Last Updated on December 2, 2022 by Verna Meachum
Phthalates are a class of chemicals that are often found in synthetic fragrances and hair products.
Most people don’t know it, but ‘phthalates’ are present in many of the products we use every day, such as detergents, baby formula, nail polish, and even food packaging.
Their widespread use has raised concerns about human health, as we come into contact with them multiple times every day.
Research has linked exposure to phthalates with several disorders, but most significantly with reproductive disorders, which is exacerbated by the frequency of contact with these chemicals.
While phthalates have been linked to a variety of health concerns, more research is needed to determine their full extent of health risks.
If you’re looking to avoid phthalates, be sure to read the ingredients list on your hair products and choose those that are fragrance-free.
In the meantime, here’s what we know about phthalates and their potential health risks.
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates represent the group of organic chemical compounds having a wide range of applications in chemical industries, especially plastic manufacturing, organic solvents, and perfumery formulations.
Phthalates are made by the chemical processing of phthalic acid or phthalic anhydride. A list of phthalates in personal care formulations is available online on the FDA web page.1
Hair care products have also been identified to contain multiple phthalates. Hair Shampoos and hair sprays may contain these chemical compounds.
These chemical compounds are known to cause serious health risks to the consumer, especially to female and infant consumers.
FDA and European health agencies have carried out extensive research work and have compiled reports on this particular topic.1
The FDA has reported the following phthalates commonly found in hair care products:
• Dimethyl phthalate (DMP)
• Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
• Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
• Diethylhexyl Phthalate (DEHP)
Among the possible chemicals, DBP was found in nail polishing and caring products.2-3 There, it acted as a solvent and avoided the brittleness of polish film over the nail surface.
DMP was previously being used, but has since been phased out.
The third molecule, DEP has been found in most skin and hair care products, including shampoos and hair sprays.
DEHP has also been phased out and is not currently in use in any form of personal care products.
Why Phthalates Are In Your Shampoo or Other Hair Products
Phthalates are commonly found in shampoo as they work well as gelling agents and often preserve the pleasurable scent of products.
Various sources could be adding phthalates into hair care products.
One major source is the plastic containers used for packaging. Phthalates are added to plastic processing to make it more durable and flexible.
This is the most common usage of phthalates (in terms of the volume of phthalates consumed annually). These phthalates are known as “plasticizers”.
The second big source of phthalates in hair care products is synthetic fragrances. Phthalates are used as a solvent in a perfume formulation.
In the USA, a loophole exists as cosmetics manufacturing companies are not required to enlist individual components of fragrance formulation. They can only go away by writing “fragrance” in the product INCI listing.
In the USA, there exists a gap in regulation as cosmetics manufacturing companies are not legally required to list individual fragrance, flavor, or their specific ingredients. A fragrance or flavor may be listed as just that.
The only way to make these fragrances disappear is by writing “fragrance” in the product INCI listing.
Because of this, it is difficult for consumers to tell from a product’s ingredient list whether or not it contains phthalates based on the Fragrance/Flavor concentration.
The third source of phthalates is hair styling polymers. These polymers have used phthalates as a solvent or film former.
The FDA surveyed the presence of phthalates in hair styling sprays. Phthalates are used to solubilize fixative polymers and make them easier to apply.
Ingredient Names That Indicate A Product Contains Phthalates
To ascertain the presence of phthalates, a close examination of INCI listing is essential.
The three derivatives (DBP, DMP, or DEP) mentioned above, or other ingredients with the “phthalate” word should raise a red flag.
- BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate)
- DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
- DCP (dibutyl phthalates)
- DiDP (diisodecyl phthalate)
- DiNP (diisononyl phthalate)
- DnHP (di-n-hexyl phthalate)
- DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)
In addition, any product that does not mention specific fragrance ingredients and instead writes “fragrance” in the INCI list may contain phthalates.
Is it Dangerous? Regulatory Status
The safety of phthalates has been a hot-button issue of debate among experts and regulatory bodies.
The FDA’s current stance is that phthalates are safe under current usage conditions, though they are keeping a close eye on exposure levels at the national level.
Although opinions may differ from state to state, California has classified DBP and DEHP as known toxins that are harmful to reproductive or developmental toxicity.
Europe and Canada have banned any type of phthalate use in hair care or other personal care formulations.
Side Effects Phthalates Can Cause
Phthalates have been associated with multiple health concerns.4-6
There is a great deal of work that has been done on the dangers posed by phthalates to human health, and there is a wealth of scientific literature available online documenting this threat.
A shortlist is provided here:
• Infertility among male and female consumers
• Abnormal fetus development during pregnancy
• Disturbing the level of sex hormones
• Carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity of animal studies
• Endocrine disruption in the living organism
Examine the INCI listing of your products. Avoid any product having phthalates. Avoid any product that does not disclose individual fragrance composition, and instead mentions only “fragrance” in the INCI listing on the label.
1. FDA Phthalates in Cosmetics. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/phthalates-cosmetics (accessed 05-11-22).
2. Hubinger, J. C.; Havery, D. C., Analysis of consumer cosmetic products for phthalate esters. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2006, 57 (2), 127-137.
3. Hubinger, J. C., A survey of phthalate esters in consumer cosmetic products. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2010, 61 (6), 457-465.
4. Doull, J.; Cattley, R.; Elcombe, C.; Lake, B. G.; Swenberg, J.; Wilkinson, C.; Williams, G.; Van Gemert, M., A cancer risk assessment of di (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate: application of the new US EPA Risk Assessment Guidelines. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 1999, 29 (3), 327-357.
5. Koo, H. J.; Lee, B. M., Estimated exposure to phthalates in cosmetics and risk assessment. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A 2004, 67 (23-24), 1901-1914.
6. Jurewicz, J.; Hanke, W., Exposure to phthalates: reproductive outcome and children health. A review of epidemiological studies. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health 2011, 24 (2), 115-141.