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Understanding Phthalates in Your Hair Products

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Table of Contents

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Phthalates, a class of chemicals commonly found in synthetic fragrances and hair products, often go unnoticed in our daily routines. Surprisingly, they make their way into products like detergents, baby formula, nail polish, and even food packaging. Given our frequent exposure, this widespread use has raised concerns about their impact on human health.

Research has specifically linked phthalate exposure to various disorders, with reproductive issues being a significant concern due to the frequency of contact. While the connection between phthalates and health problems is well-established, the full extent of these risks requires further investigation.

To help you navigate this landscape, especially when it comes to your hair care routine, our insights draw from a cosmetic formulator and PhD in Chemistry. If you’re keen on steering clear of phthalates, take a moment to scrutinize the ingredients list on your hair products, prioritizing those that are fragrance-free.

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 conducted extensive research and compiled reports on this 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)

DBP was found in nail polishing and caring products among the possible chemicals.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. Phthalates, potentially present in your hair care products, can find their way into your routine through various sources:

Packaging

One significant contributor is the packaging itself, particularly the plastic containers commonly used for product storage. Phthalates are added to plastic processing to make it more durable and flexible. This is the most common use of phthalates (in terms of the volume of phthalates consumed annually). These phthalates are known as “plasticizers”. 

Synthetic Fragrances

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 United States there is a regulation gap 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.

Styling Polymers

The third source of phthalates is hairstyling 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

A close examination of the INCI listing is essential to ascertain the presence of phthalates.

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

Bottom Line

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.


References

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.

HI,I'M VERNA

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