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 Phthalates – Beauty Products and Beastly Vinyl Minimize

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are widely used industrial chemicals that are found everywhere. They are added to PVC plastic products to make them softer or more flexible, such as toys, car interiors, medical devices like blood IV bags and tubing, vinyl flooring, vinyl wallpaper, and vinyl shower curtains. Phthalates are also added to many cosmetics and personal care products including scented lotion, shampoo, perfume, aftershave, nail polish, and hair spray. Phthalates can make up a major portion of a product by weight, but since they are not chemically bound, the chemicals leach out over time. For example, a new vinyl shower curtain can elevate indoor air toxics concentrations for over a month.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, phthalates are found in Americans of all ages, sizes, and races. Phthalates are present in breast milk and can cross the placenta to enter a growing fetus. Humans are exposed by ingesting contaminated food and water, and to a lesser extent through inhalation and skin contact. In one study, babies in neonatal intensive care units using phthalate-containing vinyl medical products had levels of phthalates seven times higher than babies in a hospital not using phthalate-containing products. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to phthalate exposure because they put plastic objects in their mouths.

Phthalates in Maine People

Paulette Dingley had the highest level of two types of phthalates. She was one of three participants who had bisphenol A chemicals in their bodies at levels several times higher than the national average.
Phthalates were detected in all 13 participants, and those who reported using certain products had higher levels than others. Phthalates do not build up in the body (or bioaccumulate), so internal levels may fluctuate throughout the day reflecting recent or continuous exposure. We tested for seven phthalate monoesters, which are metabolites (breakdown products) of five phthalate diesters added to consumer products. (See Table 2 in the Appendix for complete results).

All seven of the phthalate compounds were detected in nearly every Maine person tested. The median (or middle) levels of six of the seven phthalates measured in the participants were greater than the national median (the middle value of more than 2,500 Americans randomly tested). For one phthalate, a metabolite of dimethly phthalate (DMP), the median Maine value was higher than 95% of all Americans tested. DMP is used in hair sprays, insect repellants, and soft plastics. (A metabolite is the chemical that forms from the biological breakdown of the original chemical).

Three phthalates were found in Maine people at levels greater than 75% of all Americans tested. Two of these are metabolites of DEHP or di-(2-ethyl hexyl) phthalate. The levels of another DEHP byproduct were higher than the national median. DEHP is widely used in PVC (vinyl) products such as medical IV bags and tubes, auto interiors, diaper covers, shower curtains, and other consumer items.

A byproduct of benzylbutyl phthalate (BBzP) was the other phthalate found in Maine people at levels higher than 75% of all Americans. BBzP is added to vinyl flooring, car care products, personal care products, adhesives, and sealants.

In the bodies of the Mainers tested, levels of a phthalate found in nail polish and other personal care products, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), was found higher than the national median and approaching the 75th percentile level for all Americans, as indicated by DBP metabolite measured.

Figure 1 shows the sum total of the seven phthalate compounds measured in each of the Maine study participants. Six people had total phthalate levels that exceeded the national median for the same seven phthalate compounds. The data in Figure 1 are creatinine-corrected. That means they are normalized to the levels of a protein normally found in urine so that the results are not biased by dilution from drinking lots of fluids before the test.

Figure 1: Phthalate monoester levels, measured in urine and creatinine-corrected

In our study, the seven women who reported using perfume at least once every three days had high levels of phthalates in their urine. Perfume and other scented products are known to contain phthalates. An independent testing of name-brand beauty products in 2002 found phthalates in 52 of 72 products, none of which listed phthalates as an ingredient, although all 17 products labeled with “fragrance” contained phthalates.

Vi Raymond's total phthalate level was over twice the group median. She reported using perfume at least every three days. In contrast, Amy Graham, who had the lowest total phthalate level of the nine women tested, did not report using perfume or any products that are known to contain phthalates.

HEALTH EFFECTS: Male Reproductive Damage Tops Concerns

Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that threaten reproductive health, especially in males. In 2004, a scientist at University of Rochester found that baby boys whose mothers were exposed to high levels of phthalates during pregnancy were more likely to have altered genital development. Animal tests show that phthalate exposure leads to small or otherwise abnormal testes, hypospadias (abnormal urinary openings on the penis) and undescended testes in young males. Researchers believe that the phthalates that have these effects, such as DEHP and DBP, act by reducing levels of testosterone and important growth factors in young males. In adult males, phthalate exposure has been linked to lower sperm counts, reduced sperm motility, and damaged sperm.

Other potential effects include reduced female fertility and premature breast development in young girls, liver and kidney damage and asthma. EPA classifies the phthalate DEHP as a probable human carcinogen.

Policy Changes Needed

Given widespread human exposure to phthalates and the threat of reproductive harm, government and industry action is needed to eliminate their use in PVC plastics and beauty products.

A large number of hospitals, consumer product companies, and government purchasers have taken first steps to replace PVC plastics containing phthalates with safer alternatives. Revlon, L’Oreal and other major companies are phasing out phthalates in nail polish, and 300 cosmetic companies have pledged to eliminate phthalates in their products in response to consumer demands from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

In 2005, the European Union banned six phthalate softeners in PVC plastic toys that can be placed in children's mouths, following restrictions on three phthalates in toys imposed in 1999, and prohibited the use of some phthalates in cosmetics in 2003. Mexico, Japan, and Canada have also taken action on the chemicals.

In contrast, phthalates remain largely unregulated in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to take action on cosmetic and medical uses of phthalates, citing a lack of compelling evidence that phthalates pose a safety risk. FDA has, however, encouraged medical providers to voluntarily switch to alternative products that do not contain phthalates. The City and County of San Francisco adopted an ordinance to restrict the use of phthalates in children’s products. Similar statewide legislation is under consideration in California, Maine, and other states.

Reducing Your Exposure to Phthalates

While market trends and personal actions by consumers are not likely to dramatically reduce phthalate exposure without coordinated policy action by state and federal governments, there are ways you can reduce your family’s exposure to phthalates.

Avoid PVC plastic. Unless made by a U.S. manufacturer who has indicated the product is phthalate-free, avoid soft plastic toys and soft vinyl products with a strong plastic smell such as plastic shower curtains. For information on PVC-free products for the home, office, and building materials, check out the resources available at:

Purchase phthalate-free beauty products. Avoid nail polish, perfumes, colognes, and other scented products that are labeled as containing phthalates. Since many products simply list “fragrance” as an ingredient, avoid those products or do more research. For more information on phthalate-free cosmetics and personal care products, visit these Web sites:, by the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and, a database on cosmetic products and their ingredients by Environmental Working Group.


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