By Dr. Kalin Suzuki, ND
Phthalates (ˈTHaˌlāts) are synthetic chemicals that are used to make plastic products more flexible, act as solvents in cosmetic products, and help fragrances to hold scents longer. They are commonly found in day to day products such as food wraps, plastic food packaging, shower curtains made from vinyl, rainwear, plastic toys, perfumes, personal care products, candles, and makeup, just to name a few.
From a health perspective, we care about phthalates because they’re a known endocrine disruptor, meaning they negatively impact our hormones. There are many studies indicating phthalates harm reproductive health, for both men and women.
Women have the highest levels of phthalates, likely due to regular exposure from cosmetics (Wittassek et al, 2011). In couples undergoing infertility treatment, those who had high phthalate exposure had lower antral follicle counts (indicating low egg reserve) (Messerlian et al, 2015), lower egg yield, fewer mature eggs that reached development and higher rates of pregnancy loss (Guo, 2018).
Unfortunately, phthalates are detectable in 99-100% of pregnant women in the United States (Woodruff et al, 2011). In rat studies, phthalate exposure has shown to be toxic to the embryo, causing mother rats to have fewer live births and reduced birth weight (Gray et al, 2006). Male rats born to mothers exposed to phthalates have signs of low testosterone exposure during development, with characteristics of testicular malformations, reduced semen quality, and possible fertility issues later in life (Foster, 2006).
Although more studies are necessary to confirm phthalate exposure and negative effects on humans, the current evidence is enough for me to recommend everyone, not only pregnant women, to stay clear as much as possible from phthalates.
In Europe, more than 1300 chemicals from beauty products have been banned, while in the US only 11 have been banned. That means we need to be our own advocates and do our own research to find products that are clear of phthalates and other toxic chemicals.
The silver lining
The good news is that phthalates have a short half life, and as long as our detox pathways are working correctly, we are able to metabolize and remove phthalates from our body in urine, stool and sweat within 24 hours of exposure (Anderson, 2001).
The human body is a detox machine! We just need to support our detoxing organs to help it do its job; here are some examples:
- Skin: your skin is the largest organ that you have and it helps clear toxins through sweat! Exercise or go to the sauna to activate this detox pathway.
- Liver: the liver is probably the most famous detoxing organ. Support it to function optimally by minimizing alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats, and get regular annual exams with your doctor to catch any underlying illnesses that can damage the liver.
- Kidneys: the kidneys remove toxins via our urine! Make sure you’re staying hydrated to help your kidneys do their job.
- Gastrointestinal tract: our digestive tract is how our body removes toxins via the stool. Make sure you have regular bowel movements 1-2 times a day that are easy to pass, well formed, without any blood, mucous or undigested food! If this is not happening, see your doctor to address any issues.
It’s best to avoid phthalates as much as possible. To reduce exposure and burden on our reproductive and endocrine systems, we can avoid plastics as much as possible, switch from using perfumes to essential oils, and purchase personal care products and cosmetics that are toxin-free.
Where to find healthier beauty products
The following consumer resources are designed to help you make healthier choices:
- EWG Skin Deep: The Environmental Working Group allows consumers to type in beauty and personal care products to see what rating they received in terms of toxicity levels
- SafeCosmetics.org: Since 2004, this organization has been educating the public and working on corporate accountability via campaigns and legislative advocacy. Their website has great informational videos and action steps for the public.
- Thinkdirty app: Similar to EWG skin deep, this app allows you to type in the name of products or scan the barcode of a product to see its clean ranking!
Retailers offering clean products:
- Follain: Established in 2013, this retail store has a strict screening process for products, ensuring all of them are free of toxins and chemicals.
- Sephora: most of you know Sephora as the multinational personal and beauty care giant! Recently they launched a CLEAN at SEPHORA campaign featuring clean beauty products free of toxic chemicals. These products are easy to spot, with a green seal and leaf icon to show the product is free of toxins!
If you feel overwhelmed at the thought of “cleaning” up your products and supporting the detox pathways in your body, your qualified Naturopathic Doctor can help guide you. They may recommend lab tests and can help you make a step by step plan for optimizing your detox pathways.
- Anderson, W. A. C., Castle, L., Scotter, M. J., Massey, R. C., & Springall, C. (2001). A biomarker approach to measuring human dietary exposure to certain phthalate diesters. Food Additives and Contaminants, 18(12), 1068–1074. doi: 10.1080/02652030110050113
- Foster, P. M. (2006). Disruption of reproductive development in male rat offspring following in utero exposure to phthalate esters. International Journal of Andrology, 29(1), 140–147. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2605.2005.00563.x
- Gray, L. E., Laskey, J., & Ostby, J. (2006). Chronic Di-n-butyl Phthalate Exposure in Rats Reduces Fertility and Alters Ovarian Function During Pregnancy in Female Long Evans Hooded Rats. Toxicological Sciences, 93(1), 189–195. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfl035
- Guo, N., & Du, Y. (2018). Follicular fluid concentrations of phthalate metabolites and early reproductive outcomes among women undergoing in vitro fertilization. doi: 10.26226/morressier.5af300b3738ab10027aa9a4e
- Messerlian, C., Souter, I., Gaskins, A. J., Williams, P. L., Ford, J. B., Chiu, Y.-H., … Hauser, R. (2015). Urinary phthalate metabolites and ovarian reserve among women seeking infertility care. Human Reproduction, 31(1), 75–83. doi: 10.1093/humrep/dev292
- Wittassek, M., Koch, H. M., Angerer, J., & Brüning, T. (2011). Assessing exposure to phthalates – The human biomonitoring approach. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 55(1), 7–31. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201000121
- Woodruff, T. J., Zota, A. R., & Schwartz, J. M. (2011). Environmental Chemicals in Pregnant Women in the United States: NHANES 2003–2004. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(6), 878–885. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1002727