What Are Phthalates?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 12, 2021
4 min read

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

Phthalates are even in your body. Nearly all Americans have phthalate byproducts in their urine, says Ami Zota, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.

But are phthalates bad for you? Here’s what we know about their links to health.

You can find them in things like:

  • Cosmetics and personal care products such as perfume, nail polish, hair spray, soap, shampoo, and skin moisturizers
  • Medical tubing and fluid bags
  • Wood finishes
  • Detergents
  • Adhesives
  • Plastic plumbing pipes
  • Lubricants
  • Solvents
  • Insecticides
  • Building materials
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Shower curtains

Foods linked to higher phthalate levels include:

  • Restaurant, cafeteria, and fast foods
  • High-fat dairy
  • Fatty meats and poultry
  • Cooking oils

You get them by:

  • Eating or drinking things served or packaged in plastic that has phthalates
  • Eating or drinking dairy and meat products from animals that have been exposed
  • Using cosmetics, shampoo, skin moisturizers, and other personal care products
  • Having contact with dust in rooms where the carpet, upholstery, wall coverings, or wood finishes have phthalates

You might be more likely to get exposed if you:

  • Work in painting, printing, or plastics processing
  • Have a medical condition like kidney disease or hemophilia. Kidney dialysis and blood transfusions often use IV tubing and other supplies made with phthalates.

We’re still learning about how phthalates affect us. At this point, more studies have been done on animals than on people.

One study links high levels of phthalate exposure to early death in older people.

The researchers looked at data on more than 5,000 adults in the U.S. They found that those between 55 and 64 years old with the highest levels of phthalates in their urine were more likely to die of heart disease than those with lower levels.

People in the high-exposure group were also likelier to die of any cause. But high concentrations of phthalates didn’t seem to raise the chances of dying from cancer.

The researchers say their findings suggest that daily contact with phthalates may lead to the early deaths of about 100,000 older Americans a year, costing the country an estimated $40 billion to $47 billion in lost economic productivity each year.

But the study only suggests a link between phthalates and dying early. It doesn’t prove cause and effect. More research is needed to confirm the findings and shed more light on the link, including how exactly these chemicals might lead to premature death.

Other research doesn’t always address the ways phthalates and other chemicals affect each other.

It’s not just one phthalate that might cause a problem. The chemicals in products and food work together in combination.

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

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 when our bodies are changing seem to leave us more vulnerable, Zota says.
  • Adult women have more side effects than men, possibly because they use more personal care products.

There’s no simple answer. Phthalates aren’t a single chemical. They’re an entire family of them. And like most families, they don’t all 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.

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.

Our bodies have a natural detoxifying system. Your best bet is to avoid 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.