Are Phthalates in Plastic Safe?

Phthalates are chemicals found in hundreds of products. They are mainly used in plastics to help them become soft, flexible, and hard to break. Most people's exposure to phthalates comes from food sources and personal care products.

Phthalates are not intentionally added to foods, but they can transfer to food from other sources, including during preparation, processing, and packaging. Exposure to phthalates can be concerning because they are linked to serious health issues, including to pregnant women, unborn babies, and young children.  

This article will discuss phthalate uses, exposure, products containing phthalates, health effects, and more.  

Potential Health Effects From Phthalate Exposure - Illustration by Danie Drankwalter

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

Phthalate Chemical Facts

Phthalates are part of a family of chemical compounds that have been widely used for nearly 100 years. They are primarily used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a compound that makes products flexible and bendable (a plasticizer).

PVC is the most used plasticizer in the world. It is present in piping, tubing, packing, wiring, and thousands of consumer goods. In some products, like wall coverings, tablecloths, floor files, some toys, and shoes, phthalates are not strongly bonded can leach out.

Uses

Phthalates are sometimes called the “everywhere chemical.” This is because they are found in thousands of products that people use daily, including:

  • Children’s toys
  • Medical devices
  • Furniture
  • PVC plumbing
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Wall coverings
  • Detergents and household cleaners
  • Food packaging
  • Personal care products, including soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics

 FDA Status and Safety  

It is not clear what effects phthalates have on human health. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t discourage the use of all phthalates.

However, the FDA does recommend guidance on two phthalates that have been potentially linked to health risks: dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and di(2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). The FDA recommends avoiding the use of DBP and DEHP in prescription and nonprescription products. 

The FDA has also advised that phthalates in cosmetics and other consumer products do not pose serious safety risks. The agency notes that guidance will be updated if its position changes.

The FDA is yet to take any position on the safety of phthalates in food, food packaging, and food handling equipment. And researchers have found high concentrations of phthalates in soft drinks, mineral waters, wine, oils, and other food products.

Exposure and Detection

Most people are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking products containing these substances. You can also be exposed to phthalate particles in the air. Skin absorption can occur from contact with shampoos, lotions, and other personal care items.

Human exposure to phthalates can be determined by measuring levels in urine, blood, and breast milk. Testing of phthalate levels is done if a doctor feels there has been high exposure to phthalates.

Babies

Phthalates are used in soft plastic teethers and baby toys and can be hazardous to a baby’s health.  Additionally, babies crawl around, touch many things, and put their hands in their mouths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that phthalate particles are present in dust. This means babies may be at a greater risk for exposure, especially compared to adults.  

Studies also have found infants can consume unsafe levels of phthalates from their diets. A study reported in 2014 found infants over 6 months who ate solid foods were consuming unsafe levels of phthalates. These levels were found to be higher than what was being consumed by adolescents and females of childbearing age.  

Items With High Phthalates

Phthalates are classified as either high or low, depending on their molecular weight. High phthalates have high permanency and durability.

Beauty and Skin Care Products

Beauty and skin care products, including shampoos, perfumes, hair sprays, and cosmetics, can contain high amounts of phthalates. These products contain ingredients like:  

  • Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)
  • Di-isodecyl phthalate (DiDP)
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Di-n-hexyl phthalate (DnHP)
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP)

Materials

High phthalates are also found in PVC products like wire and cable fittings, floorings, wall coverings, self-adhesive films, coated fabrics, roofing materials, and automobile parts. The most common high phthalates used in these products are diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), and dipropylheptyl phthalate (DPHP).

Food  

Studies have found fast food can contain phthalates.

A 2021 study in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology indicated that high amounts in these foods can lead to hormonal disruptions, infertility, and learning disabilities. The study’s authors concluded that between 70% and 80% of the fast foods they tested contained phthalate.  

Other foods containing phthalates include dairy, meat, fish, oils and fats, and infant formula. Phthalates are also found in food packaging and food preparation materials and phthalates from those products can leach into nearby foods.

Possible Health Effects of Phthalates

Studies have connected phthalates to health conditions, including those related to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and the endocrine and reproductive systems.  

Phthalates are linked to reduced testosterone levels (a sex hormone) and low sperm counts in males. In all sexes, high phthalate exposure may lead to reduced fertility. Pregnant people who have been exposed to high levels of phthalates might give birth to babies with cognitive or behavioral problems.  

Phthalates are also associated with changes in endocrine function (system in the body that controls hormones) and thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are a critical part of growth, brain development, and metabolism.

Some phthalates may be responsible for liver and kidney toxicity. This has been demonstrated in animal studies.

