The same synthetic chemical compounds used to make plastic more pliant were once the common behind-the-formula smoothing operator in beauty products. If that sounds iffy to you, you’re not alone. Phthalates (pronounced f-THAL-lates) came under the microscope of public and scientific scrutiny in the early 2000s as more and more research verified their role as endocrine disruptors (more on what that actually means in a minute). Despite increasing concern around the safety of phthalates, the reality is that they're very hard to avoid entirely given their prevalent use in everything from roofing material to food wrappers.
One place you can avoid these sneaky chemicals? Your clean beauty routine. We do not include any phthalates in Honest formulas — beauty or otherwise. Here’s why phthalates have always been on our NO List.
Back up a minute...what are phthalates?
Phthalates are a family of chemical compounds commonly used as “plasticizers” — materials that soften polymers, making them less brittle and prone to cracking. Polymers are found in a wide range of everyday products from steering wheels and paints to hairspray and nail polish.
Why are phthalates used in beauty products?
Historically, phthalates were used because they are colorless, odorless and a cost-effective way to get high-performance and long-lasting wear — something most beauty users (us included) want from our beauty products. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) makes nail polishes less brittle to keep them from cracking. Dimethyl phthalate (DMP) allows hairspray to form a flexible film so it doesn’t get that stiff feel none of us are looking for with our look. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances. Today, DEP is the only phthalate still commonly used in cosmetics and it’s often hard to spot on labels because it can fall under the blanket term “fragrance.”
How do phthalates affect the human body?
One of the biggest concerns with phthalates is their role as endocrine disruptors — chemicals that may affect the body’s hormonal system by mimicking our natural hormones or preventing them from doing their jobs. Endocrine disruption is a mechanism for reproductive and developmental toxicity and can range from simple changes in testosterone levels to influencing the development of breast cancer cells.
Phthalate exposure has been associated with what some experts call “phthalate syndrome” — a group of symptoms often observed in baby boys including impaired reproductive function, particularly a disruption in testosterone levels. While research suggests that boys are much more sensitive to the toxic effects of phthalates, girls are subject to reproductive and developmental effects as well, with particular concern for reduced fertility parameters and lower birth weight. Phthalates have also been linked to increased or worsening allergies, asthma and altered childhood behavior.
So, what exactly does the research say about phthalates?
Since 2009, the US EPA and EFSA established acceptable thresholds of phthalate exposure below which adverse effects are not expected. Public health research before and since gives us context around how exposure has exceeded these limits in some regions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are experiencing adverse effects at those levels. Here are a few helpful studies that have guided the cosmetics industry and our decision to steer clear of phthalates here at Honest:
- In 2005, Drs. Hauser and Calafat summarized growing toxicological evidence that phthalates are reproductive and developmental toxicants, particularly due to antiandrogenic (against male hormones) potential. The authors emphasized the need for additional information regarding human exposure, and therefore human health risk, associated with phthalates.
- In 2008, Dr. Swan analyzed results from several studies investigating human exposure to and risk from phthalates. She found that at least one significant association between urinary phthalate measurements and adverse health effect(s) was reported for DBP, BzBP, DEP, DINP and DEHP. She concluded that many of these findings were consistent with the antiandrogenic effects documented in animal studies.
- In 2010, Engel et al. reported significant associations between prenatal exposure to certain phthalates and altered behavioral outcomes, such as attention, aggression, and conduct in children aged 4-9.
- In 2015, The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) called on a panel of experts — the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) to conduct risk assessments and provide recommendations on potential bans of phthalates in children’s toys, childcare products and products used by women who may become pregnant. This guidance led to a ban on certain phthalates in toys and childcare articles in 2017.
What does phthalate free mean?
Phthalate-free products simply means that no phthalates were added. However, identifying phthalates on beauty labels is tricky business since the most common phthalate still in use, DEP, is often rolled up into “fragrance” — a less-regulated term that encompasses hundreds of undisclosed ingredients. The phthalate-free label also doesn’t mean that the product in question is free of other ingredients of concern. Understanding a particular brand’s formulation philosophy will tell you more about the decisions behind their formula — what goes in, what doesn’t and how they’re checking (and double checking) for overall safety.
How are phthalates in beauty products regulated?
Despite little-to-no regulation from the FDA, phthalates are not as common in beauty products today as they once were thanks to decades of research that pushed the beauty industry to re-evaluate their risk. Several phthalates are prohibited from use in the European Union — but not all of them.
Why all phthalates have always been on our NO List
Honest Beauty goes above and beyond both the US and EU standards by barring all phthalates from our formulation. When we consider what ingredients do or do not go in to our Honest Beauty products, we look at cumulative exposures (i.e. how many times a person is exposed to these potentially endocrine-disrupting chemicals each day) and susceptible populations like pregnant women and children. With all of this in mind — and our Honest commitment to safeguard human health — we know it’s worth the extra effort to avoid phthalates (and thousands of other ingredients on our NO List™ ) in our formulas.