Why Go Phthalate Free?

Phthalates are an “everywhere chemical” with concerning health effects. Here’s everything you need to know about becoming a phthalate free family.

Phthalates & Your Family: What You Need to Know About Phthalates and Alternatives

Phthalates have made a big splash in the media in recent years. Study after study point out just how ubiquitous these plasticizing chemicals are, and study after study also point out just how questionable these chemicals are when it comes to our health. 

As with most chemicals, babies and children may be uniquely vulnerable.

young infants… may be more vulnerable to developmental and reproductive toxicity of phthalates given their immature metabolic system capability and increased dosage per unit body surface area.


While the government has started cracking down on phthalates in some products intended for babies, they’re still widely used in our day-to-day products.

Since researchers have found phthalates and phthalate alternatives come with a whole host of negative health effects, it’s worth taking the time to understand these chemicals.

Here’s what you need to know. 

What are Phthalates

Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are a class of plasticizing chemicals. Consumer goods manufacturers add them to hard plastics to make those plastics soft and flexible. 

Think about your raincoat or your shower curtain. Chances are, you have phthalates to thank for how pliable they are.

Phthalates aren’t a single chemical, but rather a group of many different chemicals. 

Some common phthalates include:

  • di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)
  • diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP), 
  • Di-n-pentyl phthalate (DPENP)
  • di-n-hexyl phthalate (DHEXP)
  • dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP)

Where Can You Find Phthalates?

Phthalates are an “Everywhere Chemical”

Look around your home, and chances are you’ll find phthalate-containing products:

  • Personal care products, such as deodorant, makeup, fragrance, aftershave, nail polish, hairspray, soap, shampoo, and perfume 
  • Medical devices and equipment, such as blood storage bags and medical tubing
  • Home design and building products, such as vinyl flooring, wall coverings, shower curtains, mini-blinds, wallpaper, and plastic pipes
  • Plastic food packaging and wraps
  • Products that contain fragrance, such as detergents, dryer sheets, dish soap, cleaning products and cosmetics
  • Lubricating oils
  • Clothing and outerwear, such as raincoats 
  • PVC plastic
  • Adhesives
  • Indoor air pollution

Phthalates are also in products that babies and children use regularly:

Phthalates Are a Hidden Ingredient

You’ll also find phthalates in many personal care products.

Manufacturers use phthalates together with fragrance or perfume. Unfortunately, you might not know it from reading the label.

They are rarely listed as ingredients on cosmetic labels, however, because the FDA does not require the listing of the individual components of fragrances.

Choosing unscented beauty products is no guarantee that they will be phthalate-free, though, because these products often contain masking fragrances that may contain the chemical.


Phthalates in Our Food

“They are extremely widespread in American society, and processed food is a major route of exposure.”

Phil Landrigan, Dean for Global Health, Mount Sinai School of Medicine (as quoted in The Atlantic)

These chemicals are also a problem in our food supply.

Phthalates can contaminate food during growth. They’re also stored in the fatty foods we eat or drink, such as dairy, fish, meat, and – wait for it – infant formula.

The New York Times rather sensationally brought the issue of phthalates in our food to the forefront of public consciousness when they reported that phthalates are also in boxed mac n’ cheese.

Health & Exposure: Do You Need to Worry About Phthalates?

There’s A Lot We Don’t Know About Phthalates

One problem with phthalates is we don’t really know our exposure levels, or the effects of that exposure (bold emphasis in the quotes below is ours).

Levels of human exposure are estimated on the basis of annual production volumes and usage patterns of phthalate-containing products as well as environmental monitoring data, dietary surveys, and mathematical modeling of human activity patterns. These exposure estimates are imprecise and subject to error.


Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown.

Center for Disease Control

Phthalates have not been shown to be acutely toxic. Chronic toxicity has been studied only in laboratory animals. A few occupational studies in humans have suggested some excess risk of adverse health effects with chronic exposure…. Because human toxicity has not been well studied, animal toxicology data must be examined for relevance to human exposures.


Almost All Of Us Experience Widespread Phthalates Exposure

Research conducted by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), however, has found widespread phthalate exposure among the US population, with measurable levels of many phthalates in the urine of participants aged 6 and older. 

Ingestion, inhalation, and absorption are all common routes of phthalate exposure.

Food & Drink


For most phthalates, food ingestion is the major route of exposure. Fatty foods are higher in some phthalates than non-fatty foods. Breast milk and formula also contain phthalates.



Phthalates may get into household dust, and young children can ingest them through hand-to-mouth behavior. Babies can also be exposed by sucking on phthalate-containing items.

Personal Care Products

Inhale & Absorb

The use of care products is a major source of exposure for some phthalates. The phthalates can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled during product use.

