As you browse the beauty aisle, you may see more and more products described as “phthalate-free.” But what are phthalates and is it really important to avoid them?

This funny word (by the way, it is pronounced thah-lates) refers to a group of chemicals used to make plastic items soft and flexible. They are also used in personal care items (like hair sprays and soaps) and other products like vinyl flooring and adhesives. You’ll find them in garden hoses, packaging, and even children’s items like teethers, rattles, and rubber duckies.

If you think it’s a little odd that something used to make vinyl flooring also ends up in your beauty products or pacifiers, you’re not alone: ​​for some time now, the use of phthalates, which are classified as ‘endocrine disruptors’, meaning they mimic or interfere with human hormones. Due to these concerns, many companies are now manufacturing phthalate-free products.

Although phthalates can affect anyone, they could harm the health of women and children in particular. Read on for more information on these chemicals, their potential health effects, and how you can avoid them if you wish.

About endocrine disruptors

Phthalates have been classified by the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and many other health organizations as endocrine disruptors. Other common endocrine disruptors you may have heard of include bisphenol A (BPA), triclosan, and dioxins.

What exactly is an endocrine disruptor? It is a chemical that mimics or interferes with the body’s endocrine system, which is responsible for monitoring your hormones. Endocrine disruptors are found in many products, including plastic containers and personal care products, and have been linked to immune system, brain and reproductive system problems as well as developmental problems in children. children.

People are generally exposed to multiple endocrine disruptors in their daily lives. This has made it difficult for researchers to isolate the magnitude of each effect on human health.

How do phthalates enter your body?

Phthalates enter your system in several ways. One is via food and drink with plastic packaging, like a disposable water bottle or that little strip of plastic on your microwaved dinner.

Many children’s toys and teethers also contain phthalates. These chemicals can also enter the body via air particles and vapors. Once inside the human body, they are metabolized and passed out through urine. The level of phthalates in your urine can serve as an indicator of the overall amount of phthalates that has entered your body.

In a United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, researchers examined urine samples from 2,700 people aged six and older and detected measurable levels of numerous phthalate metabolites, which which led them to conclude that “exposure to phthalates is widespread in the general population”. .”

However, the research also revealed important differences: adult women had higher levels than men of phthalates commonly used in personal care products like soap, body wash, shampoo and cosmetics. And black women had higher levels of exposure to several phthalates than white women. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and advocacy group, found that black women on average use more personal care products and have fewer products marketed that are made without ingredients of concern, including including phthalates, compared to white women.

How do phthalates affect health?

It’s important to understand that the jury is still out on how, exactly, phthalates can affect human health. Most of the evidence for direct harmful effects of phthalates, especially on the reproductive system, comes from animal studies; the effects of chemicals on humans are less clear. It’s also unclear how “too much” exposure to phthalates is.

That said, based on animal research and observational studies on humans, scientists suspect that in children, exposure to phthalates (either in the womb or during childhood) could lead to genital malformations, behavioral problems, inflammation and other problems. In adults, phthalates can contribute to reproductive problems (such as precocious puberty in girls and sperm damage in men), thyroid disorders, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.

How do phthalates specifically affect women?

Because phthalates are endocrine disruptors, they can alter hormones in the body. “[Phthalates] interfere with estrogen receptors,” says Kim Langdon, MD, obstetrician-gynecologist at Medzino Digital Health Clinic. “[They can] cause early breast development, suggesting that they act like estrogen-like substances. Exposure to phthalates can also cause problems with ovulation and is associated with endometriosis, which is stimulated by estrogen.

But there’s more: some research shows that phthalate metabolites can cause lower testosterone levels in women. (Even though testosterone is often thought of as a male hormone, the ovaries also produce testosterone, and it’s thought to help lessen the severity of menopausal symptoms.) Drops in testosterone can cause low sex drive and muscle weakness in women.

A study in the journal Menopause found that there may also be a link between phthalate exposure and sleep problems that are common during the menopausal transition. The authors stressed that more research is needed to confirm this link, however.

“It may be important to consider a woman’s exposure to environmental chemicals as a potential source contributing to women’s menopausal symptoms. This may lead to treatment changes, such as educating women on how to reduce their exposure to environmental contaminants,” the authors wrote.

Beyond sleep issues, there’s also some evidence that phthalates may affect the severity of hot flashes, according to a study conducted in Reproductive toxicology. Based on levels of phthalate metabolites in urine samples, the study found that certain types of phthalates were associated with hot flashes in middle-aged women. Again, the authors stressed the need for further research.

Tips for avoiding exposure to phthalates

If you want to reduce your or your children’s exposure to phthalates in your daily life, these steps can help:

  • Do not use single-use water bottles.

  • Look for products that say “phthalate-free” and “BPA-free” and look for beauty brands that pledge to be chemical free. You can use the EWG’s Skin Deep Database as a resource for exploring product ingredients and risks.

  • Keep your house tidy and take off your shoes before entering the house. Phthalates can be brought in from outside and enter daily household dust. Clean your windowsills and vacuum or sweep often. If you have children in the household, this is very important, as babies and children who play on the floor and touch their mouths may be at greater risk of exposure.

  • Reduce your intake or avoid processed and packaged foods.

  • Avoid vinyl flooring

  • Use plastic-free kitchen utensils; opt for glass or stainless steel. Bottles can also be made of glass.

  • Choose silicone nipples for baby bottles, which may reduce exposure to phthalates.

  • When looking at a plastic item, check the bottom of the product. Does it contain a triangular recycling symbol with a number in the center? If the number is 1 or 7, avoid it. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 are safer.

  • Never put plastic in the microwave. This can leach chemicals into heated foods or liquids.

  • Try to avoid scented beauty and wellness products, including cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions. (Check “fragrance” on the ingredient list or look for “fragrance-free” on the packaging.)

  • If you are curious about a product, contact the company for specific ingredients.

Lisa Marie Basile is a freelance health and wellness writer and frequent contributor to EndocrineWeb. She is based in New York.