What Are Phthalates – and Are They Bad for Your Health?
Health & Beauty / /
Chemicals can normally be found in many food and cosmetic products. For some of them it is hard to pronounce, and not to even talk about the effect they cause to our health. Here’s what you need to know about how to stay safe.
In health circles in recent time, chemicals known as BPA, VOCs, parabens are getting the attention and are coming under more and more scrutiny. Even though we, as consumers are not able to see them, they can still be scary, especially hearing and reading about how they make our hormones go haywire, which than cause cancer or obesity.
If you’ve read or heard people chattering about phthalates, you are probably wondering what are they? What is the risk they pose to your health? And how can you avoid them? Emily S. Barrett, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health has answers for this questions.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals that are put into all sorts of different products (your plastic shower curtain liner or a rubber ducky), in order to make the plastic more flexible, says Barrett. This chemicals also proved to be good at holding onto color and scent pretty well, so most often they’re used in products “that need to smell good or be colorful,” like perfume and different cosmetics.
Where are phthalates found?
They can be found just about anywhere.The main sources are personal care products like nail polish, lipstick, perfume or shampoo, food in also not excluded. Barrett says the phthalate that should worry us the most is known as DEHP. “Most of the DEHP we have in our bodies comes from what we eat,” she says. A study dating back in 2014 published in Environmental Health shows that eating a diet high in dairy and meat can double the exposure to phthalates, and a more recent report found phthalates in boxed macaroni and cheese. Processed and fast foods are also potential holders of this chemical.
“This food goes on conveyor belts, through tubes, and is packaged, so it may pick up phthalates that are in the processing equipment along the way,” Barrett says. “The more fast food you eat, the more likely you are to ingest phthalates.”
How do phthalates reaches our bodies?
Phthalates in different cosmetics can be absorbed through the skin. You can eat them in food and ingest them when swallowing small amounts of lip gloss or lipstick, which can often happen!
You can also inhale them. “Dust is a big source of phthalates. If you were to take a dust sample from any home and send it to a lab, you’d almost certainly find phthalates,” says Barrett. These chemicals are everywhere, making it impossible to entirely get away from them.
How dangerous are phthalates?
Phthalates are ubiquitous. Barrett says. “We’re all exposed to phthalates, it’s just a matter of how much,” she says. But it is still not known what’s a safe amount of exposure. Much of the recent researches were done on animals, which in not necessarily to translate clearly to humans.
Barrett’s research examined the phthalate levels in kids, comparing it with their brain development or body composition. “We see that even at the ‘normal’ phthalate levels that everyone has in their bodies, there’s an association with obesity or altered development,” she explains.
She also adds that “Some phthalates don’t really seem to have health effects that are obvious. So, no they’re not necessarily all bad when it comes to our health.” Some brands have already take DEHP out of their products, but the question is what it's being replaced with. Most often, that is another phthalate that poses unknown dangers.
What can you do?
“The good news is that phthalates don’t stay in your body for long," Barrett says. "The problem is that because they’re everywhere and we’re continuously exposed to them, our bodies carry around continuously high levels."
What we can do in order to protect our body is to focus on eating fresh and organic when you can. By keeping away from fast and processed food you’ll limit the exposure by 50% in a matter of days.
You can also pay attention on using only the necessary personal care products. That doesn’t mean you should live makeup-free without any cosmetics, but only try to ditch what you don’t need “We see a strong association between the number of products you use and phthalate levels,” Barrett says.