A recent study from researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, which tested 5,700 women, found that a group of chemicals commonly used in makeup as well as household products is causing women to go through menopause at least 2.3 years earlier. The chemicals, called phthalates, are known endocrine disruptors and are not only linked to early menopause but are also thought to raise the risk of cancer, diabetes and obesity, as well as cause reproductive-system abnormalities in males. About a billion pounds per year are produced worldwide.
Phthalates were first developed and used in the early 1930s and have become nearly ubiquitous in modern society since then. Used to make plastics such as PVC more flexible and as solvents in personal care products, they can be found all around us: in plastic toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, wall coverings, lubricants, adhesives, electronics, detergents, nail polish, hair spray, shampoo and also the enteric coating of medications and nutritional supplements. Even that new car smell loved by so many is in part the result of phthalates.
Why they are dangerous
Phthalates are known as “endocrine disruptors” because they mimic the body’s hormones and have, in laboratory animal tests, been shown to cause reproductive and neurological damage. One of the ways that phthalates interfere with reproductive functioning is by reducing the levels of sex hormones, which are critical for development and functioning of the sex organs.
Much of the current research on effects of phthalate exposure has been focused on children and men–and resulting in six phthalates being banned from children’s toys and baby products in 2008. Yet, it is women that are at higher risk and show higher levels of phthalates in their blood–most likely due to their higher use of cosmetics and other personal care products. For us, not only has this latest study found an increased risk of early menopause from exposure to phthalates but other studies also found exposure to one specific type of phthalate, DEP, associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
However, the list of dangers from these chemicals does not stop there. Phthalates are also associated with poor sperm quality and infertility in men, attention and behavioral disorders and an increase risk of obesity and allergies in children, as well as adverse effects on genital development when the exposure occurs in the womb.
Furthermore, one of the most recent studies, also showed a link between high levels of phthalates in the blood and insulin disruption, with those that had the highest level having double the risk of developing diabetes.
How to reduce your exposure
Exposure to phthalates is widespread; we ingest, breathe, and absorb phthalates through our skin as we go through our daily lives. Almost all Americans examined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) test positive for exposure. And in 2002, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics evaluated 72 personal care products and discovered phthalates in nearly 75% of them. Yet, shockingly, there are no specific labeling requirements for phthalates so you’ll rarely find them listed. So here are a few tips on how to reduce exposure:
- Look for PVC-free products. Avoid products made of vinyl and look for PVC-free labels in bags and household products. Manufacturers such as IKEA and Puma already carry them. Specially, avoid plastic or cling wrap which is commonly made of PVC.
- Avoid personal and household products with the word “fragrance” or “parfum” (yes, that includes any type of perfume or air freshener). Solvents are commonly found in the manufacture of synthetic fragrances and due to a legal loophole manufacturers are not required to disclose to consumers the use of phthalates. So, unless the product indicates it is phthalate-free or the fragrance is 100% natural, best to avoid it. Many natural cosmetic and household products use only natural fragrances, but you must check the label or contact the manufacturer when in doubt (all the products reviewed in this blog are phthalate free).
- Avoid plastics in general and plastics #3 and #7 more specifically which are more likely to contain phthalates as well as BPA (bisphenol A), another suspected carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. Keep in mind as well that although #1 plastic is not manufactured using phthalates, beverages bottled in #1 bottles have been found to be contaminated (it is not know exactly how), so glass bottles are always preferable.
- Keep your house as free of dust as possible. Phthalates are volatile and easily released from flooring, furniture and electronics, accumulating in household dust. To reduce exposure, consider purchasing a good HEPA air filter (Austin Air and IQ Air are recommended) as well as a vacuum with a HEPA filter.