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Is Avoiding Phthalates That Easy?

by Bill Chameides | March 28th, 2014
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on Is Avoiding Phthalates That Easy?


Personal Care Products
When reaching for your personal care product of choice, how can you be sure it is free of potentially harmful chemicals? Or can you be? Today, a quick look at phthalates. (Quadell/WikiCommons)

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used
and present in the United States. These
are some of their stories.

Hey guys, can you really save your sperm by reading labels? That’s what a recent New York Times article pretty much suggests.

Phthalates, a diverse group of compounds, are added to plastics, cosmetics, and personal care products for similar reasons — they keep items ductile, making “plastics more flexible and cosmetic lotions slide on more smoothly.” Some phthalates have been linked to a range of negative health impacts including cancer and problems with male reproduction. As Deborah Blum writes in the Times,

“A growing body of work over the last two decades suggests that phthalates can rewire the male reproductive system… link[ing] phthalate exposure to changes in everything from testicular development to sperm quality.”

For this reason if people are looking to start a family, it’s conceivable that men would want to limit their phthalate exposure. One way to do this, the article suggests,

“is to read the labels on cosmetics and other personal care products and to choose those without phthalates.”

Could it really be as easy as reading labels?

Unfortunately not. Why? Labeling regulations for personal care products and cosmetics are pretty lax, so much so that their ingredient lists are less informative than they could be. (See related post.) As an exercise, we went to the Environmental Working Group’s website to see which products have phthalates, then looked at the labels of these products to see if any phthalates were listed. The results? Hit or miss. Some labels listed, some didn’t. Avene Cleanance Lotion Toner, for example, included diethyl phthalate among its ingredients. But those products with no phthalates listed does not necessarily signify that phthalates are not an ingredient (take this product for example) nor does it mean they are present — it just means they are not listed.

As pointed out in Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” terms like “fragrance” and “parfum” are often code for “phthalate.” The Safe Cosmetics site similarly explains, “Most fragrances don’t list phthalates on the label, but hide them under the term, ‘fragrance.’”

Bottom line: reading labels only tells you so much. To avoid phthalates, you’re better off reading far and wide, soaking in as much information as possible to try to avoid soaking in unwanted chemicals — check out the Chemical Marketplace on this blog, EWG’s Skin Deep, and articles, such as this one, offering more robust tips. As is the rule when shopping in the chemical marketplace, caveat emptor.

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