Phthalates(pronounced “thalates”) are plastisizers used to soften plastic (primarily PVC) and add flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity.  It is also a known hormone disruptor.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics cites that phthalates have been shown in studies to disrupt key hormone developments in boys and alter the normal development of the sex organs.  It has been shown in studies to be associated with poor sperm quality and fertility in adult men.  It has also been found to cause proliferation of breast tumor cells and renders anti-estrogen treatments, such as tamoxifen, less effective against tumors.  Female lab animals have been shown to have some of the same sex hormone alterations and experience fetal loss.

The most common name for  this ingredients on labels is diethyl phthalate (aka DEP, and is banned in the EU).  The problem with reading the labels is that DEP and other phthalates are hardly ever listed.  They are usually hidden in seemingly innocuous ingredients like FRAGRANCE.  Fragrance is a generic term and is claimed by companies to be a trade secret, meaning they do not have to tell you what they use to make that fragrance.  Many compounds tested have been shown to contain phthlates and other harmful neurotoxins.

You can find diethyl phthalate in some fragrances, nail glue and even a bath salt on the EWG Skin Deep Database.  Fragrance is listed in  over 11,000 products in Skin Deep.  Phthalates have also be found in numerous plastic items, most harmful in children’s toys, baby bottles, and baby teethers.

The Good News

Consumers are demanding that product ingredients be more transparent and manufacturers are slowly listening.  Recently the International Fragrance Association compiled a list of the known ingredients that their members reportedly use in their consumer products.  While there are many toxic offenders on the list, the fact that public pressure forced them to at least compile the list is a step in the right direction.  Also, many eco-oriented companies are now labeling their products as “Phthalate free.”*

In February 2009, The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was made into law.  it was deemed unlawful for any children’s toy or child care article to be manufactured or sold that contained concentrations of more than 0.1 percent The law also requires the establishment of a permanent review board to determine the safety of other phthalates. Many companies heard the public outcry and, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, voluntarily eliminated phthalates from their products.

What to watch out for:

  • Try to avoid products that actually list diethyl phthalate (DEP) or other phthalate derivatives in their ingredients.
  • Be cautious of the generic term of Fragrance.  If the product has fragrance on the label, but qualifies it fragrance free, check with the company for confirmation.
  • Even products labeled unscented are not free of phthalates.  Some use “masking fragrance” to hide the smell of certain chemicals in the product.
  • The Skin Deep Database is a good resource to check your products you already own or are considering buying.  * Note that EWG classifies the ingredient Fragrance as High Hazard even if the product is labeled phthalate-free.  Check with the company to confirm.  EWG’s rating policy is that if it is not fully disclosed it is rated as such.
  • Though companies are not allowed to manufacture or sell toys for children that contain phthalates, there is no oversight into whether they are actually in compliance before toys hit the shelves.  Try to buy toys labeled “phthalate free” and be cautious of second hand toys that will go into children’s mouths.

Up Next: Toxin #2- Retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A)

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