What are phthalates and should we avoid them?

What do shower curtains, hair spray, paints, perfume, nail polish, adhesives, cables, printing ink, and even some makeup products have in common? You guessed right - it’s phthalates (pronounced f-THAL-lates).

Phthalates are so pervasive in our everyday lives that just about everything around us right now would have it. Phthalates are a group of chemicals used as plasticizers - they make plastics soft, flexible and durable. Adding phthalates to plastics makes them adaptable for different purposes. Examples of important phthalates are di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), and dipropylheptyl phthalate (DPHP). They're too long and complicated to read, but paying attention to the acronyms will be be important.

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

With all that info out of the way, the million-dollar question remains: are phthalates safe to use? This is probably one of the most complex consumer issues I have ever tried to read about, but my curiosity was piqued by this article on Huffington Post. Even though some studies show that phthalates seem to have a negative effect on human hormones and can lead to problems like abnormal development in babies, the use of the chemical is still not well regulated. In fact, it's almost impossible for anyone to completely go phthalate-free.

This leads us to the presence of phthalates in our favorite beauty products. Presently, only DEP still has some usage in cosmetics (it’s in most synthetic fragrances), and many companies have dismissed phthalates altogether. We don't yet know for sure how much exposure is needed to affect the human body, but if you want to play it safe and try to reduce your exposure, here are some ways to do so:

Image via USA Today

Image via USA Today

Choose phthalate-free. This obvious but considering how teeny tiny the label ingredients list can get, scanning for any mention of a phthalate can be something of a challenge! Luckily, some shampoos and hair sprays now display “phthalate-free” on the label and nail polishes would be tagged as "3-Free". Fragrances are a little trickier as it can pop up even in your skincare and makeup. Stick to perfumes that made from essential oils, and try to avoid cosmetics formulated with synthetic fragrance.

Image from mixofeverything.net

Image from mixofeverything.net

Avoid plastics. When shopping, use an eco bag or a shopper tote instead of a plastic bag. If you buy coffee or take a jug of water wherever you go, opt to use a glass or stainless steel container to store your drinks. And if you bring baon for lunch, transfer it from its plastic container before heating it up in the microwave.

If you must use plastic products, look for codes 1, 2, 4 and 5. Avoid products with codes 3 or 7, since they may contain BPA or phthalates.

Image via Essential Oil Diffuser Online

Image via Essential Oil Diffuser Online

Don't use commercial air fresheners. Most of these fresheners contain phthalates because they're a lot cheaper to produce. Instead, use essential oils and other naturally fragrant sources like fresh flowers to keep your home smelling good. You can even mix a few drops of essential oil in a jar of baking soda, and use this DIY scent for your car and closets.

It is not always easy, but just as we're mindful about using products that won't harm our skin, we also have to check if they'll have other effects on our health. We hope this article helps you make more informed shopping decisions!