Phthalates in Skincare: What They Are and How to Avoid Them
If you look on the ingredients label of your skincare products, you’ll notice they contain dozens of ingredients—with many words you probably don’t recognize.
While some of these ingredients are beneficial to keeping our skin looking and feeling its best, others aren’t so good and should be avoided. And as many of us conscious shoppers have learned, beauty companies aren’t always transparent about the ingredients they use. This means companies aren’t fully disclosing what they use in their products in a way that’s clear to consumers, especially about the bad stuff.
Though you may not be aware, the standard beauty products you use could contain chemicals that are linked to health risks. Among them, the all-too-common—and most dangerous—are called phthalates. This goes for vegan skincare, too. Just because a product is labeled vegan or vegan-friendly, doesn’t mean it’s free of toxic nasties, including phthalates, that could harm your health (more on this below).
Keep reading for everything you need to know about phthalates, including where they are lurking and how to avoid them in your everyday skincare products.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are a group of man-made chemical compounds that are used in the manufacture of plastics, solvents, and personal care products. Pronounced THAL-ates, they are colorless, odorless liquids that do not evaporate easily and do not chemically bind to the material they are added to—and they are added to a lot of products, which is why they have been dubbed “the everywhere chemical.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced or imported in the United States each year.
What are phthalates used for?
Phthalates are known as plasticizers because they are commonly used for making plastics more flexible and harder to break, giving products such as nail polish the strength to keep their shape without becoming brittle.
Phthalates are also used as a solvent for dyes and are often included in many fragrances used in skincare and other personal care products to help make the scents linger.
A particular type of phthalate compound, called diethyl phthalate or DEP, is also commonly used to help products such as moisturizers penetrate the skin better.
Phthalates that are added to cosmetics are on Kinder Beauty’s no-go list of ingredients.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), other types of phthalates (dibutyl phthalate or DBP, and dimethyl phthalate or DMP) have been commonly used as a plasticizer in personal care products such as nail polish or hair sprays, but the FDA’s latest survey of cosmetics, conducted in 2010, found that DBP and DMP are now rarely used—perhaps because of the growing awareness of the health consequences of these toxic chemicals used in everyday products.
Cosmetics aren’t the only items where phthalates are lurking. These chemicals are also hidden in hundreds of other everyday products, such as vinyl flooring, detergents, lubricating oils, shower curtains, plastic food packaging, pharmaceuticals, garden hoses, and medical tubing. They’re literally everywhere.
Are phthalates dangerous?
According to the FDA’s own tests, phthalates in skincare products don’t pose serious health risks. However, they are known endocrine disruptors, which means they can mess with your hormones and result in long-term negative effects.
Ingestion, skin absorption, and inhalation are potential ways we are exposed to phthalates. They are readily absorbed into the human body and are converted quickly to their respective metabolites. Unlike some chemicals, they tend to pass out of the body quickly in urine and feces. However, the ever-present use of these chemicals in hundreds of everyday products over the last 50 years has resulted in widespread exposure among the general population, particularly among children and women.
If tested, it’s likely that phthalates would be found in nearly everyone’s body.
Phthalates are considered to be in the same category as toxic “everywhere chemicals” such as Teflon (PFOA), a chemical used in the manufacturing process of non-stick cookware and other consumer products such as electronics, food packaging, and carpets. Teflon is considered carcinogenic and has been linked to a range of other serious health issues.
Since the introduction of Teflon products in 1946, nearly everyone has been exposed to it from contaminated air, water, and food—in fact, it has been estimated that PFOA is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans. Because of the various health concerns, particularly for women and babies, PFOA has since been banned in the United States and has not been used in products since 2014.
This isn’t the case for phthalates—yet.
What do phthalates do to the body?
There’s a lot we don’t know about phthalates, and few studies have examined the health impacts of phthalates on humans. Phthalate exposure has been only mostly tested on animals in labs—which is very cruel in itself.
