The “Everywhere Chemical”: What Are Phthalates and How To Avoid Them

Phthalates in cleaning products

Plastics have consumed nearly every faction of our lives, from packaging to clothing and everything in between. But what is in our plastics, and how do these chemicals affect us?

Phthalates are one of the most commonly used chemicals in plastics to make materials more durable and flexible, and are found in thousands of different products, including:

● Vinyl


● Food packaging and containers

● Medical tubing

● Cosmetics

● Outdoor equipment

Phthalates are useful in their durability, making them excellent components for products that see a lot of wear and tear. However, this chemical is not perfectly contained in its products, and spreads into the environment as products break down over time. This not only creates chemical pollution in our environments, but also poses potential risks to human health.

Environmental Impacts

While phthalates are used primarily for their durability, they still break down and enter our environment, leaving traces of their chemical makeup in our soils, waters, sewage, air, and even food. Phthalate waste occurs heavily in manufacturing processes of many plastics, where the refinement and production processes result in emissions containing airborne phthalates.

They also enter the environment during the life of the product. Our consistent handling of products containing phthalates helps them break down at the molecular level, leaving trace amounts on our skin that enter waterways when we wash our hands. Many cosmetic products also contain these chemicals, including makeup, baby lotion, hairsprays, and gels, which enter our sewage and drinking water every time we wash them off. Even when we throw away our plastics, these chemicals can leach into the soils around landfills.

While phthalates may not seem like a major hazard–especially in relation to more visible environmental crises–these chemicals pose an unseen threat to environmental health. Phthalates have entered the food chain of countless animal species, where they have significant effects on reproductive health. Studies show that phthalates, and the chemical compounds they break down into, play a role in decreasing global reptile populations, and potentially affect the populations of other species.

As the amount of plastics in the environment increases, phthalate pollution is expected to increase as well. This chemical accumulation not only affects our natural environments and our global animal species, but has major implications on human health.

Impacts on Human Health

Most of us apply some type of lotion, makeup, or deodorants daily. These products commonly contain phthalates, usually as fragrances and solvents. Products vary in their phthalates concentrations, with some containing negligible amounts, and others–like nail polish–containing up to 2.4%. When we apply these products, phthalates can absorb into our skin and enter our bloodstreams. Additionally, many indoor plastics like flooring and paints use phthalates that create large amounts of dust in homes, which lead to airborne exposure.

While the understanding of human health effects from phthalates is not concrete, studies suggest that exposure to these chemicals can lead to hormonal imbalances and reproductive health risks.

Health risks from phthalates are most prominent in children, as long term exposure to these chemicals may lead to developmental issues, particularly in the form of hormonal and respiratory conditions. Phthalates also pose high risk to pregnant women and their children, as high exposure can lead to birth defects and issues with neurodevelopment.

Avoiding Phthalates

Adjusting our lives and shopping habits to avoid phthalates may seem like an overwhelming task, but being conscientious of the chemicals in our daily products can help us avoid long-term exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals.

The FDA banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys in 2008, limiting heavy exposure to children. However, the chemical is still prominent in many other household items, particularly in cosmetics and packaging plastics. The FDA does not require products to list phthalates in their ingredients, so instead, avoid products that list “fragrances” in their ingredients, as phthalates are commonly used as solvents and fixatives in these.

When grocery shopping, be on the lookout for products that undergo food packaging and container testing. These inspections help ensure that packaging material is of quality standards, preventing exposure to plastics containing chemicals that easily break down into our food.

Phthalates have worked their way into nearly every aspect of our day-to-day life. The impacts they have on our health are still largely unknown, but by being aware of the products we purchase, we can minimize our exposure to this hazardous material.

Blog post written by guest writer Lena Milton.

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