What Are Phthalates?

Medically Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD on August 15, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

You can’t see, smell, or taste them, but they’re in hundreds of products you use every day. They’re also in the food you eat. Phthalates (THAL-ates) are chemicals that make plastic soft and flexible. You can find them in:

  • Cosmetics and personal care products, from perfume, nail polish, and hair spray to soap, shampoo, and skin moisturizers
  • Medical tubing and fluid bags
  • Wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, solvents, insecticides, building materials, and vinyl flooring
  • Food, especially meat and dairy products and fast food

They’re also in your body. Nearly all Americans have phthalate byproducts in their urine, says Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. That’s a good reason to learn as much as you can about them.

How Do They Get Into My Body?

They come from:

  • Food or beverages served or packaged in plastic that has phthalates
  • Dairy and meat from animals that have been exposed
  • Cosmetics, shampoo, skin moisturizers and other personal care products
  • Dust in rooms where the carpet, upholstery, or wood finishes contain phthalates

You might be more likely to get exposed if you:

What Does the Research Say?

We’re still learning about how phthalates affect us. It isn’t clear yet, because more studies have been done on animals than on people. What has been done doesn’t always address the ways they interact with other chemicals. “Very often, it’s not just one phthalate that causes a problem. The chemicals in consumer products and food work in combination, just as they do in our medications,” says William Rea, MD, director of the Environmental Health Center in Dallas.

New research areas are expanding our understanding. The link between phthalates and surging rates of chronic disease is one example. Other researchers have focused on people who are more sensitive to chemicals than most of us.

Phthalates affect different groups of people in different ways:

  • Unborn babies and children are among the most affected. Phthalates can do more harm to males.
  • Kids in puberty are also at risk. “Times of biological transformation seem to leave us vulnerable to these chemicals,” Zota says.
  • Adult women have more side effects than men, perhaps because they use more personal care products.

Phthalate levels in people are changing. Some are going up. Others are on their way down.

DBP, BBP, and DEHP have declined in recent years. They’re now below the amounts considered unsafe by federal health agencies. But exposure to replacement phthalates likes DINP, DnOP, and DIDP is higher.

Are They Safe?

There’s no simple answer to this question. Here’s why:

Phthalates aren’t a single chemical. They’re an entire family of them. And like most families, they don’t behave the same way.

Three of them, BBP, DBP, and DEHP, are permanently banned from toys and products intended to help children under 3 sleep, eat, teethe, or suck.

DBP and DEHP damage the reproductive systems of lab rats, especially males. Tests on people show DBP can irritate skin. We’re not sure if BBP causes cancer in people, but research shows it may have caused cancer in lab rats. DEHP is confirmed to cause cancer in animals, and expected, but not confirmed, in people. It also causes developmental problems in animals, but it hasn’t been shown to affect people the same way.

Three more, DiDP, DINP, and DnOP, are under an interim ban from toys that can go into a child’s mouth.

DiDP can make your eyes and skin red or cause nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. DINP causes tumors and developmental problems in lab rats. In 2014, California added it to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer. But it hasn’t been proven to cause cancer in people. DnOP was linked to endometriosis in women and caused problems in reproductive development in rats. It can irritate the skin in both people and animals.

How Can I Protect Myself?

Our bodies have a natural detoxifying system, Rea says. Your best bet is to avoid harmful phthalates as much as possible. Here’s how to start:

  • Read product labels. Phthalates aren’t always included on labels, especially with personal care products and vinyl or plastic toys. When they are identified, it’s usually with an acronym like DHEP or DiBP.
  • When you can, choose items labeled “phthalate-free.”
  • Use only “microwave safe” and phthalate-free containers and plastic wrap -- especially with oily or fatty foods.
  • Watch what you eat. Studies show that diets high in dairy and meat bring high levels of phthalate exposure.
  • Avoid fast food. Zota and other researchers have found that fast food containers can be a source of harmful exposure.
  • Ask for phthalate-free medical devices if you are on kidney dialysis or receive a blood transfusion.
WebMD Feature



FDA: “Phthalates.”

Ami Zota, assistant professor, environmental and occupational health, Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University.

Tox Town: “Phthalates.”

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Phthalates. (THAL-ates) The Everywhere Chemical.”

William Rea, MD, director, Environmental Health Center, Dallas.

Environmental Health News: “Good news/bad news: Some phthalates down, some up.”

Consumer Product Safety Commission: “Phthalates.”

CDC: “Toxic Substances Portal: Di-n-butyl Phthalate.”

PubChem: “Benzyl Butyl Phthalate.”

PubChem: “DEHP.”

PubChem: “Diisodecyl Phthalate.”

PubChem: “Diisononyl Phthalate.”

PubChem: “Dioctyl Phthalate.”

Serrano, S. Environmental Health, published online June 2, 2014.

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.