What are Flame Retardants?

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What are Flame Retardants?

This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!



Flame Retardants

What they are:

The term “flame retardants” actually refers to a whole class of hundreds of different chemicals. There are three main categories: mineral, organohalogen, and organophosphorous.

What they do:

As the name implies, these chemicals “retard” — or slow — the spread of fire, and they are found in a dizzying array of products from furniture, mattresses, and textiles to tents, electronics, and insulation. Flame retardants have been in use since Ancient Greek and Roman times and were first patented in 1735, but it’s only been since the 1970s that its use has become so pervasive in everyday products (1,2).

What changed? A few things. In the early 1970s, electronics, plastics, and other synthetic materials were increasingly becoming mainstays of modern living and it just so happens that all of these things are extremely flammable. Recognizing the growing risk of coexisting with so many combustibles, in 1971, children’s sleepwear became the first consumer product to be required to meet flammability standards (3). Around the same time, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) created flammability standards for mattresses (4).

Shortly thereafter, in 1975, under Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), California required manufacturers to make the most flammable materials (like polyurethane foam) withstand a small open flame (like a candle) for at least 12 seconds (5). Despite the fact that no other state required this, manufacturers changed their products to meet this standard because California is such a huge market and it didn’t make sense to produce different products for the different states.

Sadly, the history of flame retardants over the past several decades has been one of “regrettable substitution,” meaning that we’ve found ourselves in a cycle of using a chemical flame retardant, finding out it causes harm to human health, replacing it with a different chemical, only to find out that one is harmful, too. More recently, it’s also become increasingly clear that for the most part these flame retardants aren’t even reducing injuries and death from fires (6).

Why we’re featuring them today:

Flame retardants are included in our Honestly Free Guarantee and while not all of them pose concerns, most do. So, we’re committed to avoiding them and finding safer substitutes when necessary. Here’s a tiny snapshot of just how potentially harmful these toxics can be and how big we think the problem is:

  • Chlorinated “Tris” (Tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) Phosphate, or brominated Tris) was originally used in children’s sleepwear until it became apparent that it was capable of causing genetic mutations and cancer (7). It was removed from sleepwear in 1977 due to concerns regarding its toxicity, but it’s still used in other baby products and home furnishings (8). And in 2012, it was detected in the dust of 75% of homes tested (9).
  • Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) is currently the most widely used flame retardant, and animal studies have shown its impacts as a hormone disruptor that impacts both thyroid and estrogenic activity, as well as having neurotoxic impacts (10). It is detected in human tissues, can cross the placenta, and has been measured in breast milk samples throughout the world (11-13).
  • Firemaster 550, another one of the most widely used flame retardants in the United States, has been touted as a safer alternative and the result of “green innovation.” But new research shows it’s a possible hormone disruptor, reproductive toxin and obesogen (obesity-causing chemical) (14-16).
  • Toxic flame retardants are in our bodies, our breastmilk, our babies and are now ubiquitous in our environment. They’ve been detected in air, sediment, plants, animals, fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and in wildlife from the North Pole to the Mediterranean Sea (17).

Want your home to be Honestly Free of flame retardants? Here's how you can avoid them:

  • Shop smart. When buying furnishings, mattresses, electronics, home renovation materials (like insulation and carpet padding), and baby gear (anything with foam in it), contact the manufacturer and ask if flame retardants have been used and, if so, what kind. We know it’s a BIG shopping list, but they’re mostly items you don’t buy frequently and you’ll have in your home for a very long time, so bide your time and do your research. In regards to furnishings, pillows, and baby gear, California’s TB 117 regulation was recently updated and no longer requires the addition of flame retardants to polyurethane products. Still, it’s not an outright ban on toxic flame retardants, so here’s what you should look for:

    • If a product’s tag (usually attached to a cushion or on the body of the product somewhere) says “TB 117,” it likely contains toxic flame retardants.
    • If a product’s tag says “TB 117-2013,” it meets the updated standard which does not require the addition of flame retardants. BUT it’s still wise to contact the manufacturer and ask if it’s elected to use any. (We know...grumble, grumble...why can’t it be easier!)

  • Bust dust. Because we’re surrounded by materials that contain flame retardants and slowly degrade over time, household dust is laden with these chemicals and a primary source of exposure. Use a damp rag to dust regularly, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and open windows regularly to flush the dust out. And don’t forget about your car where the flame retardant levels can be up to 20 times higher than what’s found in your home (18).
  • Wash hands. The dust that’s all around us ends up on our hands and if you eat without washing them, you’re eating flame retardants, too. Even more important, wash your child’s hands A LOT. As you know, little ones crawl around and play on the floor and are constantly sticking their hands in their mouths, which leads to ingesting about twice as much house dust as adults per day (19).
  • Eat low fat and lower on the food chain. Many toxic flame retardants have become environmental pollutants that linger in soil and water and concentrate in fats as they make their way up the food chain (aka “bioaccumulation”) (20,21). For the most part, try to choose healthy, plant-based fats like avocado, nuts, and seeds. And, when you eat meat, poultry, and fatty fish, cut off excess fat before cooking and use methods of cooking that draw fat away (like broiling, as opposed to frying).


