As an informed consumer, you like to think that you make the best choices for yourself and your family. If you keep an eye on the news, it can feel as though everything is bad to some degree and this makes the challenge of choosing the best products a bit overwhelming. The best advice might be to pick your battles and focus on products and companies that support your values and protect your health. In order to accomplish this, however, you need to be aware of some of the most dangerous chemicals that are found in many of your common household and personal care items. One of the most concerning of these is phthalates.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used as either plasticizers or dissolving agents, and you come in contact with them countless times a day. As a plasticizer, phthalates are used to make plastic more flexible and harder to break. As a dissolving agent, they are used in chemical formulas to effect how a product feels, smells and functions. There are many different types of phthalates that are used. When you read a new report about phthalates chances are it is referring to either DEP (diethyl phthalate), DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DMP (dimethyl phthalate), or DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl), but there are others that are commonly used as well.
Before really getting into all of the possible negative effects of phthalates it’s important to really understand just how common they are in your everyday life. Here is just a “short” list of some of the many products that can contain phthalates.
- Fragrances including body sprays, perfumes, colognes, air fresheners, etc.
- Nail Polish
- Colored Cosmetics
- Body Lotions and Creams
- Facial Moisturizers
- Hair Styling Products, including sprays, gels, mousses and pomades
- Body Wash
- Baby Lotion
- Baby Shampoo
- Breastfeeding Nipple Cream
- Wet Wipes
- Diaper Rash Ointment
- Baby Oil
- Baby Powder
- Plastic Food Storage Containers
- Plastic Household Items
- Laundry Detergent
- Insect Repellent
- Vinyl Flooring
- Shower Curtains
- Dairy Foods
- Plus Many More
Basically, if you live, eat and breathe you are going to come into contact with phthalates at some point in the day, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. You can only control so much. Even if our personal care products might not contain any phthalates, a visit to your favorite restaurant and you could be getting exposure through the hand soap in the restroom, the utensils that they use in the kitchen, fragrances in the air, residue from the patrons that were there before you, etc. If you think about it, you might make yourself crazy. The goal is to reduce exposure as much as possible through personal choices.
It is obvious that phthalates are commonly used, so just how bad can they possibly be? Phthalates are easily absorbed into your body and move quickly through your system. They are thought to act similar to hormones, which might displace and interrupt the processes of actual, real hormones. This can have an incredible effect on your entire body. Here are just a few examples of some of the possible negative effects of phthalates.
- Women should use special caution to avoid phthalates as much as possible while pregnant for a number of reasons. Research has noted that women who had higher levels of phthalates while pregnant were more likely to give birth to babies that showed signs of hormonal disruption. This could be seen in males as immature genital development and a predisposition to be less interested in stereotypical male play when older. Females born to these mothers were more at risk at abnormal breast tissue development. It appears that phthalates have a concrete effect on the male sex hormone testosterone.
- Babies, with their smaller, developing bodies and endocrine systems, are especially sensitive to phthalates. The effect is so noted that in 2008 phthalates were banned from being used in the production of baby toys. While that is good news, consider how many toys from before that time are probably still in use.
- Higher levels of phthalates have been connected to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms that increase your overall risk of developing cardiac disease and other health conditions. Symptoms of metabolic syndrome include a larger waistline, difficulty losing weight, elevated blood sugar, hypertension, high triglyceride levels and elevated cholesterol.
- Higher levels of phthalates have been connected to hormone-specific conditions in both men and women including more severe hot flashes in menopausal women and erectile dysfunction in men.
- High levels of phthalates may affect fertility, especially in men.
- They may contribute to respiratory issues such as bronchitis or asthma.
- Some types of phthalates are listed as potential human carcinogens and have been shown to be responsible for liver cancer in laboratory animals.
Well, that is quite a list, and a very serious one at that. The next question is “what can be done?” While phthalates have been banned in some products such as baby toys, they are still so widely used that it is near impossible to avoid them altogether. They are so common that one study found that ninety percent of people tested had detectable levels of phthalates in their urine. Your best approach is to learn how to avoid them as much as possible.
One of the most common sources of phthalate exposure is through personal care products. The average woman uses anywhere from ten to twenty personal care products each day. It is estimated that this number is higher for teenage and young adult women. Think about all of the phthalate exposure this might cause if you are not aware of this ingredient in your products. Here are a few tips for choosing clean, safe phthalate free personal care products.
- First of all, look for products that promote the fact that they are phthalate-free. Some companies may try to fool you with a “natural” image, so it is important to do your research. Choose companies with a reputation for not including potentially harmful ingredients, such as phthalates, in their formulas.
- If you are putting it on your body, it is important to read the labels. Granted, sometimes phthalates aren’t listed or are difficult to recognize. However, if you see any ingredient that includes the word “phthalate”, “fragrance” or “parfum”, you may want to push it aside for a more natural alternative.
- Speaking of natural alternatives, just because you are avoiding phthalates doesn’t mean that you have to forgo your favorite scents. Pure, essential oils are great for adding lovely, natural scents to just about any product. Plus, they can be diluted and used as an all-natural perfume fragrance as well.
- Be especially cautious when choosing products for babies and children. Some of the most popular brands have the worst ingredients. There are plenty of websites that will help guide you to personal care products that do not contain any harmful ingredients.
While personal care products might be your number one exposure, they are not the only place that you will encounter phthalates throughout the day. You will want to make note of these ways to reduce your exposure from other sources as well.
- If you have children, consider ditching any toys that were made before 2008 when the ban against phthalates in toys was established. The ban also included certain items commonly used by young children including lunch boxes and backpacks.
- Do you love that new plastic smell? You might be more familiar with it as the famous “new car smell,” or the smell of a new shower curtain. If an item has a detectable scent that immediately brings to mind “new plastic,” chances are it contains phthalates.
- Phthalates can leach into your food from food containers that contain phthalates. For your personal use, make sure to buy containers that are phthalate free. When buying foods packaged in plastic look for the numbers 3 or 7 on the packaging. This is an indicator that phthalate were used in package production. Packaging with the numbers 1, 2 or 5 are your safest bets. Also, don’t microwave food in containers that contain phthalates as this can increase the rate at which your food absorbs the chemicals.
- Dust frequently. Dust particles can carry phthalates, which you can easily inhale.
- Purchase water filters for all sources of water in your home. These can filter out phthalates not only from your drinking water, but from your bath water as well.
- Eat organic, pesticide-free food whenever possible.
- Finally, get motivated and get moving. Sweat helps your body rid itself of toxins, including phthalates. That daily workout could improve your health in more ways than you thought possible.
As a consumer culture, we have come to value certain things and we have also blindly expected the companies that provide us with manufactured goods to have our best interest in mind. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many companies; however there is a growing movement towards responsible manufacturing that honors that fact that your health is more important than anything else. You do not have to choose between quality and purity. Not only can you get both, you should demand it. The Environmental Working Group is an organization that is committed to consumer education. If you visit their website, you will have access to great information and consumer guides that will help you understand the negative side of many common chemicals and help you make decisions about how to best support companies that are looking out for you by making a commitment to providing toxin-free products. This is especially important for your personal care products which are almost immediately absorbed through your skin.
You are a wise, informed consumer that values integrity and quality. There is no reason that you have to settle for inferior products that do a disservice to your body and the environment that you live in. Choose to eliminate phthalates as much as possible from your life and help build a healthier future for yourself and the people you share your life with.