Since the 1930s, scientists have used a family of chemicals called phthalates in an astonishing array of consumer products—from shower curtains to cosmetics to food containers. Phthalates are used for many different purposes: to carry and fragrance and to make those scents last longer, 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. The chemicals pose risks to the development of the reproductive system, brain, and other organs.
In 2008, after it was determined by researchers that a baby could ingest these toxic chemicals simply by chewing on his 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 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.
Be wary of cosmetics.
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.
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 foods—one more reason to avoid fast food!
Banish vinyl from your home.
Anything made of this material—shower curtains, mini-blinds, flooring—is almost guaranteed to contain phthalates.
Stop using air freshener.
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.
Even better, try to avoid all fragrance.
Cosmetics and cleaning products may list "fragrance" or "parfum" on their labels that might include phthalates, but the exact ingredients are considered trade secrets. So you often can't determine what is safe.
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.