What Are Phthalates and How Do They Affect Your Health?

Meg Seymour, PhD

Phthalates are synthetic chemicals used to make plastics flexible and to make products smell good. They are a type of “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” which means that they affect hormones. They are found in many products in your home: toys; personal care products like shampoo and body lotion; air fresheners; food packaging, medical tubing; and saline and blood bags used in medical care. Phthalates in plastic can leach out of the plastic and cause health problems, especially for young children. When phthalates are used for fragrance, we are also directly exposed to them in the air and on our skin. This article will explain some of the harm caused by phthalates as well as how to reduce your exposure to them.

What Are the Health Effects? 

Research has found that exposure to phthalates is associated with health problems for adults and children. For example, those who were exposed to more phthalates are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.1 Higher phthalate levels are also connected to obesity, perhaps because the chemicals affect the hormones that regulate fat tissue.2 Since phthalates can affect hormones, this in turn can affect fertility and development.  

For men, higher phthalate levels are correlated with lower sperm concentration and lower sperm motility.3 For girls, phthalate exposure can lead to early puberty; girls who enter puberty before age 9, also known as precocious puberty, have been found to have higher levels of phthalates in their than other girls.3

Some phthalates are known carcinogens. While several types of phthalates have not been found to increase cancer in humans, a 2019 study found that a high level of exposure of a certain type of phthalate is associated with higher rates of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer.4

In 2022, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that high exposure to phthalates in utero or from birth through age 19 years increased the chances of developing childhood cancer.5 Although the study is specifically about the phthalates used in medical products, the exposure is clearly relevant to other types of phthalate exposure.

Phthalate levels during pregnancy have been found to be related to other negative outcomes for infants. For example, a 2014 study of 482 women found that women who had higher levels of phthalate metabolites in their urine were more likely to have a preterm birth.6 Higher levels of phthalates in a woman’s 3rd trimester have been associated with lower scores on mental and psychomotor development indices when their infant is measured at 6 months old.7 Research has also found that phthalate exposure may have negative health effects for mothers as well. A 2021 study found that higher levels of phthalate exposure during pregnancy was associated with greater levels of progesterone, which in turn were linked with increased chances of a mother having postpartum depression at 4 months postpartum.8

A 2021 study of over 5,000 adults ages 55 to 64 found that higher levels of phthalates built up in their bodies was related to an increased chance of dying from cardiovascular disease. The risks were found for different kinds of phthalates, such as those for plastic food wrapping and IV tubing, as well as the kinds used in personal care products such as shampoo and lotions.9 Exposure to certain phthalates may also increase the chances of children developing allergic diseases, such as asthma and eczema.10

How Are Phthalates Regulated?

Because of concern about the harm they could cause children, in 2009, the U.S. banned the phthalates BBP, DBP, and DEHP for use in toys and in “care articles” intended for children 3 years old or younger.11 Children’s care articles are defined as products related to sleep, teething, and feeding. In 2018, there were additional bans on 5 more phthalates: DINP, DIBP, DPENP, DHEXP, and DCHP. These phthalates are banned from toys intended for children ages 12 and under, as well as in children’s care articles for children under 3 years old.12 Federal legislation requires that alternatives to the banned phthalates must not be hazardous under the Federal Hazardous Substance Act.13 Manufacturers are also required to sufficiently test their product to ensure it will not cause injury through normal use or predictable misuse. These bans were the result of briefings by the National Center for Health Research and other nonprofit organizations at the U.S. Congress and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

How Can I Reduce My Exposure to Phthalates? 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the most common source of phthalates is food, followed by cosmetics, consumer products (such as cleaning solutions), and toys.14 Phthalates enter our food from packaging and the equipment used to process the food.15 Research has also found that people who eat more “ultra-processed” foods (pre-packaged foods that have little nutritional value and contain added substances like hydrogenated oils and chemicals you’ve never heard of) have higher levels of phthalates than others.16 A 2021 study that analyzed chemicals in 64 foods (such as hamburgers and chicken nuggets) from popular fast-food restaurants found that one type of phthalate was found in 81% of the food items sampled.17 To reduce your exposure to phthalates, try to use raw foods when you cook whenever possible and try to avoid any processed foods and foods wrapped in plastic

Look for fragrance-free cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaning products. Avoid using air fresheners, as they emit phthalates and other chemicals that can be harmful to human health. Check the label on things you buy. Most products that contain phthalates don’t say so clearly, but some product labels will say “phthalate-free.

There are many different kinds of plastics, and product labels will list the type of plastic they are made of, designated by a number. Plastics labeled #3 are called PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), and they are more likely to contain phthalates, so try to reduce use of those plastics in particular. Hand-me-down plastic toys may also be a source of phthalates, since several phthalates have only been banned since 2018. Even though you can’t see it, research shows that phthalates get into the invisible dust in rooms with those toys and other products. To reduce exposure from children’s toys, consider toys made out of wood or other materials instead of plastic, and avoid hand-me-down plastic toys that were bought before 2018 and especially those made before 2010.14

The Bottom Line

Phthalates are chemicals commonly found in plastic products and many products that smell good, and they can accumulate in your home or your body and harm your health. Although several types of phthalates have been banned in products meant for children under the age of 3, they can still be found in many products for older children and adults, as well as lotions and other cosmetic products, and food packaging. Although it is not possible to avoid phthalates completely, awareness can help reduce your exposure to them.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.


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