Staff editorial – Phthalates, the controversial chemicals with the weird name

Cosmetics have become a prominent part of American culture, so much that few of us stop to think of the repercussions of constant usage, or even consider what exactly we are welcoming into our bodies. When I surveyed 280 Highland Park students, 79% admitted to not reading the labels before buying or using a cosmetic or beauty product. This is basically condoning the use of potentially harmful chemicals in our cosmetics. Now is the time to get informed and to stop this mindless consumption.

One particular group of chemicals, known as phthalates, have been in the news a lot lately. Of the students I surveyed, 95% responded “no” when asked whether they knew what phthalates were. Many have never heard of them, but everyone is likely to come in contact with them daily. Although these chemicals have been banned from products in the European Union, phthalates are still used heavily in American products. A study by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested 2,500 individuals and found 97% had molecules of at least one type of phthalate in their bodies.

Phthalates are a group of chemical compounds that are clear and oily, and used in almost everything from children’s’ toys to blood storage bags in hospitals.  Phthalates, or “plasticizers”, soften the texture of plastics and cosmetics. They also cling to skin, which allows products to last longer and retain scent or color for more time. A rule of thumb to go by is that basically any product with a fragrance, be it deodorant, perfume, body wash, or lip-gloss, is likely to contain phthalates. Of the students I surveyed, 95% said they use cosmetics or beauty products including shampoo, deodorant, and lotion on a daily basis.

So what could this cost us? Research on phthalates is varied. Phthalates are a possible carcinogen, meaning that research shows that they are related to cancer. They increase the amount of breast cancer cells in women’s’ bodies and they are endocrine disruptors that offset hormone balance, causing early puberty and breast development in girls. Two pediatricians, Dr Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist, and Doctor Howard Snyder, a urologist at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia both studied baby boys and the relation of chemicals to abnormalities in their hormones. Dr Swan found that baby boys that had more reproductive organ problems and low sperm and testosterone levels consistently had mothers with higher levels of phthalates in their urine at the time of pregnancy. These developmental problems relate to reproductive organs, and low sperm and testosterone levels in adult men as well. Dr Snyder links hypospadias, a condition that has tripled in the last forty years, to chemicals, especially phthalates.

On a container, phthalates are labelled as DEHP, DBP, DMP, MEP, and most commonly, DEP. However, even if none of these chemicals are listed on the product, it may still contain phthalates due to loopholes in the law regarding product ingredients. Companies are not required to state ingredients in their trademark “fragrance,” so there is no way of determining if a product is completely phthalate-free.

According to the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there is not enough solid scientific evidence that points directly at immediate negative outcomes of phthalates to spur legislation. Companies say that phthalates are relatively safe and pose no health risk. A prime concern is that if phthalates were banned, a substitute would have to be developed that would be new and untested, which could potentially be even more toxic. Furthermore, companies insist that phthalates are not harmful unless used in high dosage, and the small phthalate content in their products isn’t truly harmful. However, in 2008, congress passed a bill that outlawed phthalates in children’s toys, which seems to indicate differently. This legislation doesn’t seem to support the notion that phthalates are entirely safe.

The phthalates debate has still not yet been ended with conclusive data. Regardless, it is good to be informed. Because of the controversy, it would be safest to choose products that do not contain phthalates. It falls to the consumer to decided what they do and do not want in a product. Say no to phthalates by not buying products that clearly contain phthalates, at least not until more conclusive research is done.

Also, remember that phthalates are not the only potentially unsafe chemicals that find their way into our cosmetics. As the consumers, we have the power to change this.

To learn about skin products with safe ingredients visit: