What Are Phthalates? Are They Bad for Your Skin?
Many of today’s skincare products are packed with chemical ingredients that you may not be familiar with. Most are harmless and even beneficial for the skin, but some have been linked to health problems and should be avoided.
As a beauty consumer, you need to be conscious and selective of the products you buy, knowing that skincare brands don’t always make it clear which of their ingredients may cause harm. One of those ingredients to watch out for is phthalates.
Phthalates are very common and potentially harmful toxic chemicals that can be found practically everywhere. In this article, DefenAge explains what phthalates are, what products contain phthalates, the possible risks of using them in personal care products, and how you can find phthalate-free products for your home and family.
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates are synthetic chemical compounds used to manufacture plastic, personal care products, and more. They are liquids you can’t see, taste, or smell, and rather than evaporating, they bind to whatever they are added to.
Phthalates are in hundreds of the products you use daily — including your food! In fact, many people in studies have been found with phthalate byproducts in their urine. This is why phthalates have been not-so-affectionately nicknamed the “everywhere chemical.”
What Are Phthalates Used For?
In more technical terms, phthalates are esters of phthalic acid — a chemical family used as plasticizers. These are added to plastic components to reduce brittleness and improve flexibility, durability, and softness. This group of chemicals is in products like vinyl flooring, shower curtains, rain boots, and garden hoses. They’re even in the packaging of some of the foods we eat and beverages we drink and can seep into those products we consume. Phthalates are also used to make some of the coatings on medications and vitamin supplements. They’re used to manufacture everything from medical devices and shower curtains to moisturizers and nail polish.
You may also find phthalates added to skincare products and other personal care items to ensure the longevity of the fragrance. Some types of phthalates, such as diethyl phthalate, are even used to help moisturizers absorb into the skin
While some types of phthalates have been phased out due to growing awareness of their side effects, others are still in use. According to the FDA, there are three phthalates primarily used in cosmetic products:
- Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is used in products like nail polishes to help keep the polish from cracking on nails [Encyclopedia - NAILS Magazine]
- Dimethyl phthalate (DMP) is used in hair sprays to help avoid stiffness by allowing the chemicals to form a flexible film on the hair
- Diethyl phthalate (DEP), the only one of the three that seems to be used commonly in today’s cosmetics, is used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances, which are common ingredients in cosmetic products. [Phthalates in Cosmetics | FDA] DEP is commonly used in scented products to help scents linger. But on labels, it’s often identified only as “fragrance.” [Phthalates - Safe Cosmetics]
What Products Contain Phthalates?
So, where are phthalates found? They aren’t just in cosmetics — they’re in practically everything you buy, including lubricants, pharmaceuticals, plastic food packaging, and so much more. Some common examples of phthalate-containing products include:
- Nail polish
- Building materials
- Plumbing pipes
- Vinyl flooring
- Wood finishes
- And more
Which Foods Are High in Phthalates?
You even eat phthalates in everyday food items, such as:
- Fatty meats
- Baked goods
- Processed foods
- Fast foods
- High-fat dairy
- Cooking oils
- Infant formula
Are Phthalates Harmful to Humans?
Even though phthalates only reside in the body for a short time, repeated exposure can do long-term damage; phthalates can block or imitate the behavior of female hormones, causing harm to a pregnancy, the growth and development of a child, and an adult’s reproductive capacity.
- According to a 2021 study, phthalates may adversely impact human health by disrupting endocrine function and imbalancing hormones.
- Phthalates have been linked to obesity in rats and changes in female thyroid function. In a recent review of studies in a scientific journal, the authors wrote that a type of phthalate exposure had been associated with thyroid cancer. [Thyroid Carcinoma: A Review for 25 Years of Environmental Risk Factors Studies - PMC (nih.gov)]
- “Numerous research studies have linked phthalates to endometriosis in women, increases in waist size and body mass index and brain and behavior changes in infants and children,” according to EWG. [Phthalates Are Out of Children’s Toys, But In Your Food | Environmental Working Group (ewg.org)]
- Phthalates can prevent sexual development in males by suppressing important hormones.The Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) has listed phthalates on EWG’s Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors, pointing to research suggesting phthalate exposure is associated with reduced male fertility and reproductive birth defects.
- Researchers have also found that pregnant women exposed to phthalates have a higher risk of negative effects on a child’s brain development and ability to learn and socialize. [Why phthalates should be banned in consumer products | News | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health]
These chemicals have also been linked to neurological, developmental, and other problems. Phthalates are correlated with the existence of ADHD, asthma, Type 2 diabetes, rhinitis, some cancers, and other issues. However, the medical community still does not fully understand the long-term impact of exposure to phthalates, and further research is necessary. Much of the literature in existence has resulted more from animal studies than human.
Phthalates and the FDA
The FDA’s explanation about how phthalates impact human health is vague: “Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system in animals. Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are not as clear. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates.”
Why Are Babies, Children, and Women Most Affected?
Women are more likely to use phthalate-containing cosmetics and skincare products than men, which is why women tend to have higher exposure. According to a 2017 study, females who were exposed prenatally to monoethyl phthalate experienced puberty at an early age, which increased their risk of reproductive cancer, mental health problems, and risk-taking behaviors.
