Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Phthalates (pronounced puh-lates) are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products. They are typically used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or vinyl, flexible and pliant. Carbon atoms in their chemical backbone, give phthalates increased permanency and durability, the reason why they are used in fragrance industry.
Let's First See How/Why Phthalates Are Used in Cosmetics?
The primary phthalates used in cosmetic products have been ...
dibutylphthalate (DBP), used as a plasticizer in products such as nail polishes (to reduce cracking by making them less brittle);
dimethylphthalate (DMP), used in hair sprays (to help avoid stiffness by allowing them to form a flexible film on the hair); and
diethylphthalate (DEP), used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances.
According to FDA, DEP is the most common phthalate used in cosmetics and fragrance industry.
Where Else Are Phthalates?
Phthalates are usually added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity. Some of common uses of phthalates -besides perfume industry- are:
Building and construction products: Energy-efficient roofing, flexible adhesives and sealants, durable interior finishes such as vinyl flooring and wall coverings, carpeting, floor tiles, paint.
Electrical products: Electrical cord insulation, wire coatings, electrical wiring of TVs and computers.
Automotive products: Automotive interiors, seat covers and interior trim in automobiles, underbody PVC coatings and components to prevent corrosion.
Medical and pharmaceutical industry products: Coatings of pharmaceutical pills and nutritional supplements, blood bags, tubing, catheters, blood transfusion devices, gelling agents, film formers, stabilizers, dispersants, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents and suspending agents.
Outdoor products: Swimming pool liners, garden hoses, agricultural adjuvants, roofing membranes, waterproof footwear such as rain boots.
Print products: Printing inks.
Textile products: Coated textiles used to make clothing, luggage, purses, so-called vegan leather, PVC clothing.
Everyday household items: Detergents, vinyl gloves, shower curtains.
Children’s toys and school materials: Pencil cases, school bags, erasers.
Childcare articles: Diaper and nipple creams.
Food packaging materials: Shrink wrapping material, flexible food wrapping films, canned food container lining, fast-food packaging.
Personal care products: Lubricating oils, moisturizer, deodorant, nail polish, hair spray, aftershave lotion, liquid soap, shampoo, conditioner, eye shadow, perfume and other fragrance preparations, sunscreen. Read more on natural skin care.
What Does FDA, CDC, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) Say About Phthalates?
"Nothing To See Here!"
Several reports around the turn of the century shaped the public opinion of phthalates.
The National Toxicology Program (expert panel of National Institute for Environmental Safety and Health) concluded in 2000 that phthalates have negligible reproductive risks if any.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report titled "National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals" concluded in 2001 that there were no association between the presence of phthalates in human urine and disease.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel reaffirmed in 2002 its original conclusion (reached in 1985), finding that phthalates are safe as used in cosmetic products.
Based on the above mentioned reports, FDA established in 2002 that there was no association between the use of phthalates in cosmetic products and a health risk. Based on this determination, FDA decided that there is no need for regulatory action against cosmetics containing phthalates.
In 2013, the ECHA concluded that there is no public health concern with the current uses of phthalates for children and adults, including use in gloves, footwear, wet weather gear, children’s school materials, shower curtains, artificial leather, wall and floor covering, wire and cables, etc. ECHA also concluded that presence of phthalates in food or household dust does not result in a health concern.
In 2017, ECCC found no concerns with the use of phhthalates in such products like coated fabrics (upholstery and artificial leather), pool liners, gloves, PVC clothing, adhesives, sealants and coatings, etc. for children and adults. They also found no concern with the potential presence of phthalates in food and household dust.
In 2017, the U.S. CPSC confirmed that phthalates can be used in sensitive applications like toys and childcare articles without any restrictions.
Note that all these expert panels and agencies were and are still packed with either current or past employees of, or lobbyists for the chemical, pharma and cosmetic industries. They are current or past employees from the industry overseeing the same industries the once worked for.
Furthermore, all reports and publications on the subject were funded by industry-sponsored organizations (i.e. CIR) whose members were all manufacturers of phthalates containing products. The situation is no different today.
More than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced or imported in the United States each year. In 2010, the market was still dominated by high-phthalate plasticizers; however, due to growing environmental awareness and perceptions, producers are increasingly forced to use non-phthalate plasticizers.
Independent researchers agree that something has to be done about this dangerous chemical toxin. A 2018 study conducted by researchers at George Washington University compared phthalate levels in people who ate home-cooked meals to those who frequently dined out at restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food outlets. On average, people who eat out have nearly 35 percent higher levels of phthalates circulating in their bodies.
A 2004 study done at the Harvard School of Public Health found that enteric coatings used on medications and supplements generally consist of various polymers that contain plasticizers, including triethyl citrate, dibutyl sebacate, and phthalates such as diethyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalate. The study consisted of a spot urine sample from a man collected three months after he started taking Asacol, a medication with an enteric coating. The results showed that the concentration of phthalates in his urine was higher than the 95th percentile for males reported in the 1999–2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
As evidenced by the indifferent position worldwide agencies are demonstrating, it’s totally up to us, the consumers, to search out phthalate-free products and avoid using foods and goods that contain this serious toxin.
We will soon address in a separate blog post what phthalates do to your health. Stay tuned!