  1. Hindersinn, R. R. (1989). Historical aspects of polymer fire retardance. Fire and Polymers: Hazards Identification and Prevention, 87-96.
  2. Shaw, S. (2010). Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks?. Reviews on environmental health, 25(4), 261-306.
  3. Consumer Product Safety Commission. 16 CFR Parts 1615 and 1616. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/77792/28.txt
  4. Mattresses and Mattress Pads Flammability. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Regulations-Laws--Standards/Rulemaking/Final-and-Proposed-Rules/Flammability-of-Mattresses-and-Mattress-Pads/
  5. Papaspyrides, C. D., & Kiliaris, P. (Eds.). (2014). Polymer Green Flame Retardants: A Comprehensive Guide to Additives and Their Applications. Newnes.
  6. Shaw, S. (2010). Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks?. Reviews on environmental health, 25(4), 261-306.
  7. National Toxicology Program. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2015, from http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/pubhealth/roc/roc13/index.html
  8. Stapleton, H. M., Klosterhaus, S., Keller, A., Ferguson, P. L., van Bergen, S., Cooper, E., ... & Blum, A. (2011). Identification of flame retardants in polyurethane foam collected from baby products. Environmental science & technology, 45(12), 5323-5331.
  9. Dodson, R. E., Perovich, L. J., Covaci, A., Van den Eede, N., Ionas, A. C., Dirtu, A. C., ... & Rudel, R. A. (2012). After the PBDE phase-out: a broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California.Environmental science & technology, 46(24), 13056-13066.
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  11. Johnson-Restrepo, B., Adams, D. H., & Kannan, K. (2008). Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and hexabromocyclododecanes (HBCDs) in tissues of humans, dolphins, and sharks from the United States.Chemosphere, 70(11), 1935-1944.
  12. Kawashiro, Y., Fukata, H., OMORI-INOUE, M., Kubonoya, K., Jotaki, T., TAKIGAM, H., ... & Mori, C. (2008). Perinatal exposure to brominated flame retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls in Japan. Endocrine journal, 55(6), 1071-1084.
  13. Wikoff, D., Thompson, C., Perry, C., White, M., Borghoff, S., Fitzgerald, L., & Haws, L. C. (2015). Development of toxicity values and exposure estimates for tetrabromobisphenol A: application in a margin of exposure assessment.Journal of Applied Toxicology.
  14. Patisaul, H. B., Roberts, S. C., Mabrey, N., McCaffrey, K. A., Gear, R. B., Braun, J., ... & Stapleton, H. M. (2013). Accumulation and endocrine disrupting effects of the flame retardant mixture Firemaster® 550 in rats: an exploratory assessment. Journal of biochemical and molecular toxicology,27(2), 124-136.
  15. Babrauskas, V. Y. T. E. N. I. S., Blum, A. R. L. E. N. E., Daley, R., & Birnbaum, L. (2011). Flame retardants in furniture foam: benefits and risks.Fire Safety Science, 10, 265-278.
  16. Pillai, H. K., Fang, M., Beglov, D., Kozakov, D., Vajda, S., Stapleton, H. M., ... & Schlezinger, J. J. (2014). Ligand binding and activation of PPARγ by Firemaster® 550: effects on adipogenesis and osteogenesis in vitro. Environ Health Perspect, 122(11), 1225-1232.
  17. Wargo, J., Alderman, N., & Wargo, L. (2013). Flame Retardants: The Case for Policy Change. Environment and Human Health, Inc. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from http://www.ehhi.org/reports/flame/EHHI_FlameRetardants_1113.pdf
  18. Besis, A., & Samara, C. (2012). Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the indoor and outdoor environments–a review on occurrence and human exposure. Environmental Pollution, 169, 217-229.
  19. Shoeib, M., Harner, T., Wilford, B. H., Jones, K. C., & Zhu, J. (2005). Perfluorinated sulfonamides in indoor and outdoor air and indoor dust: occurrence, partitioning, and human exposure. Environmental science & technology, 39(17), 6599-6606.
  20. Schecter, A., Harris, T. R., Shah, N., Musumba, A., & Päpke, O. (2008). Research Article Brominated flame retardants in US food. Mol. Nutr. Food Res, 52, 266-272.
  21. de Wit, C. A. (2002). An overview of brominated flame retardants in the environment. Chemosphere, 46(5), 583-624.

This post was revised as of 1/14/2016.