Phthalates are considered weak endocrine disruptors and androgen-blocking chemicals. This means that, when absorbed into the body, phthalates can either mimic or block female hormones. In males, it can suppress the hormones involved in male sexual development.
Studies have also found that women appear to have higher exposure levels given the phthalates commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products, which are all absorbed into the skin or inhaled through vapors of fragranced products.
Despite phthalates’ short-term presence in the human body, chronic exposure can have negative long-term effects on the success of pregnancy, child growth and development, and reproductive systems. Researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Type 2 diabetes, and even breast and liver cancer, among other health issues.
Phthalates are considered so detrimental to human health that they have been banned from use in all cosmetics in the European Union. Canada has also banned the use of one phthalate compound, DEHP, in cosmetics and restricted its use in other products. Yet phthalates still remain prevalent in the United States.
In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of specific phthalates in children’s toys and child-care items, but what’s baffling is that there is still no law prohibiting their use in skincare, cosmetics, or other personal care products.
There’s not even a law requiring the FDA to approve skincare, cosmetics, or personal care products before they become available in stores. This means that a beauty company’s decision to reduce or eliminate the use of phthalates in their products is largely voluntary.
As you can see, opting to purchase from companies like Kinder Beauty, which doesn’t sell any products with added phthalates, becomes all the more important.
So, why does the FDA still allow phthalates in skincare and cosmetics? Great question.
The answer is because it doesn’t have the legal authority to do anything other than regulating labeling, such as cosmetics that have been adultered or misbranded. Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients, and the law currently doesn’t require companies to share their safety information with the FDA. Essentially, companies and individuals who make and sell cosmetics and skincare products are responsible for the safety of their own products. That’s some scary stuff.
However, there is some promising news: In December 2019, the EPA created the Alternatives to Certain Phthalates Partnership, which designated 20 chemical substances as high priority for risk evaluation under the amended Toxic Substances Control Act.
Seven of those designated chemicals are phthalates, specifically the commonly used compounds di-n-butyl phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, di-isobutyl phthalate, dicyclohexyl phthalate, di-isodecyl phthalate, and di-isononyll phthalate.
The risk evaluation for these specific phthalates will determine whether they present an “unreasonable risk” to public health or the environment under their current conditions of use. If the EPA determines that phthalates do pose a risk, action will be taken to address them.
This action can’t come soon enough.
How can I identify phthalates in products?
Product labels rarely state “contains phthalates.” Instead, the compounds can be identified by a three- or four-letter acronym that defines their chemical structures. The eight most commonly used phthalate compounds are:
- DEP (diethyl phthalate)
- DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate)
- BBP (butyl benzyl phthalate)
- DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate)
- DiDP (di-isodecyl phthalate)
- DiNP (di-isononyll phthalate)
- DnHP (di-n- hexyl phthalate)
- DnOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)
Among these, DBP has been most commonly found in nail polish, and DEP is the most widely used phthalate added to personal care products to enhance the fragrance.
With that said, phthalates can also be hidden on the label under the term “fragrance”—and because fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their specific ingredients. In fact, any products that contain the word “fragrance” on the ingredient label should be avoided to prevent possible exposure to the chemical.
List of products containing phthalates
Phthalates are found in a variety of everyday products, but where you might encounter them most often is skincare. Some of the types of skincare and related personal care products that could contain phthalates include:
- Any items that contain perfume
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Hair products, such as hair spray and gel
- Skin cream and lotion
- Baby cream and lotion
- Body wash
- Nail polish
- Diaper cream
- Infant shampoo, soap, and body wash
- Baby oil
- Body oil
- Face and body paint
- Glitter gel
Alternatives to phthalates
Phthalates can be found in numerous skincare products, but there are skin-loving alternatives with which you can replace those products—because, just like when you first learn the truth behind animal ingredients and animal testing, once you know about them, you can’t un-know.
But the hard truth for conscious shoppers who are seeking skincare that is also vegan and cruelty-free is that those compassion-based factors don’t necessarily mean the products are also clean or free of toxic chemicals.
