Phthalates (THAL-ates). The Everywhere Chemical

Phthalates (THAL-ates)

Phthalates are a family of man-made chemical compounds developed in the last century to be used in the manufacture of plastics, solvents, and personal care products. They are colorless, odorless, oily liquids that do not evaporate easily and do not chemically bind to the material they are added to.

How am I exposed to phthalates?

Ingestion, inhalation, skin absorption, and intravenous injection are all potential pathways of exposure. The ever-present use of phthalates as an additive to PVC (polyvinyl chloride) products to make them flexible and to personal care products to make fragrances last longer in the past 50 years has resulted in widespread general population exposure.

Phthalates are readily absorbed into the human body and are converted quickly to their respective metabolites. Unlike some chemicals, they tend to pass out of the body quickly in urine and feces. Phthalates can interact with each other and increase the exposure effect.


How do phthalates enter the environment?

Phthalates can be released from a product by heat, agitation, and prolonged storage. The release can occur during all the stages of the product lifecycle – from production, through use, to disposal.

Which population of humans is at a greater health risk to phthalate exposure?

Children under the age of three are more at risk from phthalates because of their developing, smaller body size and ever-present exposure to children’s products manufactured using multiple types of phthalate compounds. Young children use their mouths to explore, and consequently, can be exposed to higher levels by sucking on products made of phthalate-containing plastics.

What can I do to avoid exposure?

Read labels. Avoid using products that contain phthalates. Support companies committed to producing phthalate-free products.

What negative health effects have phthalates been shown to have in laboratory animals?

Very few studies have examined the health effects of phthalates on humans. In lab animals, phthalate exposure has been found to be associated with numerous reproductive health and developmental problems such as:

  • Early onset of puberty.
  • Interfering with the male reproductive tract development.
  • Interfering with the natural functioning of the hormone system.
  • Causing reproductive and genital defects.
  • Lower testosterone levels in adolescent males.
  • Lower sperm count in adult males.

Phthalates are weak endocrine disruptors and androgen blocking chemicals. This means that when absorbed into the body phthalates can either mimic or block female hormones, or in males, suppress the hormones involved in male sexual development.

Phthalates cross the placenta.

Read Labels to avoid phthalates.

The most common products using phthalate compounds are:

PVC Products: Phthalates are frequently added to PVC (vinyl) products to soften and make more flexible. If a plastic product is flexible, it probably contains phthalates unless the label specifically says it does not.

Personal Care Products: Phthalates are often added to personal care products, such as nail polish, perfumes, deodorants, hair gels, shampoos, soaps, hair sprays, and body lotions, to help lubricate other substances in the formula and to carry fragrances. Phthalates must be listed among the ingredients on product labels, unless they are added as a part of the “fragrance.” Under current law, they can then simply be labeled “fragrance,” even though they may make up 20% or more of the product.

Many companies have voluntarily removed phthalates from their products. A company will usually label its product “phthalate-free.” If unsure, call the company. If you can’t get information from the manufacturer, look for alternatives.

How can I recognize plastic toys and containers containing phthalates?

All plastics are not the same. One easy way to recognize plastic toys, clothing, bottles, food and beverage storage containers, and/or food wrap that may contain phthalate compounds is to look for the number 3 inside the universal recycling symbol usually molded into the plastic on the bottom of the product. Avoid products with the number 3 within the arrows and the letters “V” or “PVC” below the arrows.

Choose products with the numbers 1,2, 4 and 5 within the arrows. Many companies use phthalate-free substances such as polypropylene, recycling code 5, to manufacture plastic products.


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