What’s the Deal with Phthalates?

We have been ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing phthalates since 1920. Phthalates, aka phthalate esters, are esters of phthalic acid. There are over 50 different phthalates. They have a lengthy history of use as plasticizers. Phthalates are used in the plastics industry to increase durability, flexibility and transparency. Most people’s first introduction to their existence was when either a mommy-blogger or celebrity (I hear it both ways) got them excited about all fragrances being bad. Phthalates are used in fragrance. Compared to how long they have been in our other products their use in fragrances is pretty recent and their usefulness in the fragrance industry seems to have been somewhat incidental to the discovery that phthalates increase scent throw and longevity. Fragrance accounts for a very small amount of the phthalate an individual is exposed to even though fragrance does seem to get a great deal of attention.

Much of the decision to remove phthalates in manufacturing processes stemmed from research into endocrine disruption. Phthalates are something that everyone in civilized society has been exposed to. The CDC discovered in 2009 that the majority of Americans who were tested had metabolites of up to 13 different phthalates in their urine.

Phthalates in everyday consumer goods

Phthalates are found in the coatings of pharmaceutical pills and supplements, adhesives, caulk, paint, plastic packaging, printing ink, children’s toys, jelly rubber products (shoes, fishing lures, caulk, sex toys), IV drip bags & tubing, carpeting, non-natural fabrics, wire & cable coating, all of the plastic parts in our automobiles, food cling film, eye shadow, nail polish, liquid soap, laundry detergent, and hair spray…to shorten a list of thousands of items down to but a few highlights. They have been in our products for a very long time and basically they’re everywhere. Phthalates have been found in dairy products, fish, oils, meat, baked goods, infant formula, processed food, and fast food. They have an affinity for and are eventually put into long term storage within the fat cells of the body.

Phthalates in fragrance have been the subject of warning via social media for nearly a decade while nearly all of the other phthalate containing items slipped notice for the most part. Up until around 2010 the market was dominated by high-phthalate plasticizers. Social consciousness, growing environmental awareness, and a movement against the increasing use of synthetics in healthcare and medical devices, cosmetic products, and ingestibles began creating an environment demanding that we (meaning our government) do something to create a focused effort to remove phthalates from manufacturing. Just the other day I saw a post telling people to stay away from anything that had the ingredient “perfume” or “fragrance”. It’s worth noting that the fragrance industry has provided phthalate free fragrances since before 2010 (yes, since before social media outrage demanded it.) Not every maker uses phthalate-free options as they are more expensive, but they’ve been available for over a decade now. I actually haven’t seen a non-phthalate-free fragrance for sale from anyone in my supply chain for about 5 years, but that could be indicative of sourcing quality ingredients from ethical suppliers, too.

I promise not to bore you with the chemistry in this post (even though it’s fascinating to me), but I will say this: because phthalates are not chemically bonded to the host plastic they are readily released by very gentle means. Heating (microwaving counts) and organic solvents (acetic acid, acetone, benzene, etc) remove phthalates readily. What this means to you is that food heated in a plastic container that contains phthalate is tainted with the released phthalate. Using a plastic bowl to marinate meat with vinegar…same thing. Removing phthalate containing nail polish with acetone releases the phthalate for inhalation and possible absorption into the skin (if for example there was a break in the cuticle).

Scaring isn’t my intent. Education is. The government has been working for over a decade now to remove phthalates from those things that we are exposed to in an intimate manner. Many nail polish companies are 10-free, 8-free, etc (meaning they do not use the top 10 or top 8 known to be harmful ingredients.) Plastic manufacturers are sourcing alternatives to do what phthalates were doing. Unfortunately it also means there are a great deal of un-recyclable plastics that were created for about 50 years that are not eligible for recycling and those items are now in landfills and oceans. Because they are so easily dissociated from their host plastics phthalates in general do not persist on the item. This volatility does make the presence of phthalate more prevalent in the air in urban areas than in rural. Thus most of the residual exposure is now through inhalation rather than consumption. Plastic containing phthalates is being controlled in Canada, the U.S., and the European Union and makes up for 36% of the manufactured plastic in the world. The other 64% of plastic manufacturing takes place in countries with no restrictions. The U.S. has banned just 3 phthalates of those known and used.

