Hormone-Disrupting Phthalates Are Everywhere From Your Makeup To Fast Food

Consumer markets have exploded in recent years with so-called “clean” products. From beauty and skincare to food, we’re inundated with the ugly truth of what’s really in our most used and most loved products and the alternatives we should supposedly be buying.

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
Hormone-Disrupting Phthalates Are Everywhere From Your Makeup To Fast Food shutterstock

Why the sudden fascination with clean living? An oft-cited reason is the overwhelming use of phthalates in our everyday products. We’ve probably all heard of this chemical, but do we know the true extent of the damage it’s doing to our bodies? As it turns out, phthalates are everywhere, and they’re damaging our health.

Phthalates, the Everywhere Chemical

Known as the everywhere chemical, phthalates are just that – in our personal hygiene products, our makeup, our fast food, and obviously, through consumption, in our body.

Phthalates are a man-made chemical compound used to make plastic flexible and as a binding agent in certain products. They’re found in products almost all of us have in our homes: detergent, adhesive products, nail polish, shower curtains, and lotion and moisturizer.

Phthalates are a man-made chemical compound used to make plastic flexible. 

One breast cancer awareness group outlines just how easily phthalates are ingested into our bodies, most of the time without us even knowing. The most common examples given are microwaving food in plastic containers, chewing on soft plastic products (like toothbrushes), and using personal care products or wearing clothing made of or containing vinyl.

The issue is that phthalates, along with other plasticizers and chemical compounds (like parabens), are endocrine disruptors. Environmental sciences and engineering professor Dr. Glenn Morrison explains that phthalates actually mimic some of the functions of our endocrine system. Consequently, if phthalates are falsely recognized by the endocrine system as messenger chemicals, the phthalates can send signals to our system to start or stop certain processes when they shouldn’t. This is especially concerning given that our endocrine system (made up of receptors, glands, and hormones) controls the very basic functions of our biology, like the growth of our reproductive organs, our cycle, and the regulation of our blood sugar.

They're Found in Most Fast Food

One analysis published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology was conducted by teams at four prestigious universities. Their research specifically focused on the presence of phthalates and other plasticizers in products from popular fast-food chains like Chipotle and McDonald’s. Their samples, which came from products like burritos and chicken nuggets, contained high concentrations of DEHP and DnBP – both of which have been linked to reproductive health issues – with the highest levels of the phthalates found in products containing meat.

Phthalates in the food service industry are often transferred onto food through their containers and the plastic gloves which are used to handle them. The two phthalates, in particular, were cited by one scientist as being connected to attention disorders and delayed learning issues in young children.

Phthalates Are Linked to Reproductive Issues, Autism, and Other Serious Health Issues

Even more concerning is the impact phthalates can have on infant birth weight, obesity, and fertility, to name only a few. Countless studies are out there on how phthalates are affecting our bodies, but there seems to be little public awareness of the specific consequences of their consumption.

Phthalate consumption during pregnancy can impair fetal development.

Another report from Harvard Medical School illustrates the risks women face when they ingest phthalates during pregnancy in particular. Pregnant women are encouraged to avoid all of the harmful habits that can potentially harm their baby, like smoking and drinking. According to Harvard, they also need to avoid products like lotion and lipstick because phthalate consumption during pregnancy can impair fetal development, leading to early childhood complications like difficulty in motor skill development and language delays.

Not only that, phthalates can harm male as well as female fertility. Yet another study from the University of Illinois found that phthalate consumption significantly disrupted the ovulation cycles of mice, and impaired their ability to conceive offspring for up to nine months afterward. Additionally, phthalates have played crucial roles in subverting the healthy biological development of both male and female sex organs.

That’s not all. Phthalates are also linked to increased diagnoses of testicular dysgenesis, autism, development of diabetes, breast cancer, asthma, and behavioral issues.

Phthalates Are Everywhere But You Can Avoid Them

We’ve covered the bad news. Phthalates are pretty much everywhere, and they’re hurting us, whether we’re women, men, or young children.

The good news is that there’s a general consensus from the scientific community that however present phthalates are, they’re also easy to avoid. The response to this consensus is what we’re seeing in consumer products now – phthalate-free makeup, cleaning products, etc. Because of their ubiquity, phthalates are likely here to stay, but thankfully, we have more options than ever before of alternatives that are free from these compounds.

Phthalate-free products are accessible at drug stores and grocery stores.

It starts with being a smart, conscious consumer. Labels exist for a reason, whether we read them or not. Here are some simple steps you can take to begin eliminating phthalates from your life:

  1. Check the labels on products you use to confirm that they are phthalate-free, especially when it comes to products like household cleaners, shampoo, lotion, body wash, or other skincare, are readily available and accessible. 

  2. Stop microwaving food in plastic containers. I’m guilty of it myself, as probably most of us are, but something as simple as replacing your Tupperware with glass storage containers can cut down on phthalate transmission into your food.

  3. Steer clear of fast food. Transmission in these environments is proven to be high, and we’ll probably thank ourselves later.

  4. If you’re receiving a blood transfusion or getting a catheter, ask for a phthalate-free alternative. While it’s probably safer to assume that phthalates are in pretty much every product we consume, a simple solution is to be smart about how we act as consumers.

Closing Thoughts

Not too long ago, I wrote about how the clean living movement is largely alienating to consumers. While labels and packaging that are branded as eco-friendly or “clean” might be appealing to consumers and trying to benefit the environment, they also often come at a high markup only a specific income group can afford to use on the day-to-day.

The good thing about phthalate-free products is that they’re becoming just as accessible as their phthalate-filled counterparts. Phthalate-free products are accessible at drug stores and grocery stores, and more and more brands are paying attention to the demand, which can only be a good thing. 

It could be considerably difficult to live completely phthalate-free, but maybe that concept is a possibility for us in the not-too-distant future.

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