Research has found women have higher levels of phthalate metabolites in urine than men. Specifically, women have higher concentrations of phthalate metabolites for the phthalates commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products.

And children and babies appear to have higher exposure to most phthalates than adults.

Studies of phthalate metabolites in children’s urine are limited, but the few that have been published have found children’s urinary phthalate metabolite levels to be higher than levels in adults and to decrease with age (i.e., younger children had more phthalate metabolites in their urine than older children did).

Centre for Disease Control

For Parents Who Want to Protect Their Babies from Phthalates, It’s a Confusing World

For such a concerning chemical, you think it’d be easy to make a decision as a parent and simply avoid phthalates in your home. 

Think again. 

It’s incredibly difficult to avoid phthalates. And frankly, there’s still a lot of conflicting information out there.

Phthalates vs. Industry

Baby Personal Care Products & Urine Concentrations of Some Phthalates

Take the case of personal care products for babies. We’re talking about lotions, powders, and shampoos. 

Research published in 2008 correlated infants’ urinary concentrations of 3 phthalates – monoethyl phthalate, monomethyl phthalate, and monoisobutyl phthalate – with the use of baby lotions, powders, and shampoos.

While the researchers did find a positive correlation between parents’ use of baby care lotions, powders, and shampoos with their infants’ phthalate levels, they didn’t actually test any of the products for the presence of phthalates.

The Industry Responded

The industry took issue with this research. John Bailey, Chief Scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, had this to say

The results of this study suggesting a link between the use of baby lotion, shampoo, and powder and the presence of phthalates in infants do not make sense because only one of the seven phthalate compounds reported is even used in baby care products.  This suggests that most of the phthalates found in the urine samples came from another route of exposure, and we welcome additional study to determine the source.

The one phthalate that is sometimes found in baby care products is diethyl phthalate (DEP).  DEP, which is a component of some fragrance preparations, may be present at very low levels in baby care products.  No other phthalates are used in fragrance preparations or baby products.

Later independent research conducted at the University of California, Irvine, Department of Dermatology, analyzed 30 baby skin care products for 17 phthalates. Of the samples tested, only four had phthalate levels above the reporting limit – the majority (26 out of 30) had no detectable phthalate levels.

This seems to lend at least some credence to the industry statement above. 

Let’s Just Call the Research “Inconclusive, But Concerning”

And yet, still other studies back up the link between use of personal care products in babies and phthalate metabolites in their urine:

  • Researchers in the United States correlated recent use of infant lotion or baby powder with higher phthalate metabolite concentrations in 55 infants.
  • Researchers in the United Arab Emirates found phthalate levels increased in baby lotion and oil samples with longer periods of storage. The researchers hypothesized phthalates may leach from the plastic product bottles into lotions and oils, with time.

What are the Health Effects of Phthalate Exposure?

As noted above, much of the information we have on phthalates is from animal studies. However, there are some human studies as well. Here’s a taste of what we know about phthalates and our health:

  • Experts suspect some phthalates are endocrine disruptors. They have been linked to altered thyroid function in women, for example, and obesity in rats.
  • Prenatal exposure to phthalates is correlated with greater social deficits, social cognition, social communication, and social awareness in children aged seven to nine. 
  • A study of South Korean children aged 8 through 11 found the higher the levels of some phthalate metabolites in a child’s urine, the greater the chance that child displayed symptoms of ADHD.
  • Some studies have reported an association between some phthalates and asthma and rhinitis.

Research into the effects of phthalate exposure and our health is incomplete and somewhat inconclusive. Some data suggests health concerns associated with exposure to some phthalates. However, there’s still a lot we don’t know

Dr. Pat Bass, Board-Certified Internist, Pediatrician, and Member of the GreenActiveFamily Medical Review Board

What is the Government Doing About Phthalates?

Since the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in the United States, the use of phthalates in children’s toys and care articles the US has been regulated. 

Currently, children toys and child care articles* containing more than 0.1% concentration of the following phthalates are prohibited: 

  • di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP)
  • diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP)
  • di-n-pentyl phthalate (DPENP)
  • di-n-hexyl phthalate (DHEXP)
  • dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP)

(*A child care article is a consumer product intended by the manufacturer to facilitate sleep or feeding, or help with sucking or teething, for children age 3 and younger).

Worth noting, CPSIA doesn’t cover all phthalates.

It also doesn’t apply to phthalate alternatives, also a cause for concern.

Say Hello to “Phthalates Alternatives”

When American industry phased-out polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) fire retardants, we saw an uptick in chemical alternatives.

So it goes with phthalates.

Phthalate alternatives include chemicals like bis(2-ethylhexyl) isophthalate (iso-DEHP), diisononyl 1,2-cyclohexanedicarboxylic acid (DINCH), and bis(2- ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA).

