Fighting Phthalates

These harmful chemicals are lurking in countless products, but companies don’t have to tell us which ones. Follow these tips to reduce your exposure.

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What are phthalates?

Since the 1930s, scientists have used a family of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced “THAL-eights”) in an astonishing array of consumer products—from shower curtains to cosmetics to food containers. Phthalates are used for many purposes: to retain the scents used in fragrances, to soften and strengthen plastic, and to help topical products like lotions and cosmetics stick to and penetrate skin. But in the 1990s, when studies showed that phthalates could mimic our body's natural hormones, scientists became concerned about the health effects of these chemicals.

“Hormones operate on a parts-per-trillion level in the body normally,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at NRDC, which is working to ensure strong protections and restrictions on phthalates. “That’s a fraction of a teaspoon in an Olympic-size swimming pool.” Any change in that ratio can interfere with your body’s normal functioning. Like the infamous endocrine disruptors BPA and DDT, phthalates are particularly dangerous to pregnant women and babies. When ingested by pregnant women, phthalates can travel through the bloodstream and come into direct contact with the developing fetus. Later on, the chemical can also wind up in the mother’s breast milk. The chemicals pose risks to the development of the reproductive system, brain, and other organs. Boys who are exposed prenatally can also develop genital defects, which could lead to infertility.

In 2008, after it was determined by researchers that a baby could ingest these toxic chemicals simply by chewing on a rubber ducky, Congress outlawed three types of phthalates (DBP, BBP, and DEHP) in all toys and child care products.

That was a major step forward, but we’re still stuck with this scary fact: Dozens of types of phthalates still lurk in a dizzying number of everyday products. And it’s impossible to know which ones, exactly, because manufacturers don’t have to tell you. Federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission—as well as states—all play a role in regulating phthalates. Until stronger regulations are in place, you can take the following steps to reduce your exposure.

Learn to identify phthalates in products’ ingredient lists

Unfortunately, product labels rarely state “contains phthalates” upfront. But consumers can still identify the presence of the chemicals by looking for certain acronyms on labels. These are the eight most widely used phthalate compounds in products:

  • BBP (Butyl benzyl phthalate)
  • DBP (Dibutyl phthalate): most commonly found in nail polish
  • DEHP (Di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate): most commonly found in medical products, like disposable gloves, tubes, catheters, and blood bags
  • DEP (Diethyl phthalate): most commonly found in personal care products
  • DiDP (Di-isodecyl phthalate)
  • DiNP (Di-isonoyl phthalate): most commonly found in toys and childcare products, like bath toys, drinking straws, and rubber ducks
  • DnHP (di-n-hexyl phthalate)
  • DnOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)

Additionally, look out for the number three within the recycling arrows and the letters “V” and “PVC” under the triangle.

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Be wary of cosmetics and try to avoid all fragrance

Because the label on your eye shadow, moisturizer, or nail polish doesn’t have to include a phthalate warning—or even disclose all of the ingredients—you might need to do some investigating. Checking the company’s website or contacting its customer service department might help you find out what’s really inside. But the best choice might be to stick to products with a "no phthalate" label or find companies that have pledged to remain phthalate-free.

Other personal care products that may also contain phthalates include shampoo, soaps, and lotion. As with makeup producers, manufacturers of these product types don’t need to list phthalates on their labels (and generally, the exact ingredients are considered trade secrets). But if you see the words “fragrance” or “parfum” printed on the packaging, chances are that it contains phthalates.

Eat fresh, unprocessed food when possible. And don't heat your food in plastic containers.

Phthalates can seep into food through equipment used in processing plants such as tubing, gloves, conveyor belts, lids, adhesives, and plastic wraps. This is particularly true for fatty and processed foods—one more reason to avoid fast food! A study of cheese products detected high levels of phthalates in all of the powdered cheese samples found in boxed mac and cheese, much higher than the concentrations found in cheese slices and natural cheeses like shredded and string cheese (though all of them contained phthalates).

Banish vinyl from your home

Anything made of this material—shower curtains, mini-blinds, flooring—is almost guaranteed to contain phthalates. Do your research on phthalate-free vinyl flooring brands and other companies that produce clean household supplies.

Stop using air fresheners

This product category is particularly dicey. Case in point: In 2007 NRDC tested 14 popular air fresheners. None listed phthalates as an ingredient, but 12—even some advertised as “all natural” or “unscented”—had them.

Put pressure on your favorite companies

Encourage manufacturers to disclose whether their products contain phthalates, and urge retailers to stop selling products that have them. Change will happen if enough people ask for it. For example, Home Depot and Lowe’s eliminated phthalates from most of their vinyl flooring in 2015; Apple phased the chemicals out of earbuds and power cords in 2013; and more and more cosmetics are being marketed as phthalate free.

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