We talk often about the amount of artificial ingredients in our food. That’s overwhelming enough, but when we add harmful chemicals, like phthalates, that are in household products and cleaning supplies…whew! It’s a lot to take in.
Living a low-tox lifestyle can be overwhelming at first, but it’s all about building awareness and taking baby steps. Over time, these small, conscious changes will add up. Let’s dive into one common household chemical, phthalates, and more importantly, discuss 8 easy ways to avoid phthalate exposure in your home.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates (pronounced as thal-ates) are a group of chemicals commonly found in plastic and products containing synthetic fragrances. They’re used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break, and they’re used with fragrance to help keep the perfume on your skin (yikes). Some examples include shower curtains, plastic rain jackets, plastic baggies and wraps, and flexible kid’s toys (to name a few). Phthalates are found in many household items (such as cleaning products), plastic containers, plastic food packaging, skincare and beauty products (lotion, nail polish, shampoo, etc), and more. According to the CDC,
“…researchers found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population. This finding indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.”
What’s the Big Deal with Phthalate Exposure?
Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors (also referred to as EDCs) which directly affect hormone function and can cause hormonal imbalances. Because hormones affect many bodily functions, an imbalance can result in a number of problems.
Studies have shown that phthalates can influence both the male and female reproductive systems. Studies have found phthalates can manifest premature puberty symptoms, including premature breast development in young girls. Other reproductive issues associated with phthalates include hypospadias, adverse pregnancy outcomes, POF, gynecological cancer, and decreased fecundity.
Our little ones are at the most risk for phthalate exposure, and studies show that phthalates pass from mother to fetus through the placenta. This has been linked to childhood development problems, such as difficulty learning, social behavior and cognition, ADHD, communication, and awareness.
This is what studies have found so far, and research is continuing to develop on the risks associated with phthalate exposure. To get the full scoop on phthalates, check out our resource guide on phthalates, where we dive into everything you need to know about this common chemical.
8 Easy Ways to Avoid Phthalate Exposure
1. Switch to a Stainless Steel Water Bottle
Plastic water bottles are a common culprit for phthalates, which leach into the water we drink. Studies have confirmed this and state the chemical becomes more concentrated when exposed to sunlight and outdoor temperatures. One study states,
“Although the levels of phthalates in tested bottled waters were low, one should not dismiss that these chemicals may cause endocrine disruption through several mechanisms, especially to potentially vulnerable populations such as infants and pregnant women.”
Because of this, it’s best to limit plastic water bottle use as much as possible and opt for a stainless steel or glass water bottle instead. Not only will this help you avoid phthalate exposure, but it’s also better for the environment as it helps reduce plastic waste.
2. Eat Less Processed Foods and More Non-Packaged Foods
Luckily, the FDA recently ruled that phthalates are not authorized to be directly added to food. However, they still allow phthalates in food contact applications. Because phthalates are in many plastic food containers in processed food and take-out food, it’s best to limit both. Phthalates in food are a real concern because they leach into food through the plastic that surrounds them.
To avoid processed and packaged foods, try cooking more meals at home with whole food ingredients. That way, you can also avoid all the other junk commonly found in highly processed food, such as artificial colors, maltodextrin, and natural flavors.
3. Understand the Types of Plastic: Look for the Numbers 3, 6, and 7 at the Bottom of Products
One of the easiest and fastest ways to check if a plastic container has phthalates is to look for the numbers 3, 6, or 7 in the middle of a recycle symbol. These types of plastics contain phthalates and/or BPA.
While the other types of plastic like 1, 2, and 5 may contain other toxic chemicals (especially when heat is applied), they are typically phthalate-free and deemed “a food-safe plastic.”
4. Don’t Buy Products with Synthetic Fragrances!
This one is a bit more emphasized because if a product contains the ingredient “fragrance” or “synthetic fragrance,” it’s almost guaranteed to have phthalates. Manufacturers can sneak phthalates and other harmful chemicals into their products under the guise of “fragrance.”
If that product is lotion, shampoo, perfume, or deodorant, you’re probably directly applying phthalates to your skin (no thanks!). Also, body care and cosmetic products will put phthalates as an ingredient, and they often appear as:
- DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
- DINP (diisononyl phthalate)
- BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate)
- DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)
- DEHP (di-2-Ethylhexyl phthalate)
- DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
- DIDP (dodecyl phthalate)
- DEP (diethyl phthalates)
To avoid phthalate exposure in beauty and household products, check for the above ingredients. The product may also say “phthalate-free.” Only use products that use essential oils for fragrance or look for statements like “no synthetic fragrance.”
5. Use Stainless Steel Instead of Plastic Baggies for Lunch
It’s often tempting to choose convenience over health especially when we are preparing our kids’ lunches in a hurry. At first, it seems easier to put our kids’ lunches in plastic baggies, but in this case it’s just about a simple swap.
I stopped buying Ziploc bags years ahead, and instead I purchased PlanetBox stainless steel lunch boxes for my kids. It’s been well worth the investment. I use them almost every day, and I even have a simple lunch box formula that makes packing their lunches a breeze!Plastic bags and containers can have phthalates in them, which leach into our food. To avoid phthalate exposure in food, it’s best to use stainless steel or glass containers.
6. Use Glass Tupperware and Dishware Instead of Plastic
To expand off the first note, it’s best to store leftovers and next-day lunches in glass or stainless steel containers. This is especially important if you plan to heat that container in the microwave.
Studies show that plastic heated in the microwave demonstrates greater migration of phthalates in food. The study also found,
“ . . . there is a greater migration of phthalates in containers with a prolonged time of use. After prolonged use containers possess small deformations and are less resistant to heat, which may allow phthalates to be more easily released.”
We understand it may not be in your budget at the moment to upgrade to glass containers. If anything, the best thing you can do is avoid heating food in plastic containers. And when you can, ditch those old plastic containers for good!
7. Switch from Plastic Wrap to Beeswax Wrap for Leftovers
Plastic wrap is a common household item we all use. However, it’s also almost guaranteed to contain phthalates, as phthalates are what make plastic wrap pliable, resistant to tears, and soft. When plastic wrap makes direct contact with food, it leaches phthalates into our food (no good!).
Luckily, we now have an alternative, which is beeswax wrap. Bee’s Wrap is our go-to brand, and they come in lots of different sizes and patterns. It’s worth the investment, and plus, beeswax wrap is better for the environment as it reduces plastic waste.
8. Buy Organic Produce, Meat, and Diary
Because phthalates are in pesticides used for conventional farming, it’s best to buy organic produce when you can. Studies have confirmed that organic food tends to contain fewer phthalates than non-organic food.
Plus, organic meat and dairy procedures certify that the animals were fed organic feed without pesticides. This limits phthalates in dairy and meat products, which is important because phthalates tend to become more concentrated in meat and dairy products.
The Bottom Line on Avoiding Phthalate Exposure
As we learned from the CDC, phthalate exposure is widespread throughout the U.S. The bottom line is that we can’t control everything, and we can’t completely avoid exposure to phthalates. However, by following these 8 tips, you can avoid phthalate exposure in significant ways.
I know it may be overwhelming to become aware of phthalates and all the other harmful chemicals we’re exposed to. But here’s the silver lining: the more we learn, and the more we are able to make conscious decisions to support phthalate-free products. We always get a vote with our dollar.
Together, we can demand better products (and better regulation) for our families and our communities.