Phthalates, pronounced “thal-ates”, are a group of chemicals with a wide variety of uses in commercial products. They are commonly referred to as “plasticizers” or softeners. Their binding and softening properties make them a low-cost way to increase the utility of a variety of products, from soft plastic toys to mattresses, personal care products (like shampoo and nail polish) to food packaging. These plasticizers can show up in the foods, drinks, and spices we consume even without plastic packaging, as a result of the manufacturing process. In recent years, several members of this class have been associated with adverse reproductive and endocrine health effects, leading to calls for removal from the market entirely.
A 2013 study by Nature Research was designed to test the ability of consumers to limit their exposure to phthalates had astounding results. The test showed that despite thorough efforts to eliminate plastic exposure in one test group, the levels of phthalate concentrations went up for nearly everyone. The researchers concluded that the cause of this unexpected increase in phthalate metabolites after the study was a result of food contamination during manufacturing, and not directly from the product packaging or formulation.
A 2014 report by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission called the Chap Report, found the greatest exposure in humans was from ingestion. While the food we eat is an important component of this, ingestion also includes things beyond the food we put directly in our mouths. Phthalates have been found to contaminate things like food ingredients that are carried through tubes during manufacturing, spices stored in bins, and our skin after coming into contact with things like cosmetics, flooring, yoga mats and flip-flops.
Once in the body, phthalates are converted into metabolites, a sign that these chemicals interrupt or affect metabolic processes, and get flushed out in our urine. A growing number of studies have shown a variety of health issues including endocrine disruption, male reproductive effects, and potential carcinogenicity.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals making up hundreds of compounds, of which most have not yet been studied. The prevalence of dozens of these chemicals that have been well documented as hazardous has led to bans in the European Union (EU) and Japan. Here in the U.S., states like California have taken measures to include some of the more dangerous compounds (DINP, DEHP, DBP and BBP) in their Prop. 65 warnings, forcing manufacturers to declare their presence to customers.
Categorizing Phthalates & Associated Health Concerns:
The family of chemical compounds that make up Phthalates are categorized as high and low, depending on their molecular weight. High phthalates are commonly used in PVC products such as wire and cable, flooring, wall covering, self-adhesive films, synthetic leather, coated fabrics and roofing and automobile applications. The most common types of high phthalates include diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and dipropylheptyl phthalate (DPHP). Low phthalates are commonly used in medical devices, general purpose PVC, adhesives, inks, and cosmetics. The most common types of low phthalates include di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).
Phthalates in GoodGuide Ratings:
There are concerns that some specific phthalate compounds cause adverse reproductive and developmental effects, and many phthalates have not been thoroughly tested. Phthalates listed as an ingredient in product formulations are rated by the GoodGuide Science Team according to the regulatory bans they carry, and the associated health concerns.
We’ve made it easy to find products that include phthalates in the listed ingredients. A search for “phthalates” shows about 100 GoodGuide Rated products that include at least one type of phthalate.