Smarter Living: Chemical Index

Phthalates are a class of chemicals widely employed to make plastics more malleable and help lotions penetrate skin. A number of phthalates are known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm in test animals.

Health Concerns

Phthalates are known to interfere with the production of male reproductive hormones in animals and likely to have similar effects in humans. Their effects in animal studies are well recognized and include lower testosterone levels, decreased sperm counts and lower sperm quality. Exposure to phthalates during development can also cause malformations of the male reproductive tract and testicular cancer. Young children and developing fetuses are most at risk.

Where They are Found

Phthalates are used in an enormous range of products, including air fresheners, plastic toys, flooring tiles, medical devices, cosmetic and personal-care products (including fragrances and nail polish), vinyl, inks and adhesives. Phthalates are also used as food additives and as inert ingredients in pesticides.

Because phthalates are not chemically bound to products, they easily migrate or off-gas, especially with heat. People can be exposed to phthalates by inhaling or ingesting contaminated dust particles, eating contaminated food, or applying products which contain phthalates to the skin.

Stay Safe

  • Buy phthalate-free cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products, detergents and air fresheners. Manufacturers aren't required to list phthalates on the label, but any item listed as "fragrance" is often a chemical mixture that can contain phthalates. When buying cosmetics, purchase from companies that have pledged not to use phthalates.
  • Avoid buying plastics that may be treated with phthalates, including vinyl toys, shower curtains and gloves. Look out for "PVC," "V" or the"3" recycling code on the item or its packaging. Choose instead toys such as phthalate-free Legos or those made of unpainted solid wood and finished with tung oil or beeswax blocks. Ask for dolls that are phthalate-free.
  • If you have vinyl flooring in your home, damp mop regularly since phthalates bind to dust on the floor. Direct sunlight on vinyl tiles causes them to release phthalates more quickly, so put lower blinds on windows that shine directly on flooring. Finally, if you're already considering replacing your flooring, choose nonvinyl options such as cork, linoleum, wood or stone.

Take Action

Congress introduced legislation in April 2010 to reform the Toxic Substances Reform Act (TSCA) in ways that would tighten up regulation of problem chemicals like phthalates and require testing of new chemicals before they were allowed for use in commerce. Urge your legislators to support this much needed reform. For more information click here.

Learn More

Gray, L. E., Jr., J. Laskey, et al. (2006). "Chronic di-n-butyl phthalate exposure in rats reduces fertility and alters ovarian function during pregnancy in female Long Evans hooded rats." Toxicol Sci 93(1): 189-95.

Hauser, R., J. D. Meeker, et al. (2006). "Altered semen quality in relation to urinary concentrations of phthalate monoester and oxidative metabolites." Epidemiology 17(6): 682-91.

Howdeshell, K. L. , et al. (2008). "A Mixture of Five Phthalate Esters Inhibits Fetal Testicular Testosterone Production in the Sprague-Dawley Rat in a Cumulative, Dose-Additive Manner." Toxicol. Sci. 105(1): 153-165.

Jaakkola, J. J. and T. L. Knight (2008). "The Role of Exposure to Phthalates from Polyvinyl Chloride Products in the Development of Asthma and Allergies: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis." Environ Health Perspect 116(7): 845-53.

Kavlock, R., et al. (2002). "NTP Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction: phthalates expert panel report on the reproductive and developmental toxicity of di-n-hexyl phthalate." Reprod Toxicol 16(5): 709-19.

Kavlock, R., et al. (2002). "NTP Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction: phthalates expert panel report on the reproductive and developmental toxicity of butyl benzyl phthalate." Reprod Toxicol 16(5): 453-87.

Kavlock, R., et al. (2002). "NTP Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction: phthalates expert panel report on the reproductive and developmental toxicity of di-n-butyl phthalate." Reprod Toxicol 16(5): 489-527.

Kavlock, R., et al. (2006). "NTP-CERHR Expert Panel Update on the Reproductive and Developmental Toxicity of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate." Reprod Toxicol 22(3): 291-399.

Main, K. M., et al. (2006). "Human breast milk contamination with phthalates and alterations of endogenous reproductive hormones in infants three months of age." Environ Health Perspect 114(2): 270-6.

Meeker, J. D., et al. (2009). "Urinary Metabolites of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate Are Associated with Decreased Steroid Hormone Levels in Adult Men." J Androl:30(3):287-97.

Meeker, J.D., et al. Urinary phthalate metabolites in relation to preterm birth in Mexico City. Environ Health Perspect, 2009; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.0800522

NTP-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Di-Isodecyl Phthalate (DIDP). National Toxicology Program. NTP CERHR MON. 2003 Apr;(3):i-III90.

Silva, M. J., et al. (2004). "Urinary levels of seven phthalate metabolites in the U.S. population from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2000." Environ Health Perspect 112(3): 331-8.

Silva, M. J.,, et al. (2007). "Assessment of human exposure to di-isodecyl phthalate using oxidative metabolites as biomarkers." Biomarkers 12(2): 133 - 144.

Silva, M. J., et al. (2004). "Detection of phthalate metabolites in human amniotic fluid." Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 72(6): 1226-31.

Stahlhut, R., et al. (2007). "Concentrations of urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance in adult U.S. males." Environ Health Perspect 115(6): 876-82.

Swan, S., et al. (2005). "Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure." Environ Health Perspect 113: 1056-1061.

Yanagisawa, R., et al. (2008). "Effects of maternal exposure to di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate during fetal and/or neonatal periods on atopic dermatitis in male offspring." Environ Health Perspect 116(9): 1136-41.

Yunhui, Zhang Y., et al. (2009). "Phthalate Levels and Low Birth Weight: A Nested Case-Control Study " The Journal of Pediatrics, published on-line June 2009 doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2009.04.007.

Read NRDC's factsheet on phthalates.

NRDC Protecting People from Unsafe Chemicals

last revised 12/28/2011

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