What Are Phthalates? Definition, Examples, and Environmental Concerns

Storing food in plastic boxes in refrigerator
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Phthalates are a group of chemicals used as a binding agent, solvent, or to add flexibility to plastics and other materials. Nicknamed the “everywhere chemical,” phthalates are found in a huge range of items including cosmetics, paints, and even food packaging.

Also known as plasticizers, phthalates have been found to have serious impacts on our environment as well as a wide range of concerns linked to their effects on our health.

One of the main problems with phthalates is that they don't break down or degrade, and they can end up not only in things like soil and rainwater but also in the food chain.

Phthalates Definition

Phthalates are a family of man-made chemical compounds. They are odorless, colorless, and extremely versatile, and as a result are used in a lot of different industries, from cosmetics to clothing, printing inks to paint, and food packaging to fragrances.

Some of the most common phthalates are:

  • DEHP (Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), also referred to as dioctyl phthalate (DOP). This is one of the most popular phthalates and is found in food packaging, toys, medical equipment, and construction goods.
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP). Often added to cosmetics and personal care products to provide and enhance fragrance. 
  • Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP). Used as a plasticizer in a wide range of PVC goods including flooring, roofing panels, car parts, and sealants.
  • Diisononyl phthalate (DINP). Usually found in pigments, paint, varnish, footwear adhesives, and paper products. 
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP). Often added during the production of fiberglass, printing ink, sealants, and cosmetics like nail varnish.

Where Are Phthalates Found?

Phthalates are found in a huge range of the items we use on a daily basis. Some examples include:

  • Vinyl floors
  • Printing inks
  • Cosmetics including deodorant, nail polish, shampoo, and body lotion
  • Flexible plastic products like Tupperware, inflatables, and garden hoses
  • Electronics
  • Household fabrics
  • Detergents 
  • Medical devices

Environmental Impact

An Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) in Longyearbyen, Svalbard settling back on its nest.
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Phthalates aren’t chemically bonded to the material they’re added to, meaning it’s easy for them to leach out into the environment as the products that contain them are used. They’ve been found all across our environment, including in the air we breathe and the water we drink. They’re also found in soil, dust, and wastewater.

The effect of these leached phthalates on wildlife is extreme. The phthalate DBP has been linked to the decline of amphibian species even when found in very low concentrations. DEP is toxic to many aquatic organisms including certain algae, crustaceans, insects, and fish. Phthalates have also been found in many other places, including in the eggs of Arctic seabirds, river sediments and in marine microalgae. The same toxicity concerns that affect humans also apply to wildlife exposed to these man-made compounds. 

Scientists are investigating how phthalates in the environment can be broken down, including the use of microbes and fungi to achieve this. 

Are Phthalates Banned?

Despite health and environmental concerns around their use, phthalates aren’t completely banned, but their use is controlled in some countries. 

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitors how phthalates are used in food packaging and cosmetics, with certain phthalates being deauthorized. Products designed for children must not contain more than 0.1% phthalate. Some U.S. states, including California and Washington, have approved more restrictive regulations around the use of phthalates. 

Canada has banned the use of the phthalate DEHP in certain products like cosmetics and restricted its use in others including medical devices. The European Union has banned the use of six phthalates in children’s products and restricts the use of others. 

These restrictions all center around the effects of phthalates on human health—the environmental impact has not been considered. 

Phthalates in Cosmetics

Products for showering in bottles and bottles perfume on a wooden table. Personal care. Objects for hygiene and beauty. Top view. Flat lay
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Phthalates are still used in certain cosmetics including perfume, nail polish, shampoo, soap, body lotion, and deodorant. They’re included to help lubricate the other ingredients and as a carrier for fragrances. 

The use of some phthalates in cosmetics is reducing, with DEP being the most common version that’s still widely used. 

Phthalates in Food

Phthalates can end up in our food because they easily migrate from plastic materials during production, preparation, and packaging. This can include plastic food wrap, PVC seals, and even the ink used on labels

The most common phthalate found in food is DEHP, with one study finding this in 74% of the samples tested. Food tested included infant food, milk, fruits, vegetables, meats, condiments, and more.

How to Avoid Exposure to Phthalates 

It can be a challenge to identify phthalates because—as their nickname the “everywhere chemical” suggests—they’re used in so many different items and have contaminated our environment. Their inclusion in products isn’t always easy to identify. 

The main means of exposure to phthalates for humans is from contaminated food, skin contact, and inhalation. Phthalates are more dangerous for young children, so extra steps should be taken to reduce their exposure. 

Switch to using metal or glass containers to store food and drink. Avoid exposing any plastic containers you do use to heat, including microwaving or dishwashing. 

Avoid anything made using PVC, including certain types of garden hoses, vinyl floors, carpets, or even school supplies.

Treehugger Tip

If in doubt, it’s safest to assume that soft plastic products contain phthalates unless they’re labeled as phthalate free.

Look at the manufacturing codes on the base of each item. If the recycling symbol contains a 3 with either a “V” or “PVC” underneath then the product likely contains phthalates. Products with recycling symbols containing a 1, 2, 4, or 5 should be free from phthalates. 

Avoid the use of cosmetics and personal care products that may contain phthalates. FDA regulations don’t require the specific fragrance ingredients to be listed and phthalates may simply be listed as “fragrance.” The best way to avoid phthalates in cosmetics is to avoid using any products that list “fragrance.” You can also ask individual manufacturers to confirm whether or not their products are phthalate free.

Handwashing may also play a part in reducing exposure to phthalates.