If you are someone who reads labels before buying any skincare product, you must have come across “phthalates” (pronounced as “tha-lates”). You will find them in your favorite packaged foods, fragrant shampoos, as well as home-furnishings.
But, did you know that phthalates can have toxic effects on your health? The worst part is phthalates can enter your body through your skincare! Let's find out how and why phthalates are bad for you.
- What Are Phthalates?
- In Which Products Are Phthalates Commonly Found?
- How Do Phthalates Affect The Human Body? Are They Safe?
- Routes Of Exposure: How Do Phthalates Enter Our Body?
- How Long Do Phthalates Stay In Your Body?
- How Do You Identify Phthalates In Cosmetics?
- How To Protect Yourself From Phthalates?
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates can be defined as esters of Phthalic acid (1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid), which are used in a number of commercial products.  Depending on their molecular weight, they can be categorized as:
1. High Molecular Weight phthalates (High-Phthalates).
2. Low Molecular Weight phthalates (Low-Phthalates).
Commonly used Phthalates
Di (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate
In Which Products Are Phthalates Commonly Found?
Manufacturers most commonly use the acronyms DEP, DBP, DEHP or put them under generic names like ‘perfumes/fragrances’.
High-phthalates like DEHP are most commonly used as ‘plasticizers’, which are chemicals added to plastics like PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) or vinyl to make it flexible and more resilient to breakage. 
Low-phthalates like DBP, DEP are also used as solvents in cosmetics products such as nail-polish, perfumed personal care products such as shampoos, lotions , and even in some pharmaceutical products. 
In short, if you look around, you might find phthalates in:
- Vinyl flooring
- Furniture upholstery
- PVC pipes and cables
- Waterproof car seat liners
- Swimming pool liners
- Waterproof clothing, footwear and bags
- Cosmetics like nail polish, hair spray, perfumes and deodorants, etc.
- Personal care products like soaps, shampoo, body lotions, etc.
- Plastic toys
- Single-use food packaging
- Medical devices with plastic tubings, blood-storage containers
- Timed-release pharmaceuticals
And the list goes on…
How Do Phthalates Affect The Human Body? Are They Safe?
So, the obvious question that must be coming in your mind now is, if phthalates are found ubiquitously all around us, how safe are they?
Phthalates are a very large and diverse group of chemicals, the effects of each of them, need to be studied specifically to determine their effects on human health. Many scientific studies have found phthalates to have endocrine-disrupting effects, adverse effects on development and reproductive health, even affecting respiratory health, to name a few. 
Here are a few examples from scientific literature that demonstrates the effects of phthalates and their derivatives on human health:
- Common phthalates like DEHP have been associated with Endocrine Disruption, that is, they adversely affect the hormonal balance in humans. ,
- Increased levels of phthalates (DEP, DBP, DEHP, DiNP) have been positively associated with decreased sperm count and quality, leading to male infertility. 
- Exposure to phthalates DBP and DEHP in women of reproductive age increased risk of recurrent miscarriages. 
- High levels of phthalates have been associated with development of obesity in children. 
- Exposure to phthalates through inhalation may trigger asthma, allergy or other autoimmune disorders. ,
- Several studies indicate that phthalates such as DEHP, DiNP can be potentially carcinogenic, that is, they can cause cancer in humans. 
Some of the most vulnerable populations include:
- Pregnant and lactating mothers
- Infants and young children as they have lower body weight and higher metabolic rates
- Workers in production of phthalate-containing products
Patients requiring transfusion, dialysis, etc.
Routes Of Exposure: How Do Phthalates Enter Our Body?
Phthalates can enter your body through one or several of these routes:
1. Ingestion (Through Oral Route)
You are likely to be exposed to phthalates, if you are consuming food wrapped in plastic film or single-use plastic containers. The risk increases if your food is high in oils or fats.
Young kids are particularly susceptible to phthalate exposure due to their habit of chewing on toys or other plastic products that may contain phthalate.
2. Inhalation (Through Nasal Route)
Most phthalates are colourless, odorless and semi-volatile in nature, (i.e., vapours of phthalates can escape from products containing them).
Phthalates are popular carriers of fragrance - you are probably breathing them in if you use perfumes, deodorants or other fragrant products containing phthalates.
Also, phthalates release aerosols in common indoor settings, like vinyl floorings or furniture coatings, which can be inhaled.
3. Dermal Route (Absorption Through Skin)
Phthalates may even directly enter your body through your skin if your cosmetic products or toiletries have these chemicals in them.
PVC containing clothing, shoes or bags can also expose you to direct absorption of phthalates through skin.
4. Intravenous Route (Directly Into Bloodstream)
If you have special medical conditions requiring blood transfusion or dialysis, phthalates may be directly entering your bloodstream due to the usage of plastic transfusion bags or tubings.
How Long Do Phthalates Stay In Your Body?
Most phthalates are readily absorbed by the human body and may be broken down into metabolites, which are then excreted through urine, faeces or sweat. For example, DEP and its metabolites may leave the body through the urine within 2 days, leaving behind a very small amount in the tissue. 
But what needs to be considered here, is the cumulative effects of the multiple phthalates entering our body, from the various products containing them. Also, interactions between the different phthalates and their metabolites need to be checked as they can amplify the exposures and their effects.
How Do You Identify Phthalates In Cosmetics?
The very first step is to read the ingredients on the label. But as mentioned before, the manufacturers often use short forms of these chemicals, or put generic names such as ‘fragrances’ or ‘perfumes’, instead of explicitly declaring that the product may contain phthalate.  Therefore, the safest option may be to buy cosmetic products that are labeled phthalate-free.
How To Protect Yourself From Phthalates?
Phthalates and their derivatives are so commonplace, that it is quite a job to try and avoid them. Awareness about these chemicals is of utmost importance while trying to protect yourself and family from them. Here are a few tips to avoid phthalates:
- Use cosmetics and personal care products that are labelled “phthalate-free”.
- Avoid buying products containing PVC or Vinyl plastic. You can recognise these by a symbol that has ‘3’ in between three recycling arrows.
- Use steel or glass containers to store or heat food and drinks.
- Prefer having fresh, home cooked meals over packaged or processed foods.
- While receiving blood transfusion or dialysis, request your healthcare professionals for phthalate-free options.
There has been a widespread concern among the scientific community regarding the usage and safety of phthalate containing compounds. Regulatory bodies have put multiple laws in place to reduce or eliminate the use of these chemicals in certain products. For eg., the European Union has banned the use of DEHP, DiNP, DiOP, DBP in toys and other childcare products.
Many companies have voluntarily withdrawn ingredients containing phthalates, and are replacing them with safe alternatives. You as a consumer can make a conscious choice of buying such products that come with a “phthalate-free label”, to protect yourself and your dear ones from any unwanted side-effects.
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