What Are Phthalates?


What Are Phthalates: An Introduction

Many readers may be wondering, “What are phthalates?” Phthalates are a group of petroleum-based chemicals that were originally developed to make plastics more flexible. Nearly all people in industrialized and developing countries carry varying amounts of phthalate compounds in their bodies. However, phthalates have also been found to disrupt hormones in animals and humans. Because we use plastics in virtually every part of our lives, we may limit our exposure to phthalates, but never completely eliminate it.

What Are Phthalates: Common Uses of Phthalates

Once we understand what are phthalates, we must understand what they’re used for. Phthalates are chemicals that can be found in anything plastic. Food packaging, nail polish, vinyl tiling, garden hoses, shampoos and insect repellent all contain phthalates. In fact, the coveted “new car smell” is actually the smell of phthalates vaporizing as plastic parts are exposed to heat. Given our constant exposure to phthalates, it is unsurprising that these chemicals affect human health.

What are Phthalates: Health Risks of Phthalates

What are phthalates? Dangerous. Phthalates are hormone disruptors. Phthalate exposure in the womb shortens gestation, lowers male children’s sperm count and in female children causes endocrine problems that lead to premature breast development. This is especially worrying because, according to a 2000 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, women of child-bearing age receive twenty times more phthalate exposure than any other segment of the population. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has regulated phthalates as water and air pollutants since 2005. In lab animals, phthalate exposure again lowers sperm count and also causes birth defects and testicular atrophy.

What Are Phthalates: How to Avoid Phthalates

Although research has proven phthalates’ devastating health consequences for animals, research has not yet proven phthalates’ health consequences for humans to an extent that would sufficiently justify banning phthalates’ usage. However, you can lessen your phthalate exposure in several ways. Avoid products with artificial fragrances, as these products likely contain phthalates.  Shop for personal care items that are labeled “phthalate-free.” If a product’s label lists di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) or diethyl phthalate (DEP) among its ingredients, put it back on the shelf.

What Are Phthalates: Common Products That Contain Phthalates

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a list of 210 common household items that contain phthalates. This list can be accessed at their website and used as a guide to the products you should watch out for. The EWG also publishes a parents’ guide to phthalate-free childcare products.