What are phthalates?

Phthalates are used to give plastics their flexibility. Phthalates are added to polyvinylchloride (PVC), which is a major component of plastic. Phthalates are also used in many household items including: personal care products, vinyl flooring, paints, pesticides, household cleaners, and much more.

Phthalates have been shown to have hormone mimicking effects. Meaning they take the place of our natural hormone processes, and interfere with their normal routine, causing adverse effects.

How do they affect us?

Studies on phthalates reveal that possible effects include a wide range of male reproductive harm, including birth defects of the genitals, undescended testicles, and infertility later in life. Possible behavioral issues, risk for breast cancer, and reproductive abnormalities could be caused in females.

Who do they affect?

As with BPA, phthalates can cross the placenta or breast milk in the pregnant or nursing woman, respectively. They also affect babies and infants because they have a high minute ventilation rate (increasing exposure through the lungs), take in a greater amount of fluid, food, and water per body weight than the average adult. Exposure can also be increased through hand to mouth activity.

Since phthalates are suspected to alter the course of development it is most important for women of childbearing age, before conception if possible, to reduce their exposure to phthalates (and BPA). According to studies done by Dr. Shanna Swan:
Basic functions of a fetus can be altered due to the exposure of phthalates while in utero. A fetus is sensitive, and does not have the ability to detoxify itself, causing the affects to be permanent. Dr. Swan states that testosterone is responsible for the entire body – the genitals, the brain, and when a fetus is exposed it begins a cascade that begins to affect the individual throughout their lifetime. Many of her studies analyze a woman’s level of phthalates measured in urine during pregnancy. When some male babies were born they were less completely masculine as evidenced by genital markers. Since phthalates can be Anti androgenic (lowers testosterone) a fetus is affected, and when less testosterone is produced, then the process of becoming male is incomplete.

Where are phthalates found?

Phthalates are found in food packaging (cling wrap or containers made with phthalates), building materials, toys, catheters, intravenous tubing, and they also may also be used as solvents or inert ingredients in personal care products, cosmetics, fragrances, cleaning products, lubricating oils, and pesticides.

Note: phthalates can be disguised in the term “fragrance” in the ingredient list.

Phthalates can leach into our foods when in contact with fatty and/or acidic substances. They can also be released into the air during the manufacturing process of plastics. Phthalates appear to cross the placenta and also pass into breast milk.

The most widely used and produced phthalates is diethylhexyl phthalates (DEHP). It is metabolized in the digestive system and is transformed into one of the more toxic metabolites, monoethylhexyl phthalate (MEHP), which is ultimately excreted in the urine.

How can we avoid phthalates?

Here are some ways to decrease your exposure to phalates.
  • Use wax paper or parchment paper instead of plastic wrap.
  • Do not microwave plastics (even if the product is microwave safe). Switch to glass, ceramic, silicone, stainless steel or bamboo instead of plastic containers.
  • Purchase cosmetics that are free of phthalates and fragrance (avoiding the ingredients “PEG” and “-eth”).
  • Look at the recycling number inside the chasing arrow on the bottom of containers. BPA and phthalates free containers are marked with #1, #2, #4, and #5. Polyvinylchloride (PVC) is numbered with the #3 and should be avoided.