Phthalates In Cosmetics
Phthalates is the umbrella name for a large group of chemicals primarily used to make plastics more flexible. They are most commonly found in products comprising PVC plastics, such as vinyl coverings, adhesives, plastic raincoats, or tubing.
In addition, some phthalates are binders, stabilizers, or solvents. These compounds are present in personal-care products (soaps, moisturizers, shampoos, hair sprays, nail polishes, lotions, eye shadow, perfumes and fragrance ingredients, to name a few).
While our bodies are able to flush out phthalates, exposure to these chemicals is an everyday occurrence due to their widespread use and to their propensity to leach out. It is largely impossible to avoid. This has given rise to widespread concerns, including in regard to the use of phthalates in cosmetics – which by design are absorbed effectively into our bodies for better and for worse.
Concerns about Phthalates.
Many phthalates are thought to be potential endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which may affect hormonal balance and cause reproductive and development issues, particularly for growing children. Some (including DEHP, one of the most widely used phthalates) are probable carcinogens.
These concerns do mostly stem from animal studies which observed an association between the presence of phthalates and a variety of potential risks, including reproductive and genital defects, lower sperm count, disrupted hormones and infertility.
But human studies conducted in the past ten years, although narrow in scope, have also suggested that exposure to DEHP and MEP (a derivative of the phthalate DEP) might lead to an increased incidence of allergies and asthma, and cause developmental issues in children together with higher risks during pregnancy. This led both the US and the EU to ban the use of certain phthalates in children’s products, particularly those which young children put in their mouth. Some US states, most prominently California through Proposition 65, and the EU have intensified labelling requirements.
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 regulated the use of eight phthalates in children’s products, but no phthalates are otherwise banned in the US – including from fragrances and cosmetics.
In contrast, the European Union has for years limited the use of several phthalates in cosmetics. Four more, including DEHP and DBP were restricted by the EU as of July 2020. DBP can be found in nail, hair, and fragrance products.
In the US, cosmetics are not subject to reviews by the FDA, unlike drugs and dietary supplements which are subject to pre-market safety checks.
“Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, are not subject to FDA approval before they go on the market. FDA can take action against unsafe cosmetics that are on the market, but only if we have dependable scientific evidence showing that a product or ingredient is unsafe for consumers under labeled or customary conditions of use. At the present time, FDA does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk.”
In other words, unless evidence proves otherwise phthalates are deemed to be safe in cosmetics. (But the FDA recommended that DEHP and DBP not be used in medical devices for instance…)
What Should You Do?
Some phthalates, such as DBP and DMP, are now much less used, partly as a result of international regulations. DEP remains prevalent in cosmetics, primarily within fragrance as a solvent and as a fixative to achieve longer lasting scents, but it is generally viewed as low-risk and the EU does not classify it as hazardous.
However DEP is not the only phthalate used in cosmetics, and labels may not tell US consumers which phthalates are in their bathroom cabinets. Phthalates are most commonly found in fragrance ingredients, together with hairsprays and nail polishes, and labels need not disclose fragrance ingredients, which are protected as “trade secrets”.
This leads to a simple conclusion for now: in the absence of appropriate information, to avoid the most concerning phthalates avoid them all and aim for phthalate-free and fragrance-free cosmetics.