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Dirty Secrets: Phthalates

Hello Everyone, Cory here with info about some of the nasty ingredients lurking in many personal care and cosmetic products.

Today we are looking at the generic group of phthalates.  Phthalates are a group of hydrocarbon compounds that form salts or esters of phthalic acid.  Their primary use is to plasticize PVC (think shower curtains, drainage pipe, and toys) and other plastics.  The addition of phthalates softens and improves the elasticity of plastics.   

 The CDC (1) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (2) published studies in the mid 2000's that showed that adults and infants showed increased phthalate metabolites when exposed to phthalate containing person care products like shampoos, baby lotion, and soaps.  Many people forget that our skin is our largest organ and is permeable to many synthetic compounds.  

Phthalates are used to soften creams, shampoos, prevent nail polish and hair spray from being brittle, and to help fix synthetic fragrances in lotions, creams, deodorants, and gels.  The most common phthalates in personal care products are: dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP).  Also, since phthalates can be used as a fragrance itself, phthalates aren't always listed on products ingredient labels, but instead listed as "fragrance".

So what's the big deal with phthalates?  Probably the most studied and known issue with phthalates is that they commonly play the role of an endocrine disruptor (3)(4).  Endocrine disruptors play a wide role on human health, so to say that phthalates will cause X and have Y symptoms is extreme difficult to do.  Some common issues that endocrine disruptors can play are:  insulin resistance (contributing cause to diabetes), obesity, birth defects, hormonal issues, and thyroid issues (5).


(1) "National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals"  March 21, 2001.

(2)  S. Sathyananrayana, Pediatrics, 2008, vol. 121, pp. 260-268

(3)  Diamanti-Kandarakis, et al.  "Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endorince Society Scienfitif Statement".  Endocrine Reviews, 2009, vol 30, pp. 293-342.

(4)  Bansal, Amita, et al.  "Immune System: An Emerging Player in Mediating Effects of Endocrine Disruptors on Metabolic Health".  Endocrinology, 2017, vol 159, pp. 32-45.

(5) Meeker, John.  "Exposure to Environmental Endocrine Disruptors and Child Development".  Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 2012, vol 166, E1-E7.

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