What’s a Phthalate?

Phthalates are chemicals which are put in our food, in our homes and in our personal care, hair and beauty products. They are present in products that we use daily such as cosmetics, moisturizers and perfumes. While they aren’t the main ingredients, they are incorporated into products to make them “smoother”, “silkier”, “more flagrant”. They are put into products to make them easier to use and to consume.


What we eat is thought to be a main source for phthalates. Fatty foods such as milk, butter, and meats are a major source of phthalates. How do phthalates get into our food? They get into our food primarily through food packaging and food handling equipment. As a consequence of processing, handling, and packaging the chemicals seep into our foods. According to the CDC, phthalate exposure is widespread. For most Americans, a variety of phthalates can be detected in their urine. A study between 2003 and 2010 analyzed data from 9,000 individuals, found that those who reported that they had eaten at a fast food restaurant had a much higher levels of phthalates in their urine. Phthalates have also been found in medications where they are used as inactive ingredients in producing enteric coated pills.


The problem with phthalates is that they have the potential to interfere with normal body functions. Phthalates along with other environmental chemicals such as PCBs, BPAs, are collectively called EDCs -endocrine disruptive chemicals.  In animal studies, high levels of EDCs have been shown to change hormone levels and to cause birth defects. In men, studies have shown that phthalate exposure correlated  with an increase in the number of damaged sperm along with decreased sperm motility. In women, exposure to EDCs can affect hormone levels, potentially impairing fertility.  Phthalates present in a breast feeding mom can be present in her breast milk. Studies have shown that black women are exposed to higher levels of phthalates which are present in brand named and frequently used hair care products ie moisturizers, detangles, relaxers, etc. Recent studies suggest that increased phthalate levels may contribute to the increased prevalence of FIBROIDS among black women.


Unlike pharmaceuticals, the reproductive and long term toxic effects of most environmental chemicals aren’t routinely studied. Currently, the US doesn’t require that phthalates be listed as an ingredient in personal care products. 


To help to avoid excessive levels of phthalates, the recommendations include 1) eating more fresh fruits & vegetables, 2) avoiding/eliminating fatty and processed foods ie  canned or packaged foods, and 3) avoiding/eliminating personal care products ie perfumes, cosmetics, hair care products which may contain “unlisted” phthalates. 


Bottom line: Stay “woke”. Your health is too precious to ignore.

Sharan Abdul-Rahman, MD

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