What are phthalates? Why are they in my skin care products?
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals used widely in numerous products that we are exposed to in our everyday environments. They are made from phthalic acid (benzenedicarboxylic acid) and have many different forms (also known as phthalate esters). The most common forms of phthalates that we are exposed to daily are:
- Diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
- Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
- Di-2-ethyl-hexyl phthalate (DEHP): the most abundant form of phthalates found in multiple products today.
Phthalates can be placed into two main groups as shown in the table below:
Table 1. Groups of Phthalates
High Molecular Weight
Low Molecular Weight
Commonly found in flooring and other housing material
Commonly found in cosmetic and personal care products
Plastics for food
Medical use plastics
Examples: Di-2ethyl-hexyl phthalate (DEHP), Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) used in building material, electrical wire, car parts, toys, and Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP).
Mono-isobutyl phthalate (MiBP), di(isobutyl) phthalate (DiBP), n-butyl phthalate (DBP) found in printing ink, adhesives) is the main source of indoor semi-volatile organic compound, diethyl phthalate (DEP) found in toothbrushes, toys, fragrances, and nail polish.
What Do Phthalates Do?
Phthalates were first developed in the 1920s for the main purpose of producing more stable and flexible plastics. They also enable products to have a longer shelf-life and may help to preserve color and fragrance. For these reasons, phthalates are used in many common household and cosmetic products such as deodorants, lotions, nail polish, makeup, sunscreen, and more.[1,5-7] In cosmetics, phthalates serve the following purpose
- Preserve color 
- Increase flexibility as DBP allows nail polish to crack less
- Increase hairspray flexibility as dimethyl phthalate (DMP) makes the hairspray hold more flexible rather than too stiff
- Assist as a solvent and fixative as diethyl phthalate (DEP)
Potential Side Effects of Phthalates?
Phthalates have been described as endocrine (or hormone) disruptors (commonly called EDCs). EDCs are associated with hormonal and reproductive abnormalities. Humans are constantly exposed to them in the environment and the structure of phthalates allows the chemicals to be easily released from the product into the environment rather than staying bound in the product.[3,8] This is one of the main reasons why exposure to phthalates is so widespread. The ways that we may absorb phthalates include:
- Cutaneous absorption (of personal care products)
- Inhalation (of contaminated dust and environmental pollutants)
- Ingestion (from contaminated food, water, and plastic toys or other products)
Other than having the potential to be an endocrine disruptor, phthalate exposure may possibly be linked to an increased risk for oxidative stress within the body.
Some of the potential side effects include
Female reproductive issues
- Decreased egg count (infertility)
- Loss of ovarian follicle pool
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
Male reproductive issues
- Decreased sperm quality
Allergies, asthma, and eczema
- Increased allergies and asthma
- Increased atopic dermatitis and/or hypersensitivity
Levels of phthalate exposure in cosmetics present as a low risk
Although phthalates have gained a lot of attention due to its potential health risks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that the phthalates that are commonly present in cosmetics do not pose as a significant health risk. The FDA looked at reports conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to evaluate human exposure to phthalates. The FDA also looked into reports made by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) which investigated phthalate levels in cosmetics and found that even the highest level of phthalates found in some cosmetics would not be enough to cause serious health risks. The CIR also reported that DBP, DMP, DEP (common phthalates found in cosmetics) were safe for cosmetic use. The FDA continues to survey phthalate use in the ingredients of cosmetics and has even found a decreasing trend of the levels of phthalates used in some cosmetics between the years of 2004-2010.
Hidden Phthalates in ‘Fragrance’ and Other Controversies
Under the fair packaging and labeling act (FPLA), the FDA does not require the term ‘fragrance’ to include all of its ingredients. This allows companies to protect their ‘trade secrets’. In other words, the word fragrance can be a hidden source of phthalates and other synthetic chemicals that may be possible causes of allergic skin reactions.
The most vulnerable populations that are likely exposed to phthalates at higher concentrations include women, children, and occupational workers. Prenatal and perinatal exposure to phthalates may harm the mother and unborn fetus[1,9]. Women are more likely than men to be exposed to a greater number of phthalates and other chemicals (formaldehyde, parabens, etc.) in cosmeceuticals. Children are at risk for higher exposure because they tend to put a lot of things in their mouth. Occupational workers are also at a higher risk of phthalates through inhalation of the chemicals during the production of various plastics and other products.
Are phthalates short-lived in the body?
It has been claimed that phthalates are short-lived within the body and that they are excreted mainly through urine and feces. However, a study found that some phthalates may be excreted through sweat and some (particularly DEHP and DBP)may be building up in higher levels within the body (bioaccumulation).
Practical Tips for Minimizing Phthalate Exposure
- Avoid eating and drinking out of plastic food containers
- Avoid covering your food in plastic
- Avoid toys made with plastic or made in countries that allow the use of phthalates
- Avoid storing food in plastic (possibly found in higher concentrations in fatty foods such as oils, dairy, etc. so avoid buying these in plastics)
- Avoid cosmetics with fragrance
For further reading on skin health and cosmetics, click on the article links below:
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- Dobrzyńska MM. Phthalates - widespread occurrence and the effect on male gametes. Part 1. General characteristics, sources and human exposure. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig.2016;67(2):97-103; PMID: 27289504 Link to research.
- Genuis SJ, Beesoon S, Lobo RA, et al. Human elimination of phthalate compounds: blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. ScientificWorldJournal.2012;2012:615068; PMID: 23213291 Link to research.
- Wu H, Olmsted A, Cantonwine DE, et al. Urinary phthalate and phthalate alternative metabolites and isoprostane among couples undergoing fertility treatment. Environ Res.2017;153:1-7; PMID: 27875712 Link to research.
- Li J, Li L, Zuo H, et al. T-helper type-2 contact hypersensitivity of Balb/c mice aggravated by dibutyl phthalate via long-term dermal exposure. PLoS One.2014;9(2):e87887; PMID: 24498391 Link to research.
- Phthalates. Accessed April 14, 2018.
- Du YY, Guo N, Wang YX, et al. Urinary phthalate metabolites in relation to serum anti-Müllerian hormone and inhibin B levels among women from a fertility center: a retrospective analysis. Reprod Health.2018;15(1):33; PMID: 29471860 Link to research.
- Nassan FL, Coull BA, Gaskins AJ, et al. Personal Care Product Use in Men and Urinary Concentrations of Select Phthalate Metabolites and Parabens: Results from the Environment And Reproductive Health (EARTH) Study. Environ Health Perspect.2017;125(8):087012; PMID: 28886595 Link to research.
- Kolarik B, Naydenov K, Larsson M, et al. The association between phthalates in dust and allergic diseases among Bulgarian children. Environ Health Perspect.2008;116(1):98-103; PMID: 18197306 Link to research.
- Scsukova S, Rollerova E, Bujnakova Mlynarcikova A. Impact of endocrine disrupting chemicals on onset and development of female reproductive disorders and hormone-related cancer. Reprod Biol.2016;16(4):243-254; PMID: 27692877 Link to research.
- Zota AR, Shamasunder B. The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern. Am J Obstet Gynecol.2017;217(4):418.e411-418.e416; PMID: 28822238 Link to research.
- Fragrances in Cosmetics. Cosmetics. Accessed March 16, 2018.