Aside from eliminating animal-based ingredients and animal testing, vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics and skincare are essentially lumped into the wider beauty market, and that means not all vegan-friendly companies and brands are equally conscious about the effects of the chemicals they use in their products. Never assume “vegan” on a product label is synonymous with clean beauty. Even if it’s vegan certified, you should still check the label.
So what should an animal-loving beauty addict do?
- Start by reading labels, and look for clean skincare products that don’t contain phthalates—and that are free of other toxic chemicals that should also be avoided (be sure to read “How to Swap Out Chemicals Lurking in Your Beauty Products”). Look for products that say they are phthalate-free right on the label.
- Avoid products that contain fragrances, and especially those that don’t disclose the fragrance ingredients on the label. As mentioned above, fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets so companies aren’t required to disclose the ingredients. Instead, look for alternative products that use essential oils, which are natural, or that are transparent about each ingredient in the product’s scent by listing it on the label. If the fragrance ingredients are listed, you can easily check to see if the scent contains phthalates.
- Support smaller brands that are committed to producing phthalate-free products. There are many smaller vegan-friendly artisan brands—many of which could be local to you—that make their soaps, lotions, cosmetics, and deodorants from natural ingredients and without the use of chemical additives.
Clean vegan beauty products
Although the idea that your favorite beauty products could contain such nasty chemicals may scare you, the good news is that there are a lot of non-toxic vegan brands out there, and Kinder Beauty has you covered.
As a community, we want to ensure that all of the products we share with you are not only vegan and cruelty-free but also free of harmful toxins such as added phthalates. The easiest way to make the switch from the products you use now to cleaner kinds is to do your research on your current arsenal of skincare products. Run to your bathroom and check your products’ labels right now, and ditch the ones that contain the sneaky acronyms mentioned above (and don’t be fooled by those pretty fragrances either!).
We work with many vegan cruelty free skincare brands that are also clean. Here are some examples of how you can start making the switch to cleaner beauty:
- Swap out your daily skin cleansers and creams with the Earth Harbor hydrating collection, which includes a cream cleanser, peptide serum, hydration cream, and eye cream (and it’s a favorite of Kinder Beauty founders Daniella Monet and Evanna Lynch). With this set, you’ll have a full arsenal of everyday skincare that relies on health-promoting ingredients such as seaweed, aloe, pomegranate, and coconut oil to leave your skin glowing.
- In lieu of your everyday face scrub, try the Pangea Facial Scrub, an antioxidant-rich, toxic-free scrub that freshens, exfoliates, firms, and tightens.
- Found DEP in your monthly face mask? Swap it for 100% Pure Eyes Mask or the Sonage Energizing Vitamin Mask, both of which meet the Kinder Beauty musts: vegan, cruelty-free, and clean.
- Replace your daily moisturizer with Andalou’s Correcting Cream, a deeply hydrating moisturizer that includes vegan collagen, hyaluronic acid, fruit stem cells, and ectoin—a compound that helps defend against the blue light that wreaks havoc on our skin.
Not sure where to start with clean skincare? Read our Skincare 101 guide, which breaks down the role of all those serums, moisturizers, toners, and eye creams, and why and when to use them.
Making the decision to buy vegan and cruelty-free beauty products is the first step to becoming a more conscious shopper, but becoming aware of the potentially harmful chemicals that may also be lurking in your everyday products means you’re two steps ahead of everyone else.
All of this means that, as a consumer, you are making better choices for yourself—and the animals—when it comes to purchasing products you use on your skin every day.
Because there have been significant concerns within the scientific community about the health risks of phthalates, some companies are starting to replace them with safer alternatives. However, in the US they’re still not obligated to stop using such additives, so it’s up to you to become informed so you can make better choices.
Start by reading labels on your favorite skincare, cosmetics, and personal care products so you can avoid these controversial chemicals, and start supporting brands that are committed to keeping you safe.
Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals in the U.S. Population: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2004 and Comparisons with NHANES 1999–2000 | Environmental Health Perspectives.