But what does it all mean to the individual, and what does phthalate do in the body? Being a low molecular weight compound phthalates enter the bloodstream and disrupt hormone production in adults and jump start it in children. Phthalates mimic estrogen (female hormone), which in turn inhibits the production of testosterone (male hormone). This is how they’ve gotten to become classified as endocrine disruptors. Remember when I mentioned children’s toys, and cosmetics earlier? These were one of the first indicators of phthalate endocrine disruption. Researchers found that phthalate exposure by everyday personal care products and toys led to precocious puberty in children. In some parts of the world where phthalates are still uncontrolled this precociousness is counted in years. Males experience phthalate endocrine disruption with both precocious puberty, and then with a decrease in sperm count, motility and viability. Females experience precocious puberty and then in adulthood can experience premature ovarian failure and anovulation. Remember when puberty started in the teens? Puberty now starts before a child reaches double digits in some areas. Research has also found a link between PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) pathogenesis and environmental phthalate exposure.

Individual states are stepping up to ban phthalates (Washington, Vermont, Maine, California.) The FDA says phthalates are safe. They have a whole page on their website dedicated to convincing readers they’re not in danger. They list a very small selection of products from 2010 that they tested and didn’t find any in. They also say that their role as an agency is to subject color additives to scrutiny, and that if they have dependable scientific evidence showing an ingredient, that’s not a color, is unsafe then they’ll look into it. Ok, that’s all I’m going to say about that…

As far as being able to phase out phthalates goes it’s interesting to take a look at another plastics component, Bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA was invented in 1891, was discovered to be toxic in the 1930’s and was recognized as an artificial estrogen. Still in use despite it’s toxic designation, BPA was discovered to be instrumental to developing hard plastic (polycarbonate) in the 1940’s, and was used in baby bottles and bicycle helmets (as well as many other items.) The government stated in 1982 that BPA toxicity held no regulatory weight. In other words, it’s really useful stuff so we’re going to ignore that it’s toxic…

In 1988 the EPA countered rising discontent with BPA being used in manufacturing with a safety standard for BPA that was 25 times higher than levels presented to be harmful to humans. The FDA assessed in 1996 that infant exposure was measurable at risks deemed safe while independent labs countered with conflicting studies. Studies went back and forth on both sides for nearly 10 more years before the U.S. Congress launched an investigation of governmental conflict of interest on BPA. People were fired, advisory panels created and disbanded, more people were fired, and in 2008 the government decided that BPA poses risks to humans deeming it a “dangerous substance.” I guess those studies from 80 years prior weren’t wrong all of a sudden?

BPA was banned in making baby bottles and manufacturers had to “promise” not to use it as of 2011. In 2012 the FDA decided not to ban BPA from food and beverage packaging. Some major corporations stepped up and chose independently to remove BPA from their packaging (thank you Campbells, Seneca Foods, and Libby’s). Other food companies are still using BPA in food packaging that is on shelves today. As of today the Facts about BPA website state “the USFDA recently reconfirmed the question “Is BPA Safe?” “Yes.”” BPA is still being used today. Manufacturers of food storage plastics began creating and marketing BPA-free items in 2011 and it became a major marketing push around 2016 for food storage items. There is an article on NCBI titled The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A “Safety” that is an interesting read for anyone so inclined.

My three-paragraph aside here is to example that we most likely will not have consensus on phthalates within our lifetimes. This is a battle that our children and perhaps theirs will continue to wage. Fortunately the phthalate industry hasn’t organized to the point of political lobbyists and a pretty website.

Glass & Metal Packaging at Cats Paw Farm Mercantile

While large corporations are being the most resistant to making the change to discontinue phthalate use and switch to albeit more expensive non-phthalate options, there are a lot of small, independent, reputable makers who only source non-phthalate and non-toxin containing fragrances, and who do not use plastic packaging. Cats Paw Farm is proud to be one of them. The list of things I won’t put in our products is far lengthier than those that I will. Our skincare, haircare, home, bath & body, soap, and culinary products are all free of phthalates, palm products, sulfates, petroleum products, and our packaging is 95% glass and metal. The plastic I use for pumps, sprayers and lip balm tubes are certified bpa and known phthalate free, btw. I’m still testing out paperboard and metal containers as alternatives to the lip balm tubes to cut down further on the plastic.

Some of our products come with a bit of seed paper that can grow a variety of wildflowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies. Not that they have anything to do with phthalates, but they’re in danger of disappearing and that’s a subject for a whole other post.

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