream, whole milk, fatty meats
- avoid canned and processed foods
- look for “phthalate-free” label
- minimize use of personal care products
- hold and store food in containers other than plastic
- don’t microwave food / beverages in plastic and avoid plastics for hot liquids
- avoid plastics marked 3, 6, or 7
- wash hands frequently
- minimize handling of receipts
- remove shoes at home to avoid tracking in dust that contains these chemicals
- keep carpets and windowsills clean to minimize dust that may contain these chemical
Based on the results of the studies I mentioned above, perhaps we’ll be seeing more regulatory action taking place. Or perhaps we’ll be seeing less, with less convincing evidence that phthalates cause harm. Regardless, knowing what you know now, you can move forward better informed. I will too.