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The gist
One billion tons of phthalates are produced worldwide each year. Phthalates are a class of several different chemicals that have various uses in consumer products: they soften vinyl plastics and are responsible for the smell of new vinyl shower curtains; some are used in food packaging; and others are common components of fragrances in air fresheners, perfumes, detergents, cleaning products and more. They’re used in cosmetics to hold color and scents, and have also been found in nail polish and treatments.

What you need to know
Found in: Color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes and hair care products, nail polish and treatment
What to look for on the label: phthalate, DEP, DBP, fragrance
Health concerns: Endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, bioaccumulation
Vulnerable populations: Pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers
Regulations: Banned in cosmetics sold in the EU

What are phthalates?
Phthalates are a class of chemicals with a wide array of uses in consumer products. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is used in nail polish, and is listed by the EU as an endocrine-disrupting compound of high concern. Some companies have phased DBP out of nail products. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is used in fragrance to help the scent linger. Rarely found on labels because it is a constituent ingredient of the ubiquitous “fragrance,” DEP is widely used in products.

In field research the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found phthalates listed as an ingredient in only nail polish [3]. Our 2002 report, "Not Too Pretty," detected phthalates in nearly three-fourths of tested products, even though none of the 72 products had phthalates listed on the labels [4]. Follow-up testing conducted by the Campaign in 2008 found that some – though not all – of the products tested in 2002 contained lower levels of phthalates [5]. A significant loophole in federal law allows phthalates (and other chemicals) to be added to fragrances without disclosure to consumers.

Phthalates are commonly found in human blood and urine samples. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 100 percent of people tested had dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in their bodies. The CDC scientists speculated these high levels could come from personal care products and cosmetics, among other things [1].

Diethyl phthalate (DEP), is frequently used in fragrance, but it is rarely if ever listed on ingredient labels. DEP is found at different levels in different populations, potentially due to different patterns of cosmetics and fragrance use. The highest levels are found in non-Hispanic blacks, followed by Mexican-Americans. Non-hispanic whites have the lowest levels. A later, more extensive study of 2,500 individuals found metabolites of at least one phthalate in 97 percent of the tested group [2].

What are the health concerns?
Endocrine disruption: Two decades of research suggest that phthalates disrupt hormonal systems, which can cause harm during critical periods of development. Phthalate exposure in pregnant women, as measured by urine samples, has been associated with a shortened distance between the anus and genitals in their male babies, indicating a feminization had occurred during prenatal genital development [6]. 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 [7].

Developmental and reproductive toxicity: Research in adult human males has found exposure to some phthalates is associated with poor sperm quality and infertility [8]. 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 [9]. Female laboratory animals exposed to phthalates also have been found to have alterations in sex hormones and experience fetal loss [10].
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 [11]. Additional research suggests that these same mechanisms may link phthalates to breast cancer [12,13]. Phthalates have also been shown to cause proliferation of breast tumor cells and renders anti-estrogen treatments, such as tamoxifen, less effective against tumors [14].

How can you avoid this?
Read the labels on nail products, and choose options that do not contain DBP. Some nail product labels indicate they are “phthalate-free.” Products that list “fragrance” on the label should be avoided to prevent possible exposure to phthalates.

Additional information including links to reports and press releases:

[1] 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: http://www.ehponline.org/members/2000/108p972-982blount/blount.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2008. 
[2] Manori JS, et al. (2000). Urinary levels of seven phthalate metabolites in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives. 112(3): 331-338.
[3] Malkan, S (2007). Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, pp. 18-19. Gabriola, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers. 
[4] Houlihan J, Brody C, Schwan B (2002). Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA. Available online: http://www.safecosmetics.org/downloads/NotTooPretty_report.pdf. Accessed August 21, 2008. 
[5] Archer L, Brody C, Malkan S, Sarantis H (2008). A Little Prettier. Available online: http://www.safecosmetics.org/downloads/A-Little-Prettier_report.pdf.  Accessed December 19, 2008.
[6] Swann SH, et al.(2005). Decrease in Anogenital Distance among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113: 1056-1061.Available online: http://www.ehponline.org/members/2005/8100/8100.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2008. 
[7] 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.
[8] 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.
[9] Malkan, S (2007). Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, pp. 17. Gabriola, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.
[10] 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.
[11] 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.
[12] 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.
[13] Kang SC, Lee BM (2005). DNA methylation of estrogen receptor agene by phthalates. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part A 68: 1995-2003. 
[14] 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.