Dr. Brandon Boor, a leading expert in chemicals in crib mattresses, analyzed 20 new and used crib mattresses for plasticizers. Worth noting, the researchers purchased the crib mattresses in 2011 – after CPSIA went into effect.

The results?

Seventeen of the 20 crib mattress covers analyzed contained at least one identifiable plasticizer (including those on the prohibited list).

They also contained phthalate alternatives.

“Since the CPSIA went into effect, there has been more frequent use of phthalate alternatives, including DINCH and iso-DEHP, which were identified in seven of the 10 cover samples manufactured from 2009 to 2011. The use of DINCH as a phthalate replacement in crib mattresses follows the trend observed in other soft PVC products, and isophthalates (isoDEHP) are being used in the same manner.”


Go Phthalate Free – How to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure

Go Phthalates Free in Your Kitchen & Pantry

Possible sources of phthalates in your kitchen include plastic food wrap, plastic bags, flexible plastic containers, peanut better jars, oil bottles, squeeze bottles, vinyl flooring, and food.

Break your addiction to flexible plastic food wrap in favor of non-toxic plastic wrap alternatives. Beeswax wraps are a quick and easy DIY alternative

DIY Beeswax Food Wraps are a Great Alternative to Plastic Food Wrap

Other non-toxic plastic wrap alternatives include cotton bowl covers; silicon bags, containers and stretch lids; and glass and stainless steel containers.

Along the same vein, break your addiction to phthalate-containing plastic bags. This includes your “main” grocery bag, but also the “bags within the bag” that you pick up along the way – bread bags, produce bags, etc. 

Shop zero-waste grocery stores in your area, and bring your own non-plastic packaging for dry goods, meats, dairy, and deli items. 

Never, ever heat your plastic with food in it – increasing the temperature increases the chance of your containers leaching phthalates and other chemicals into your food.

Finally, consider the cleaners you use in the kitchen, such as dish soap, and look for safer dish soap options.

Go Phthalate Free in Your Bathroom

Phthalates are in a ton of personal care products.

As noted above, the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose the individual components of fragrance ingredients, meaning phthalates may be in your hairspray, lotion, and more – and you won’t even know it.

Your best bet is to look for products that are specifically labelled as phthalate-free, and to check out brands before you buy using one of the independent databases out there, such as Skin Deep®.

Overall, a “less is more” approach to personal care products is a safe bet, except when it comes to daily sunscreen.

Like in the kitchen, switch to fragrance free cleaning products for your bathroom.

Go Phthalate Free for your Baby

Phthalates in Baby Bottles

When purchasing baby bottles, look for those that are specifically labelled phthalate-free (or even better, use glass baby bottles and sippy cups, and non-plastic baby spoons). Philips Avent bottles (which we use) are made from polypropylene (recycling code #5), and are phthalate and BPA free.

Also pay attention to what number plastic your baby bottles are made from.

Plastics marked with #1, 2, 4, and 5 are generally considered the “safest plastics.”

PVC is labelled #3, and may leach phthalates.

Phthalates in Baby Lotion and Shampoo

Look for fragrance-free products that are specifically labelled phthalate free. Pay attention to the recycling code on the packaging/bottle, and look for recycling codes #1, 2, 4 and 5. Avoid baby care products packaged in plastics #3, #6, and #7 if possible.

You can also check out our articles about safe baby lotion, shampoo, conditioner and detangler spray.

Phthalates In PVC / Vinyl

PVC is sometimes called “the poison plastic” because of its harm to human and environmental health. Watch out for products made of or packaged in plastic with the recycling code #3. When you see it, walk away and choose a safer product or packaging choice for your family.

In particular, watch out for waterproof crib mattress covers or crib mattresses that use PVC/vinyl, and choose non-toxic bath toys, baby bath tubs, spout covers, and bath temp thermometers.

Final Thoughts on Living Phthalate Free (Or As Phthalates Free as Possible)

  • Minimize your use of personal care products, both personally and for your children. With your children, only use lotions etc. if they’re medically needed.
  • Don’t buy products with added fragrance or perfume as they may contain phthalates. Even if you buy unscented, still look for the phthalate free label.
  • Avoid PVC / Vinyl as much as you can. Look for the recycling code #3 to identify it in clear food packaging and cling wrap, detergent and cleaner bottles, squeeze bottles, oil and nut butter jars, shower curtains, vinyl pipes, vinyl flooring and siding, vinyl windows.
  • Buy 3-Free or 5-Free nail polish, and avoid polishes with DBP listed as an ingredient.
  • Try to reduce your family’s consumption of food packaged in plastic, and don’t heat your food in plastic containers.

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