Way back at the beginning of 2016 I wrote two pieces called Paraben free and Sulphate free. I always meant to write this third piece, Phthalate free but somehow got distracted and it’s only recently occurred to me that I never got around to it. So, here we go.
Phthalate free is a label that you might occasionally see on bottles of shampoo and other cosmetics products. Given that it’s a scary sounding chemical and the fact the cosmetics companies go out of their way to advertise when their products don’t contain it, it might be safe to assume that it’s nasty stuff. As we saw from my previous two articles, that might not necessarily be sound logic. One the one hand, sulphate are irritants even if they might not necessarily bother most people in the small quantities they’re usually found in shampoo, but on the other hand, parabens are basically fine.
Phthalates are plasticisers and are often also used as binding agents. As such, they’re in most plastics as well as a wide range of less obvious things like cosmetics. It’s not just shampoo – they show up in everything from hand cream to perfume. They even show up in food. As with many of these kinds of additives, the short-hand “phthalate” is actually a class of chemicals rather than just one thing and while alternatives exist they tend to cost more whilst being less effective.
Adding “phthalate free” to labels started after a 2014 report produced by the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) which was itself triggered by the US Centre for Disease Control having documented widespread exposure to phthalates in 2003 and calling for better understanding.
What had happened was that a lot of research had been carried out. As always biological research is complicated, challenging to do right and challenging to interpret when the results are in. Still, the report contained a lot of high-quality information that probably should not be ignored. It should also not send anyone into a panic.
The source of the problem seems to be how readily phthalates dissolve into other substances like, for example, shampoo or milk. So that even if you get your milk in glass bottles rather than plastic cartons, it probably still contains phthalates because they will have dissolved into it during processing, as it flows through various plastic pipes and things. It’ll just contain less phthalates than milk in plastic bottles because that has been in contact with plastic for more time. Shampoos often just have them as a direct additive as solvents, but even if they don’t, if the plastic bottle the shampoo is held in has been produced with phthalates as plasticisers, the shampoo will still absorb them. Of course, none of this actually matters unless phthalates actually represent a health risk.
So, do they? Well, it’s hard to say. As I mentioned above, biological studies are really hard to get right and it can be challenging to come up with definite answers. Studies so far have found weak links between phthalates and all kinds of things but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily causing anything. These links could be a total coincidence, or they could only apply in mice, or they could only apply when phthalates are found in combination with something else. Or they could be the direct cause. At the moment it looks like we just don’t know but hopefully, with more research, we’ll get a clearer picture.
That said, a high presence of phthalates doesn’t link to anything particularly nice. Several types of phthalates have been found to (probably) be endocrine disruptors in animals. At certain doses, endocrine disruptors mess with your hormones which can lead to anything from feeling tired to growing tumours. So, even though an expert panel has found insufficient evidence to suggest that they cause problems in humans, in many places including the US and the EU, DEHP (the type of phthalate that might be an endocrine disruptor) is carefully controlled. In the EU it’s illegal to use it when manufacturing childrens’ toys.
The good news is that this confusion and lack of concrete evidence means that in most cases this is not something that you need to worry about. We’ve been using phthalates since the 1920s and while they might not be great for you, there are far bigger risks to be concerned about. If you were concerned about being healthy and living a long life you’d be better off focussing on things like eating well, getting exercise and avoiding smoking or drinking too much. Y’know, like common sense suggests.
Trying to cut down on plastic use is a good idea for other reasons, including environmental reasons, but you don’t need to insist on only buying phthalate-free shampoo in glass bottles. Unless you particularly want to. It’s your life.
*Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on any of this – I just have a good scientific background and the research skills necessary to read and analyse the evidence. Still, I’m not a medical professional and if you have any concerns you should absolutely speak to someone who is, like your GP. This post is provided as a source of general information only. No guarantee is provided that the information provided herein is complete or current. Readers should not act or rely on any information provided herein without first obtaining specialist professional advice.