Phthalates is a chemical found in hundreds of products. They are mostly used in plastics to help them become soft, pliable and less prone to breaking. Most people’s exposure to phthalates comes from food sources and personal care products.
Phthalates are not intentionally added to foods, but they can be transferred into foods from other sources, including during preparation, processing, and packaging. Exposure to phthalates can be worrying because they are linked to serious health problems, including pregnant women, unborn babies, and young children.
This article will discuss phthalates uses, exposure, products containing phthalates, health effects, and more.
Phthalates Chemical Composition
Phthalates are part of a family of compounds that have been in widespread use for nearly 100 years. They are mainly used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a compound (plasticizer) that makes products flexible and bendable.
PVC is the most used plasticizer in the world. It’s found in plumbing, plumbing, packaging, wiring, and thousands of consumer products. In some products, such as wall coverings, tablecloths, floor files, some toys, and shoes, phthalates ooze out without a strong bond.
Phthalates are sometimes referred to as “ubiquitous chemicals.” That’s because they’re found in thousands of products that people use every day, including:
- kids toys
- medical equipment
- PVC pipes
- vinyl flooring
- wall covering
- Detergents and Household Cleaners
- food packaging
- Personal care products, including soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics
FDA Status and Safety
It is unclear what effects phthalates have on human health. Currently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not oppose the use of all phthalates.
However, the FDA does recommend two phthalates that may be associated with health risks: dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). The FDA recommends avoiding the use of DBP and DEHP in prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
The FDA also recommends that phthalates in cosmetics and other consumer products pose no serious safety risk. The agency noted that it will update the guidance if its position changes.
The FDA has not taken any position on the safety of phthalates in food, food packaging and food handling equipment. Researchers have found high levels of phthalates in soft drinks, mineral water, wine, oils and other foods.
Exposure and Inspection
Most people are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking products containing these substances. You may also be exposed to airborne phthalate particles. Contact with shampoos, lotions and other personal care products can cause skin absorption.
Human exposure to phthalates can be determined by measuring phthalate levels in urine, blood, and breast milk. If your doctor thinks your phthalate exposure is high, a phthalate level test will be done.
Phthalates are used in soft plastic teethers and baby toys and can be harmful to the health of babies. Also, babies crawl around, touch many things, and put their hands in their mouths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that phthalate particles are present in dust. This means infants may be at greater risk of exposure, especially compared to adults.
The study also found that babies can get unsafe levels of phthalates from their diets. A study reported in 2014 found unsafe levels of phthalates in infants older than 6 months who ate solid foods. These levels were found to be higher than consumption levels for adolescents and women of childbearing age.
Items high in phthalates
Phthalates are classified as high or low based on their molecular weight. High phthalate for high persistence and durability.
Beauty and skin care products
Beauty and skin care products, including shampoos, fragrances, hair sprays, and makeup, can contain large amounts of phthalates. These products contain the following ingredients:
- Butyl Benzyl Phthalate (BBP)
- Diisodecyl phthalate (DiDP)
- Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
- Di-n-hexyl phthalate (DnHP)
- Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
High phthalates are also found in PVC products such as wire and cable fittings, floors, wall coverings, self-adhesive films, coated fabrics, roofing and automotive parts. The most common high phthalates in these products are diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and dipropylheptyl phthalate (DPHP) .
Studies have found that fast food may contain phthalates.
A study in 2021 Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology It has been shown that high levels in these foods can lead to hormonal disturbances, infertility and learning disabilities. The study’s authors concluded that 70 to 80 percent of the fast food they tested contained phthalates.
Other foods that contain phthalates include dairy products, meat, fish, oils, and infant formula. Phthalates are also found in food packaging and food preparation materials, and phthalates in these products can leach into nearby food.
Possible health effects of phthalates
Research has linked phthalates to health conditions, including those related to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and endocrine and reproductive systems.
Phthalates are associated with lower levels of testosterone (a sex hormone) and lower sperm counts in men. In all genders, high phthalate exposure may lead to decreased fertility. Pregnant women exposed to high levels of phthalates may have babies with cognitive or behavioral problems.
Phthalates have also been linked to changes in endocrine function (the body’s system that controls hormones) and thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are a key part of growth, brain development and metabolism.
