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What are Phthalates? (And Why Don’t We Use Them)

by Madison Reed March 22, 2017

What are Phthalates

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First things first...what are Phthalates?

Other than being a difficult word to spell, phthalates are chemical compounds that are commonly used in a variety of products. Phthalates are used to make plastics flexible and to lubricate cosmetics. According to the FDA, phthalates are found in hundreds of different products, “such as toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, after shave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes, and other fragrance preparations.” This range of products clearly shows the pervasiveness of phthalates in our everyday life. In fact, phthalates are so present in our day-to-day lives that 95% of people in the U.S. have phthalates present in their urine, as reported by Environmental Health News.

There are several different kinds of phthalates used in cosmetic products. Dibutylphthalate (DBP) is a plasticizer that is used in nail polishes to reduce cracking. Dimethylphthalate (DMP) is used in hair sprays and other styling products to give a flexible hold to hair, and diethylphthalate (DEP) is a solvent and fixative in fragrances. According to the FDA, its 2010 survey of cosmetics indicates that DBP and DMP are used less frequently now, while DEP is still used quite regularly. 

Found in most soft vinyl (PVC) products, phthalates are used because, quite simply, they are effective. They are used to make nail polish less brittle, to make IV bags and tubes soft, and to add fragrance to just about anything with an artificial smell, from shampoo to laundry detergent. The Huffington Post explains, “When you smell ‘new car,’ you’re smelling phthalates.” The ubiquity of phthalates in our lives has given many consumers and researchers pause—if we use these chemicals so frequently, are we sure that they are safe for use?

Are Phthalates Harmful?

Studies related to the dangers of phthalates are ongoing and some regulatory laws have been put in place to help limit the quantity of phthalates in certain products. However, phthalates are still present, even in cosmetic products that touch our skin and hair, so it is important to consider their effect on consumers.

Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors—chemicals that interfere with regular hormone function in the body. In fact, their role on male reproductive development has been observed since the 1940s. The National Toxicity Panel from 1998 to 2000 concluded that “reproductive risks from exposure to phthalates were minimal,” but the risks were still present, and The Huffington Post reported that more recent studies have shown potential risks including premature sexual development in young girls, reproductive birth defects, and even insulin resistance and increased waist circumference in adult men. 

Although cosmetic products containing phthalates are required by the FDA to use only the regulated amount, the fact that phthalates are used so prevalently in products leads to a potential cumulative effect—that is, even though your shampoo might have a small amount of phthalates, using it daily in conjunction with conditioner, hair spray, body lotion, face wash, perfumes, and other cosmetic products containing phthalates will obviously increase your exposure to these chemicals.

One important thing to note about phthalates is that they are often not clearly labeled on product packaging. In terms of catching other phthalates on labels, often the impetus is on the consumer to research them online or directly with the manufacturer. “Phthalate-free” labeled products are becoming more widely available due to consumer concern.

The Bottom Line on Phthalates
Because phthalates are used so pervasively, our risk to overexposure is quite high. At Madison Reed, we skip all phthalates in our product line, because it’s simply not worth the risk to our clients. Adding nourishing oils to our products not only helps hair look and feel healthy, but also adds a welcome, natural scent. By going phthalate free in our line, we give you one less label you have to worry about.

If you’re concerned about exposure to phthalates in other aspects of your life, here are a few tips to help limit your exposure:

    1. Find alternatives to plastics, whenever possible. When you do need to use plastic, be sure to use products labeled BPA-free and/or phthalate-free. Never heat food in plastic containers, even if it is labeled BPA- or phthalate-free.
    2. Eat organic! Phthalates are used in pesticides, and non-organic meat and dairy farms likely feed their livestock with pesticide-treated animal feed.
    3. Use a water filter to remove phthalates found in water pipes.
    4. Find manufacturers (like Madison Reed!) that you can count on to not use phthalates in their products. We like the Safe Product Guides on as a place to find reliable products.

Be sure to visit Madison Reed and explore our entire product line, which is completely free of phthalates.

Tags:  Phthalates