There has been a lot of discussion over the past few years about phthalates, aka plasticizers, and their potential impact on our health. With that said, it can be tough to know how much people should be concerned about these compounds and how much is just noise.
In case you’re not familiar with them, phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more durable, and some may be used to help dissolve other materials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phthalates show up in a wide range of products, including vinyl floors, lubricating oils, soaps, shampoos and garden hoses.
You’re exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with products that contain phthalates, and you can even breathe in phthalate particles in the air, the CDC says. Once inside your body, phthalates are converted into metabolites and leave your body in the form of urine.
But recent studies have also connected phthalate exposure to several serious health complications, including postpartum depression and low IQ in children. So, how concerned should you be about phthalates and how can you lower your exposure risk? Experts break it down.
Do I need to worry?
Experts say that phthalates should at least be on your radar. “We have lots of evidence from experimental models and, more recently, humans to show that phthalates interfere with normal hormone activity in the body,” Emily Barrett, a professor and vice chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life. “That is important because hormones are essential for so many things including fertility, cardiovascular health and cognition.”
Phthalate exposure is particularly concerning in babies and young children, Barrett says. “Our research has focused on early life exposures to phthalates, because we know that’s a time when development can be very vulnerable to disruption by chemicals like phthalates,” she says.
Phthalates are classified as “endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” which means they impact the body’s ability to regulate biological processes, Kaley Beins, a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group, tells Yahoo Life. “Studies have linked phthalate exposure to metabolic issues, reproductive effects such as endometriosis and reduced sperm quality, and hormone-dependent cancers like ovarian, breast and uterine cancers,” she says.
A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry on Sept. 20 also linked phthalates to postpartum depression. The study analyzed data from 2,174 pregnant women and found that while there were no links between several environmental chemicals and postpartum depression, having higher concentrations of phthalates in urine samples taken during pregnancy was associated with a greater risk of developing postpartum depression.
“Although we don’t understand everything about how or why postpartum depression occurs, we know that sex hormones in pregnancy and at delivery play an important role,” lead study author Melanie Jacobson, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Because phthalates have been shown to interfere with these hormones, postpartum depression may also plausibly be affected.”
Another study published in August in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found an association between exposure to phthalates in pregnancy and lower IQs in children born to those mothers. Researchers found that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy was linked with a lower IQ in children at age 14, as well as lower gray matter volume. (Gray matter is a type of brain tissue that impacts movement, memory and emotion.)
While research has shown that some types of phthalates have impacted the reproductive systems of animals, the CDC says that human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are “not as clear,” noting that more research is needed.
What can I do about it?
It’s difficult to eliminate your exposure to phthalates, but you can reduce how often you come into contact with these chemicals, Barrett says. That can include avoiding wearing perfumes and reducing your use of scented products, which tend to contain phthalates, she says.
It’s also a good idea to try to avoid using plastic containers with food and drinks, and to steer clear of microwaving plastic containers with food, Jacobson says. “Choosing nonplastic containers like glass, reducing fast food consumption ... and choosing personal care and cleaning products that do not contain phthalates are all ways individuals may reduce their exposure,” Beins says.
While some cosmetics and personal care products will state that they’re “phthalate-free,” Beins points out that this label is not regulated. Instead, Barrett recommends using apps like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to choose “cleaner” products.
The main takeaway
Experts stress the importance of being mindful of your phthalate exposure. “Virtually 100% of people have measurable levels of phthalates in their bodies, and there is plenty of research now to show that we should be concerned about phthalates, as well as the many other hormone-disrupting chemicals that are widespread in our modern environment,” Barrett says. “Other countries have taken steps to better regulate chemicals like phthalates in consumer products but, unfortunately, the U.S. has lagged behind so far.”
However, Barrett says, there is some “good news” about phthalates: They can be quickly cleared from your system. “If you start making changes today, you may be able to reduce your phthalate levels within a couple of days,” she says.