Some phthalates may cause liver and kidney toxicity. This has been demonstrated in animal studies.
Phthalates have also been linked to certain types of cancer, including thyroid and breast cancer. The study also showed a significant link between phthalate exposure and adverse outcomes for type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, allergies, and asthma in all genders.
Women of childbearing age, infants and young children face the highest health risks from exposure to phthalates.
Research has found that women are exposed to higher levels of phthalates through the use of beauty and personal care products. Some of these products have also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. High levels of phthalates during pregnancy may put the unborn baby at risk for birth defects and growth problems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long warned about the health effects of phthalates on infants and young children, especially in relation to food additives. This is an age group that is more sensitive to the effects of phthalates, and most of the exposure comes from their diet.
How to find products that are free of phthalates
There is no way to know how much phthalates you are exposed to and the effects of that exposure. While it’s impossible to avoid all types of phthalates, you can choose to use phthalate-free products at home.
Compounds and symbols to find
Phthalates can sometimes be identified by their three- or four-letter chemical structure acronym. You’re unlikely to find a label that clearly states that a product contains phthalates, and even a product that says “phthalate free” on the packaging isn’t necessarily free of all phthalates.
Eight common phthalate compounds are:
- Di-n-octyl phthalate (DOP)
- Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
- Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP)
- Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
- Diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP)
- Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
- Benzyl butyl phthalate (BzBP)
- Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
Tips for Limiting Phthalate Exposure
You can limit your exposure to phthalates by reading the labels on the products you use every day.
One way to identify products that contain phthalates is to look for the numbers inside the universal recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic bottles. According to Penn State, you should avoid plastics with a #3, #6 or #7 recycling code whenever possible.
Some products contain the words “Phthalates Free,” but you should still read all ingredients on the labels of these products. You should also watch out for phthalates hidden under the word “perfume”. Fragrance in the form of phthalates is added to these products to make their scent last longer.
Other ways to reduce family exposure include:
- Choose natural personal care products.
- Avoid PVC vinyl floors and shower curtains. Choose from wood, tile, concrete or natural linoleum floors. Use cloth or linen shower curtains instead of vinyl.
- Avoid plastic toys. Choose wooden toys or organic cotton.
- Swap air fresheners that contain phthalates for essential oils.
- Use microwave-safe, phthalate-free containers and plastic wraps to heat food and beverages.
- Eat less fast food and prepare more fresh food at home, using lean meats and fresh produce.
Phthalates are a class of man-made chemicals used to increase the flexibility of plastics. They are used in a wide range of consumer products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and plastic children’s toys.
Several studies have found these chemicals to be harmful to human health and linked to cancer, hormonal disturbances, developmental delays and birth defects.
The best way to protect your family from phthalates is to read product labels and look for three- or four-letter chemical structure acronyms for phthalates, such as DOP, DBP, and DMP. Try preparing meals at home using lean meats and fresh produce to reduce your family’s intake of foods that contain phthalates.
Phthalates are everywhere, and almost everyone has been exposed to them. If you are concerned about your phthalate exposure, you should do everything you can to avoid using these products. If you think you or your child is experiencing a health problem related to a product containing these chemicals, please contact your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns and health risks.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which phthalates are banned?
Some phthalates have been banned, including di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) . Some other phthalates are prohibited in children’s toys and care products.
What are the side effects of phthalate exposure?
Researchers have linked many different health conditions to phthalate exposure, including asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral problems in children, reproductive problems, and fertility problems.
Is it possible to buy products that are 100% phthalate free?
Many companies sell personal care products that are advertised as “phthalate free,” but it’s still wise to read the labels before buying these products. You should also avoid products with fragrances or fragrances that may hide phthalates, and plastics with #3, #6, or #7 recycling codes.
How do you identify phthalates on ingredient labels?
Phthalates can sometimes be identified by their three- or four-letter chemical structure acronym. You’re unlikely to find labels that clearly state that a product contains phthalates.
What do doctors say about phthalate exposure?
The medical community recognizes that exposure to phthalates is associated with a range of serious health conditions. While phthalate exposure is common, exposure to pregnant women and young children may cause the most harm.
If you are pregnant or have small children, talk with your healthcare provider about the best ways to avoid high levels of phthalates in your diet and household products.