One billion tons of phthalates are produced worldwide each year. Phthalates are used in a variety of common consumer products: they soften vinyl plastics that are common in toys, are responsible for the smell of new vinyl shower curtains and are a frequent component of fragrances used in air fresheners, detergents, cleaning products and more. They show up in cosmetics to hold color and scents, and have also been found in nail polish and treatments.

Products That May Contain Phthalates

Most personal care products that contain phthalates don't list them on the label. In field research, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found phthalates listed as an ingredient only in nail polish (i). Yet our 2002 report, "Not Too Pretty," described phthalates in nearly three-fourths of tested products, even though none of the 72 products had phthalates listed on the labels (ii). Follow-up testing conducted by the campaign in 2008 found that some though not all of the same products tested in 2002 now contained lower levels of phthalates (iii). A significant loophole in the law allows phthalates (and other chemicals) to be added to fragrances without disclosure to consumers. Because fragrance occurs in nearly every conceivable product, including lotions, soaps, cleansers and hair care products, phthalates are common.

Where It Comes From

Phthalates are ubiquitous in human bodies. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that every one of the 289 people tested had dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in his or her body. The CDC scientists speculated these high levels could come from personal care products and cosmetics, among other things (iv). A later, more extensive study of 2,500 individuals found metabolites of at least one phthalate in 97 percent of the tested group (v).

Health Concerns

Two decades of research suggest that phthalates disrupt hormonal systems, which can cause harm during critical periods of development (vi). Phthalate exposure in pregnant women, as measured by urine samples, has been associated with a shortened distance between the anus and genitals in male babies, indicating a feminization had occurred during genital development (vii). Shorter anogenital distance is characteristic of female sex in both humans and animals. Other research in humans has shown that baby boys exposed to phthalates in breast milk had alterations in their hormone levels (viii).

Other research in adult human males has found exposure to some phthalates is associated with poor sperm quality and infertility (ix). Further research in male animals has shown that exposure to various phthalates causes birth defects of the genitals such as hypospadias (an abnormal location for the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis) and undescended or small testicles resulting in low sperm counts and infertility (x). Female laboratory animals exposed to phthalates also have been found to have alterations in sex hormones and experience fetal loss (xi).

One of the ways that phthalates interfere with reproductive functioning is by reducing the levels of sex hormones, which are critical for development and functioning of the sex organs (xii). Additional research suggests that these same mechanisms may link phthalates to breast cancer (xiii). Phthalates have also been shown to cause proliferation of breast tumor cells and renders anti-estrogen treatments, such as tamoxifen, less effective against tumors (xiv).

More Information

What's in your products: Fragrance

What's in your products: Nail products

Skin Deep ingredient information: Phthalates

Report: "Not Too Pretty"

i Malkan, S (2007). Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, pp. 18-19. Gabriola, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

ii Houlihan J, Brody C, Schwan B (2002). Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA. Available online: Accessed August 21, 2008.

iii Archer L, Brody C, Malkan S, Sarantis H (2008). A Little Prettier. Available online: Accessed December 19, 2008.

iv Blount BC, Silva MJ, Caudill SP, Needham LL, Pirkle JL, Sampson EJ, Lucier GW, Jackon RJ, Brock JW (2000). Levels of Seven Urinary Phthalate Metabolites in a Human Reference Population. Environmental Health Perspectives, 108: 979-982. Available online: Accessed July 24, 2008.

v Manori JS, et al. (2000). Urinary levels of seven phthalate metabolites in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives. 112(3): 331-338.

vi Malkan, S (2007). Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, pp. 17. Gabriola, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

vii Swann SH, et al.(2005). Decrease in Anogenital Distance among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113: 1056-1061.Available online: Accessed July 24, 2008.

viii Main KM, et al. (2006). Human breast milk contamination with phthalates and alterations of endogenous reproductive hormones in infants three months of age. Environmental Health Perspectives 114:270-276.

ix Hauser R, et al. (2007). DNA damage in human sperm is related to urinary levels of phthalate monoester and oxidative metabolites. Human Reproduction. 22:688-695.

x Malkan, S (2007). Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, pp. 17. Gabriola, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

xi Gray LE, et al. (2006). Chronic di-n-butyl phthalate exposure in reats reduces fertility and alters ovarian function during pregnancy in female Long Evans hooded rats. Toxicological Science 93(1):189-95.

xii Borch J, Axelstad M, Vinggaard AM, Delgaard M (2006). Mechanisms underlying the anti-androgenic effects of diethylhelxyl phthalate in fetal rat testis. Toxicology 223: 144-155.

xiii Jobling S, Reynolds T, White R, Parker MG, Sumpter JP (1995). A variety of environmentally persistent chemicals, including some phthalate plasticizers, are weakly estrogenic. Environmental Health Perspectives 103(6):582-7.

Kang SC, Lee BM (2005). DNA methylation of estrogen receptor agene by phthalates. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part A 68: 1995-2003.

xiv Kim IY, Han SY, Moon A (2004). Phthalates inhibit tamoxifen-induced apoptosis in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 67: 2025-2035.