Phthalates (pronounced thah-lates) are a family of chemicals found in thousands of consumer products from shampoo to sex toys.
As a plasticizer, phthalates help to soften durable plastics and make them more flexible. They are also used in artificial fragrances to help the scent last longer for personal care products, scented cleaning products, candles and other home goods.
These chemicals interfere with our body’s normal hormone functions and are linked to a range of reproductive issues including miscarriages, birth defects and damaged sperm DNA. They are also linked to health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
Phthalates are so widespread that they are impossible to eliminate from our lives entirely, but there are ways to largely reduce our exposure.
Phthalates are commonly found in…
- Vinyl raincoats, rain boots and shower curtains
- PVC water pipes, vinyl flooring and mini-blinds
- Household cleaners, glues and paints
- Soft plastic toys and school supplies
- Steering wheels, vinyl seating and plastic consoles
- Plastic food wraps and soft plastic food containers
- Scented shampoos, soaps, moisturizers and aftershave lotions
- Nail polish and hair spray
- Scented candles
- Sex toys and lubricating oils
You can reduce your exposure to phthalates by making more informed choices at the store.
Safer food & drink choices
Some plastic food wrapping and drink bottles contain phthalates. Try replacing plastic-wrapped foods with fresh foods as often as possible. And opt for drinks that come in glass bottles, rather than plastic.
Store food and drinks in glass or stainless steel, instead of plastic. And never reheat foods in plastic, as high heat increases the leaching of phthalates and other chemicals.
Choose fragrance-free body care
Avoid hair and body products that list “fragrance”, “parfum” or even “natural fragrances” as an ingredient. Instead, choose products that are scented with essential oils or are fragrance-free.
Ensure your hair spray says “phthalate-free” on the label. And if your nail salon does not carry phthalate-free polish, bring your own.
Home goods that are free from fragrances and PVC
Avoid scented candles, laundry detergents and cleaning products that list “fragrance”, “parfum” or ‘natural fragrance” as an ingredient. Instead, choose home goods products that are are fragrance-free or scented with essential oils.
Skip synthetic air fresheners. Freshen your home with flowers, essential oils or potpourri (without synthetic additives). Or simply an open window. And instead of spraying scented disinfectants, clean your home with white vinegar to kill unpleasant odors. Sprinkle baking soda in garbage pails, diaper bins and litter boxes to keep odors at bay.
Buy shower curtains made from cloth instead of plastic, and ensure plastic curtain liners are labeled as PVC-free. Choose flooring made from natural materials like wood, bamboo or natural linoleum instead of vinyl. And choose widow curtains and blinds made from cotton, linen, wood or bamboo instead of PVC plastics.
Safer baby & kid products
Say no to plastic teethers, bath toys, play mats and rain gear. Say yes to similar products made from natural rubber or silicone.
Say no to plastic notebook binders, lunch boxes and toys. Say yes to cardboard notebook binders, metal or cloth lunchboxes and wooden toys.
Cover vinyl flooring with a sheet or quilted mat before allowing children to crawl on it. And choose pre-made baby food sold in glass jars instead of plastic. Or prepare baby food yourself from fresh ingredients. Skip cute-smelling baby shampoos and lotions and opt for scent-free products instead.
Decline soft plastic hand-me-down toys that were manufactured before stricter phthalate regulations were put into place for children’s products. That is, decline soft plastic toys made before 2009 in the US or 2006 in Europe.
In general, avoid products made from soft plastics and those labeled as vinyl or PVC. Choose alternatives made from healthier materials such as natural latex rubber, glass, stainless steel or wood. Or opt for plastics stamped with recycling code #1, #2, or #5.
Good to know
- Be especially mindful of products while you are pregnant or nursing, because babies are more sensitive to the effects of phthalate exposure and can be exposed in the womb or through breastfeeding.
- Products labeled as fragrance-free are free from phthalates, but that does not mean the product is free from other harmful chemicals. Always check the ingredients label.
- Congressional Research Service (CRS), 2008, CRS Report for Congress: Phthalates in Plastics and Possible Human Health Effects. July.
- The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. 2011. Phthalates and Their Alternatives: Health and Environmental Concerns. January.
- The National Academy of Sciences, 2008, Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment.