New Series! One Ingredient At a Time (phthalates)


Since becoming more conscious about the chemicals I am using around my house and putting into my body, I have started to read ingredient labels like it’s my job.  Have you ever stopped to read these labels? There are so many things on them I can’t pronounce and I honestly have no clue what they are. I’ll admit it, until recently I really didn’t care either.  Now even on traditional products from shampoos to skin care you’ll see things advertised on the label stating “no parabens”, “sulfate free”, or “phthalate free”, whatever that means.  So what does this all mean?

I originally wanted to do a series of weekly posts that de-mystifies one chemical at a time.  However with the baby due and the impending move it’s not realisitc. So instead I am going to aim to do a post on a new chemical at the beginning of every month.  I’m calling it the “One ingredient at a time series”. I will research a chemical, figure out what exactly it is, why you might want to avoid it, and why you should care.  So without further ado lets dive in and learn about this month’s chemical: Phthalates.


Yes the “P” is silent. Pronounced thal-ates, this group of chemicals has been making quite the buzz lately. Everywhere I look brands are advertising that their products are phthalate free.  Last summer at the Rhinebeck fair I purchased some natural hand scrub.  I noticed the last ingredient on the label read “made with phthalate free fragrance”.  Hmm. I asked the girl in the tent what this meant. She said to offer more variety of scents they decided to use synthetic fragrances, but they used phthalate free ones.  Instead, I bought a hand scrub made with essential oils.

When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about that label.  What was so bad about phthalates? Why did the company feel it was so important to specifically inform the buyer that the fragrance was phthalate free?  And why the heck are phthalates in fragrance anyway?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials. They are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes).

Phthalates are used widely in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys. (straight from the CDC)

Phthalates are everywhere. They are in most things that are plastic.  If you look around I’m sure you’ll see you are pretty much surrounded. As I sit here typing this I’m looking at the giant pile of toys my daughter plays with and I would guess that 80% of them are plastic.  Not to mention the laptop I’m typing on, and the phone that is constantly by my side.  Phthalates are known to leach out of plastics and into things.  They are not bound to the plastics so they continually leach out.  If you have food stored in a plastic container (which likely contains phthalates), they may be leaching into the food you are eating.

Plastic toys
Plastics everywhere!

For a list of the most commonly used phthalates click [here] and scroll down to the table.

Phthalates are used in fragrances either as a dissolving agent or binder to keep the ingredients together.  They are also used in cosmetics as a softening agent.  Basically it’s hard not to be exposed to them.

safe deodorant
The deodorant I’ve been using advertising it doesn’t have any potentially harmful ingredients in it

But what’s the big deal?

There have been multiple studies done that link phthalates to kidney, liver, and reproductive issues, especially in animals.  Of course the FDA has stated that the amount of phthalates humans are exposed to through cosmetics is much lower than the exposure that has caused harm in animals.  You have to remember though, cosmetics are not the only source of our exposure to these chemicals.  Phthalates have been used in pesticides and are commonly found in drinking water from environmental contamination.  Add all the plastic containers and items in our homes and that’s a lot of exposure!

Another reason to start switching to safer products- the chemicals go down the drain and contaminate the environment.  I never really cared or stopped to think about this before but if you do actually think about it- you are contributing to your own exposure to chemicals by not caring!

Health risks

There are studies that have linked phthalates to a few health problems but it seems like the biggest concern is that they can disrupt the endocrine system.  Think hormone regulation, reproductive health, and possible birth defects.  It is known that phthalates show up in both the blood stream and urine after exposure.  The long term effects of this are still unknown.  [WebMD article]  They have also been labeled as a potential carcinogen, although that is debatable at this time.

Here is a whole slew of articles about the dangers of phthalates from the Environmental Working Group’s (ewg) website.  [EWG]

How can I limit my exposure?

Beware of things labeled with “fragrance”. It usually contains phthalates
  • Buy natural cosmetics and beauty care products that are labeled phthalate free.  Or make your own if you’re crafty.  I started making my own soap for this exact reason.  I do plan to post about how you can do that too!
  • Switch from plastic food and beverage containers to glass or stainless steel.
  • If you do use plastic containers, try not to microwave food in them as the heat can increase the leaching of the chemicals.  (I don’t have a microwave at all, but again that’s another post 🙂 .)
  • Be wary of products with “fragrances”.  Companies are not required to state that there are phthalates in the synthetic fragrances they use in their products, or that there are phthalates in their products at all.
  • Speaking of fragrance, most air fresheners are made with synthetic fragrance that contains phthalates.  Buy yourself a nice diffuser and some essential oils instead.
  • Try to get a non vinyl shower curtain.  I don’t know about you but when I change my shower curtain my whole bathroom stinks like plastic for a while.  That is the result of all those chemicals off-gassing right into your home.

Here is an incredible article I actually found on baby center but I would highly recommend you read it.  It lists other names for phthalates so you can be more aware when you read labels. [Read it here].  Another great article I found here [The Guardian]

Be an informed consumer!

What do you think about phthalates?  What chemical would you like to see me write about in the future?  Let me know in the comments!



  1. marilyn geraci

    I just read your new post about phthalates, even some of the footnotes, and my head is spinning. So much of chemical words I have never heard of. Perhaps the manufacturers are hoping that you dont read the fine print. They love the money coming in and obviously are not too concerned about your health.I dont think I have finished reading hour new post but I thought enough of it to message you before I got too tired to do anything else. (I have been ill over a year now so I have to react quickly to things I read before the information flows out of my brain,) TY for this article. Going back to it now to finish reading it. Then..another nap.Love and kisses to all. grandma Marilyn

  2. Lauren O

    Ever since I stopped using products containing synthetic fragrance I have become SOOO sensitive to those fake chemical smells. I used to love walking by a place like a Yankee Candle or Bath & Body and now it seriously just makes me want to barf and gives me a headache. Even walking down the shampoo aisle at the grocery store I can’t handle. And to think for how many years I had been desensitized to that crap! I use only glass and stainless steel for food storage now. I figure I cannot get rid of all of Sean’s plastic toys (although I do try to find alternatives for some stuff) and I can’t stop using my computer etc but I sure as heck can control what I use to store my food!


      Exactly! Even cleaners like windex with febreze in it give me a headache. Its amazing what your body gets used to. I threw/gave all my candles away. I have some glass storage containers. We have Yeti stainless steel tumblers for coffee (love those!). I want to pick up a few stainless steel bento box type things too!

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