As for children, those under three years old are more at risk because they have smaller developing bodies and high exposure to phthalates due to the high chemical content in children’s products. Additionally, kids use their mouths to explore their environments, so they tend to be exposed through oral contact with phthalates.
Research has discovered that prenatal exposure to phthalates may be linked to issues with social cognition, communication, awareness, and more in kids between the ages of seven and nine. In 2021, South Korean researchers discovered that children ages eight to 11 with high levels of phthalates in their urine were more likely to have ADHD.
How Do Phthalates Enter the Body?
Phthalates make their way into the human body when we breathe in, touch, or digest them. [Phthalates Factsheet | National Biomonitoring Program | CDC] Long-term and high exposure to these chemicals has been linked to health problems, including serious conditions like cancers. Yet phthalates continue to be used as ingredients in many products sold in the U.S., including personal care products. [Phthalates - Safe Cosmetics] Here are some ways you may be putting phthalates in your body:
- Applying personal care products with phthalates, like shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, and others
- Consuming food items from animals exposed to phthalates
- Touching dust in a room with wood finishes, carpet, and upholstery made with phthalates
- Consuming food and beverages packaged or served in phthalate-containing plastic
Your risk of exposure increases exponentially if you work in a hospital, manufacturing, painting, or printing, or you regularly receive medical treatment involving plastic tubes or bags. While phthalates pass through your system quickly through feces and urine, consistent exposure keeps these chemicals passing in and out of you practically at all times.
Are Phthalates Really Everywhere?
Unfortunately, yes. When researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied urine samples from more than 2600 people ages 6 years and older, they found considerable evidence that phthalates had entered their bodies. The researchers pointed out that adult women had greater evidence of phthalate exposure from phthalates used in soap, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and other personal care products.
[sources: Phthalates Factsheet | National Biomonitoring Program | CDC and Why phthalates should be banned in consumer products | News | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health]
If you were to have your urine tested today, you would more than likely have phthalates in your system. Looking around your house, you’ll find phthalates everywhere, as they’re in hundreds of household products — your dish soap, dryer sheets, wallpaper, vinyl flooring, clothing, inflatable toys, rubber ducks, vinyl mattress covers, wall coverings, shower curtains, aftershave, perfumes, and so much more. This group of chemicals is so much a part of our everyday lives that the U.S. Government’s National Biomonitoring Program, which assesses people’s exposure to potentially toxic chemicals, reports phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.
Fortunately, it is possible to minimize your exposure to these harmful chemicals.
What Are Non-Phthalates — and Why Do People Use Them?
Non-phthalates are plasticizers made without the use of phthalates. Examples of alternatives include diethylhexyl terephthalate (DEHT), the most common, and bio-based plasticizers like those derived from soy. Consumer awareness about the potential risks of phthalates is increasing, which is why people are beginning to switch to phthalate-free products to protect themselves.
How to Avoid Phthalates
While there are some restrictions in the U.S. and Europe regarding using specific phthalates in children’s toys and baby products, these chemicals can still be found in cosmetics, paints, food packaging, cleaning products, and more. [Phthalates Are Out of Children’s Toys, But In Your Food | Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) and Why phthalates should be banned in consumer products | News | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health]
One of the easiest ways to limit your exposure is to read the labels before buying any household goods. You can figure out what is phthalates-free just by looking at the list of ingredients on your laundry detergent, makeup, and more and steering clear of synthetic fragrances, which usually contain phthalates (natural fragrances made with essential oils are okay). Look for packaging that says “phthalate-free,” as these products are usually formulated with non-phthalates.
Here are some additional ways to protect yourself and your family:
- Opt for low-fat dairy and organic food products when possible
- Avoid packaged and fast foods
- Purchase BPA-free food containers and water bottles
- Never microwave food in a plastic container
- Buy from businesses that sell phthalate-free lotion and other personal care products
- Avoid scented cosmetics or skincare products
- Try to become a phthalate detective by reading labels and knowing which ingredients might be or include these chemicals
- Avoid plastic containers
- Look for brands that go out of their way to say they don’t include phthalates in their products
Does DefenAge Use Phthalates in Its Formulas?
No, DefenAge is among the few skincare brands that do not use phthalates to formulate its skincare products. All you have to do is look on the website [What is Clean Beauty in DefenAge? | Clean Products and Clean Ingredients] to get confirmation.
According to DefenAge.com: “Our guarantee — you will NOT find these ingredients and compounds in our products:
Abrasives, aluminum salts, animal-derived ingredients, BPA, BHT/BHA, chemical sunscreens (oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate), coal tar, colorants, formaldehyde-releasing agents, formaldehyde, gluten ingredients (no wheat, oats, barley), growth factors, human-derived ingredients, hydroquinone, irritating acids, mineral oil, parabens, paraffin, petrolatum, phthalates, polyethylene and polypropylene (microbeads), propylene glycol, retinyl palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, strong emulsifiers, sulfates (SLS and SLES), talc, triclocarban, triclosan, triethanolamine.”
Committed to Clean Beauty Standards
At Defenage, we have pledged to adhere to the highest standards of clean skincare. We believe that your skincare products should be as safe as they are effective, which is why we’ve taken care to study and evaluate each ingredient we use. Learn more about our clean beauty standards and phthalate-free products, or visit our blog to learn more.