What’s that Pretty Smell Messing with our Hormones?

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At a major supermarket in B'more, every hair care bottle listed the ingredient "fragrance," a probable unhealthy phthalate.
At a major supermarket in B’more, every hair care bottle listed the ingredient “fragrance,” a probable unhealthy phthalate.

Ever wondered why girls seem to be reaching puberty earlier? Did you know that more baby boys are being born with abnormalities in their private parts? Science is beginning to point to fake-chemical fragrances found in many consumer products as the possible culprit.

Phthalates (pronounced tha-lāt,) make chemically-based scents last longer, and also are used to make plastics more squishy and pliable – think rubber duckies. Phthalates are also known hormone disruptors and are linked to a host of serious health issues. It’s smart to know why you should avoid phthalates – especially for any moms-to-be and parents with little ones in the house. 

“Fragrance” sounds so pretty

Listing the exact chemical names for phthalates is pointless for two reasons: The chemical names are mind-numbing and you also won’t find the actual phthalates chemical name printed on anything.

What you will find on products is the benign-sounding ingredient, fragrance, perfume, or parfum. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require the chemical to be listed. Widely-used since the 1920s, phthalates are ubiquitous and found in many products: vinyl flooring, rubber tubing, food packaging, and found in most personal care products. Because this group of chemicals does not bind to molecules, phthalates migrate into the environment and into pretty much everyone, no matter where they live. And that’s the problem.

Are phthalates safe?

On page 97 of McKay Jenkins’ book: What’s Gotten into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, one sentence knocked me over. Professor Jenkins was describing a Centers for Disease Control study that reported, “Infant exposure to phthalates was widespread and strongest in infants who were younger than 8 months.”  

Reading another major EPA phthalate report, my flame-retardant-phthalate-laced-blood began to boil. The list of suspected health issues was lengthy and often life-altering because phthalates mess with human hormones. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors. Loads of scientific studies link phthalates to lower adult sperm counts, early puberty and premature breast growth in girls and baby boys born with reproductive tract development issues, to name a few. 

Phthalate regulation is focused on kids

Children’s toys and products no longer contain phthalates thanks to the 2008 Consumer Products Safety Act.  This law also required the Consumer Safety Product Commission (CPSC) to investigate phthalates and then report findings to the public. In 2014, the law’s ensuing  C.H.A.P report documented many of the health risks and suggested additional phthalates that should be banned in toys. The panel also recommended that U.S. regulatory bodies analyze the safety of phthalates in food. The panel noted that mounting evidence links phthalates’ human exposure to food sources because of the wide-spread use of plastic packaging and plastics used in food production.  For a more in-depth analysis, consider reading The Guardian’s excellent article on phthalates’ regulatory history.

As U.S. governmental bodies begin consideration of regulating phthalates in food, plastics and personal care products, the American Chemistry Council has made the industry’s position quite clear. The ASC writes that the regulators “rubber-stamped policy recommendations from an advisory panel which, it would later become clear, didn’t exactly live up to the expectations of sound science.” Phthalates’ yearly revenues approach $10 billion

What’s a person to do?

Though researchers have found a strong link between health issues and phthalates, the science isn’t definitive. The CSPC’s C.H.A.D. report sums up the chemical’s current status:

Whether these levels of phthalate metabolites are cause for health concern is not yet known; more research is needed.

Okay then. 

This one-minute “extra” from the CBS 60 Minutes’ phthalate story provides a reasonable approach. When asked if it’s smart to reduce phthalate exposure, Dr. Howard Snyder, a pediatric urologist at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, advised, “Yes, it’s a reasonable precaution to reduce phthalate exposure because the data is just building every year that this is a real thing.” He should know as he’s been surgically fixing more baby boy’s hypospadias – an abnormally-placed urinary hole suspected to be caused by phthalate exposure in the womb.

And, we’re talking about shampoos and shower curtains, not exactly life critical products for consumers. The potential health risks, especially to children, seem to outweigh the hassle of finding a new shampoo or clothing detergent. Ample and cost-effective alternatives can be found at Whole Foods Markets, Wegmans, The Fresh Market, MOM’s Organic Markets, Trader Joe’s and online. The real hassle, as Dr. Howard Snyder points out, is that many plastics will need to be reformulated using greener science if it’s proved that phthalates indeed are dangerous. 

Tips to reduce phthalate exposure:

1. Choose natural oil scents: Avoid products that list the ingredient fragrance, perfume or parfum. Major brands, like P&G, are working to eliminate phthalates from all products. The shopping challenge is that it’s next to impossible to know if a product has phthalates because companies continue to use the no-meaning label of fragrance. At this time, the industry’s labeling system forces consumers to find products labeled “phthalate-free,” or that list a natural oil scent.

2. Vet your favs: Check to see if your favorite personal care products include phthalates by using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep 68,000 product searchable database.

3. Shop Green: Many companies choose not to include phthalates and they market that right on the packaging. Check out this list of companies offering phthalate-free products.

4. Find better alternatives to squishy plastics: This is where the going gets tough. Focus on products you and your family use daily such as plastic shower liners and cheap plastic toys. Regulations will be important to eliminate phthalates everywhere if science proves a definitive link between phthalate human exposure and adverse health outcomes.

5. Choose “green” detergents and soaps: Many soaps and detergents explicitly list on their packaging fragrance-free, phthalate-free or the natural oils used.

6. Choose your air fresheners wisely: Similar to other products, verify the fragrance source. Especially if it’s on-all-the-time room freshener near a child’s room. S.C. Johnson, the maker of Glade products, has discontinued phthalates.

7. Avoid cooking and storing food in plastic: Replace plastic containers with glass. Plastic coded #3 and #7 often contain phthalates. Many plastic wraps and plastic bags no longer contain some phthalates, but questions have surfaced about the replacement chemical.

This article is part of the year-long series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products.  Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment. Articles in the series:

How green is your mani-pedi?

Big Fish: Getting Smart about Chemicals with Baltimore’s Toxin Guru McKay Jenkins

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

How Flame Retardant are American Breasts?

Buying Safe Seafood in Baltimore

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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3 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! I use the EWG’s SkinDeep App on my iPhone to help me pick out safe products for my family. Additionally, the EWG’s Executive Director Heather White is coming to Baltimore on May 9th to speak on this very topic. If you are interested, it’s the Health & Wellness Conference, put on by the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine. http://www.UMWellnessConference.com is the website.

    • Thanks & I just put it in my calendar. I do wish I was more aware of these chemicals when I was getting ready to have kids and had little babies. It’s been very easy to switch out products, and I’ve found that natural scents are better (Mrs. Meyer’s Geranium soap can make a bad day, great.) I know this is a little snarky, but why don’t ‘they’ test this on themselves first before sharing with the world.

  2. Thanks for this informative article! However, I wouldn’t say that phtalates don’t bind to other molecules. In fact, the reason that they are so dangerous is, that like many other toxins, they are lipophilic (“fat loving”) and thus bind to fat, allowing them to bioaccumulate (so small exposures over time lead to a cumulative, large effect). It may be that the synthetic materials they are in (plastics, etc.) don’t have a strong hold on them so they can migrate, but they certainly do bind to other molecules, or else they would be inert (not particularly harmful).

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