Phthalates also are associated with some types of cancer, including thyroid and breast cancers. Studies have also shown a significant connection between phthalate exposure and adverse outcomes in all sexes for type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, allergies, and asthma. 

At-Risk Communities

Females of children-bearing age, babies, and young children have the highest health risks from phthalate exposure. 

Studies have found women are exposed to higher levels of phthalates from the use of beauty and personal care products. Some of these products are also linked to an increased risk for breast cancer in females. High phthalate levels in pregnancy could put unborn babies at risk for birth defects and growth problems.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long warned about the health effects of phthalates on babies and young children, especially related to food additives. This is an age group that is more sensitive to the effects of phthalates, and the most exposure comes from their diet.

How to Find Phthalate-Free Products

There is no way of knowing how much exposure you have had to phthalates and the effects of that exposure. While it is not possible to avoid all kinds of phthalates, you may have the option of using products in your home that are phthalate-free.

Compounds and Symbols to Look for

Phthalates can sometimes be identified by their three- or four-letter chemical structure acronyms. It is unlikely that you will find labels that clearly state that a product contains phthalates and even products that note "phthalate free" on the packaging may not necessarily be free of all phthalates.

 Eight common phthalate compounds are: 

  • Di-n-octyl phthalate (DOP)
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Di-methyl phthalate (DMP)
  • Di-ethyl phthalate (DEP)
  • Di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP)
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Benzyl butyl phthalate (BzBP)
  • Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) 

Tips for Limiting Phthalate Exposure

You can limit your exposure to phthalates by reading labels on the products you use every day.

One way to recognize products that contain phthalates is to look for the numbers inside the universal recycling symbols on the bottom of plastic bottles. According to Pennsylvania State University, you should avoid plastics with #3, #6, or #7 recycling codes, whenever possible.   

Some products contain the words “phthalate free,” but you should still read all the ingredients on the labels of these products. You should also be aware of phthalates hidden under the word “fragrance.” Fragrances in the form of phthalates are added to these products to make their scents last longer.

Additional ways to reduce your family’s exposure include:  

  • Choose natural personal care items.
  • Avoid PVC vinyl flooring and shower curtains. Opt for wood, tile, concrete, or natural linoleum flooring. Use cloth or linen shower curtains instead of vinyl.
  • Avoid plastic toys. Opt for wooden toys or organic cotton instead.
  • Swap out air fresheners loaded with phthalates for essential oils.
  • Use microwave-safe and phthalate-free containers and plastic wraps for heating foods and beverages.
  • Eat less fast food and prepare more fresh foods at home, using lean meats and fresh produce.  

Summary

Phthalates are a class of manufactured chemicals used to increase the flexibility of plastics. They are used in a wide range of consumer products, including cosmetics, medications, and plastic children’s toys.

Some studies have found these chemicals are harmful to human health and have been linked to cancers, hormonal disruptions, developmental delays, and birth defects.  

The best way to protect your family from phthalates is to read labels on products and look for three- or four-letter chemical structure acronyms for phthalates, such as DOP, DBP, and DMP. Try reducing your family’s intake of foods containing phthalates by preparing foods at home using lean meats and fresh produce.

A Word From Verywell

Phthalates are everywhere and almost everyone has been exposed to them. If you are concerned about your phthalate exposure, you should do what you can to avoid these products. If you think you or a child is experiencing a health concern related to products containing these chemicals, reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns and health risks.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which phthalates are banned?

    Some phthalates have been banned including di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP). Some other phthalates are prohibited in children’s toys and care items.

  • What are the side effects of phthalate exposure?

    Researchers have linked many health different conditions to phthalate exposure, including asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral issues in children, reproductive system problems, and fertility issues.

  • Is it possible to buy 100% phthalate-free products?

    Many companies sell personal care problems marketed as “phthalate free,” but it is still wise to read labels before purchasing these products. You should also avoid products containing fragrances or perfumes, where phthalates may be hidden, as well as plastics with #3, #6, or #7 recycling codes.

  • How do you identify phthalates on ingredient labels?

    Phthalates can sometimes be identified by their three- or four-letter chemical structure acronyms. It is unlikely that you will find labels that clearly state that a product contains phthalates.

  • What do doctors say about phthalate exposure?

    The medical community recognizes that exposure to phthalates is linked to a whole range of serious health conditions. And while phthalate exposure is common, exposure by pregnant people and young children can cause the greatest harm.

    If you are pregnant or have young children, talk to your healthcare provider about the best ways to avoid high levels of phthalates from diet and household products.

 

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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