Pervasive and Harmful: Phthalates

5 years ago

Ok so it’s a little hard to pronounce, I know.  The first time I heard of phthalates (thal-ates) I had flash backs to high school chemistry class and it wasn’t pleasant. But it wasn’t when I was sixteen, but rather as an adult when I learned about phthalates, a class of chemicals linked to a host of effects like hormone disruption, birth defects, and decreased sperm count. I was simply trying to find safe lotion, make-up and shampoo. Little did I know where my path would lead.

A few weeks ago I wrote a BlogHer post on toxic chemicals found in our couches. Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop there. (Don’t worry, the whole post won’t be depressing… promise.)

The lack of federal oversight on chemicals in our products and cosmetics is the entire reason we have toxic chemicals like phthalates in our lives. And the result is that people like you and me are now burdened with doing extensive research projects to find products free of toxic chemicals. I’m not okay with the status quo, are you?

The good news is there are efforts underway to address unregulated toxic chemicals in Congress through the Safe Chemicals Act and Safe Cosmetics Act. We need everyone to call their members of Congress to ask them to stand up for common sense limits on toxic chemicals. But in the meantime, how can we protect ourselves from phthalates?

Image: Christian Ohde/Action Press via ZUMA Press.

Where are phthalates found?

Phthalates are used to soften plastic, added to cosmetics, fragrances, nail polish, personal care products, air freshners, vinyl and other products. They often stay hidden on product labels with simple pseudonyms like “fragrance.” You know that “new car smell” we all love? Well many cars are made of PVC plastic, which off gasses phthalates. To see how your car ranks, check out

How to avoid phthalates?

First write Members of Congress to ask for increased oversight of toxic chemicals. It is easy, takes only a few minutes, and read this blog for easy tips.

Quick tips:

  • Skip the fragrance when choosing 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.
  • Check the Healthy Toys database for toys bought before 2009 - they may contain 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.
  • 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.

Why they're dangerous

Phthalates are linked to lower testosterone levels, decreased sperm counts and poor sperm quality. Exposure to phthalates during development has been linked to malformations of the male reproductive tract and testicular cancer. Young children and developing fetuses are most at risk. Phthalates also have been associated with obesity, reduced female fertility, preterm birth and low birthweight, a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms, and behavior changes.

Contact manufacturers of products

If you’re shopping for personal care products, new flooring for your home, or toys, call the manufacturer and ask if they use phthalates in their products. If they do, ask them to stop using toxic chemicals like phthalates immediately. Feel free to engage companies through social media outlets (both good and bad).

The good news

I didn’t expect to turn into a chemical researcher when I did a basic google search on ingredients in my personal care products. And I’m not, nor should I have to be. How are busy parents, working professionals and low-income families supposed to find safe products for their families?

The good news is this past July, a Senate committee passed the Safe Chemicals Act which was the first vote to update our laws on toxic chemicals in over 36 years! This has given us significant momentum towards a healthy future.

If you’re like me you’re hoping to both take action and find products you know are safe. Check out the consumer resources and be sure to call your Members of Congress and tell them that the time has come for common sense limits on toxic chemicals.


To follow Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsayDahl @Lindsay_SCHF

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