Thbpbpthpt: Phthalates

Okay, Organic Adventurers, now that we’ve covered triclosan and BPA/bisphenols as endocrine disrupting chemicals, there’s one more EDC to discuss before we leave the topic. We’re talking about EDCs that we’re all exposed to on a continual basis – all day, every day – and phthalates (pronounced “THAL-ates”) certainly belong in that category. (Check out the EWG’s Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors to see other EDCs.)

Phthalates are plasticizers formed when an acid, phthalic acid in this case, is condensed with any number of different alcohols. Depending on the chemicals used and the reaction created, any number of different end products, the phthalates, can be produced for an almost countless number of applications. The amazing number of compounds in the category of phthalates, the even more amazing quantity of stuff they’re used in and the fact that manufacturers don’t have to disclose the presence of phthalates in their products make this group of EDCs our nominee for “sneakiest endocrine disruptor.”

Since this is our last post on this topic for a while, here are some other chemicals to look out for.

Here are some examples of uses of phthalates that we all encounter in our daily lives: plastics, electronics, glues, perfumes (any kind of scented product, really), cleaners and detergents, cosmetics and toiletries, medicines and vitamins, food—the list goes on and on.

DBP is a phthalate commonly used in nail polish, among other products.

So if phthalates are in so much of what we use, they’re probably safe, right? Wrong! The FDA monitors phthalates (use, safety, etc.) and continues to conclude, basically, that humans aren’t exposed to as much of the stuff as it would take to sicken a lab animal and that, therefore, phthalates are safe. Yay.

We don’t know about you, but we don’t really want to be exposed to any amount of anything that makes any being sick at any level. There’s that…and the fact that the FDA isn’t really considering a lifetime (and a human lifetime is a lot longer than the lifetime of a laboratory animal) of multiple exposures. Oh, and then there’s the big chunk of data provided by an organization sponsored by the cosmetics industry, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, that the FDA uses to reach its conclusions.

Plastics with the codes 3 and 7 are especially notorious for releasing phthalates.

Meanwhile, lab tests prove a link between phthalates and hormone changes and birth defects in animals. Phthalates have also been linked in humans to premature cell death, reproductive problems (low sperm count, decreased sperm motility, etc.), birth defects, allergic reactions, behavior changes and more, not to mention all the other endocrine system-related disorders that can occur when hormones are imbalanced or disrupted.

But the dangers of phthalates are even more common than in those effects. We bet you can remember a time when you or someone you know mysteriously experienced eye, skin, nose or throat irritation, headache, dizziness, an asthma attack or difficulty breathing, fatigue, or any number of other symptoms, especially after a new item or product was introduced into that person’s environment. It’s a mystery to us because we tend not to think much of it when the carpet at work gets replaced or we start using a new cologne, but it’s quite probable that that person was having a reaction to phthalate exposure.

Part of the problem is that phthalates are in so much of what we use and come into contact with every day, and part of the problem with phthalates is that they aren’t chemically bonded to whatever they’re used in, so it’s super easy for them to “escape” their physical bonds and take refuge in you. You know that smell your new chair has, the smell that had you leaving the windows open for days? That is, in part, phthalates “off-gassing,” or being released into the air. We breathe phthalates, eat them and absorb them through our skin.

PVC gloves are another commonly phthalate-laden product. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

You’ve figured out by now that it would be really hard to eliminate phthalates from your life completely, but there are things you can do to reduce your exposure. While manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the use of phthalates in their products, they are required (kind of) to provide an ingredients list for things like toiletries. If you know what you’re looking for, like DEP, you can avoid some phthalates that way.

Manufacturers are not required, however, to disclose the specific ingredients used to produce their product’s scent. So go for unscented products and steer clear of products with “fragrance,” “parfum” or “perfume” listed on the label.

This one wins for “vague ingredients list.”

Better yet, choose products that specifically state “phthalate-free” on them. While you’re at it, forego air fresheners and room sprays; you don’t need to breathe the chemicals or spend the money—a clean, and occasionally aired-out, home smells plenty nice.

This widely available face wash specifies that it does not contain phthalates (or other common skin irritants). Even so, read the label and test products on a small area of skin for at least several days before using. Stop using the product immediately if your skin becomes itchy, red or flaky, if it burns, or if you experience any other type of reaction.

Speaking of a clean home, cut down on household dust as much as possible in order to avoid phthalate exposure. Get a vacuum with a good filter, use it regularly, and clean and maintain the filter. If possible, get rid of carpet and fabric drapes. Aside from the chemicals they’re often treated with, they trap, create, and release dust and other air contaminants.

Finally, avoid phthalate-contaminated plastics as much as possible, especially those marked with recycling numbers three or seven. Follow the tips in the BPA/bisphenols post and look here for alternatives.

Of course, there are a million other ways to say “thbpbpthpt” to phthalates, so please contact us if you’d like help evaluating and reducing your exposure to these and other EDCs or toxins.

And please leave us a comment in the comments section. Have you ever had a reaction like the ones described above? What do you do to avoid phthalates and other EDCs? Tell us your story!

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