Phthalates: The Hidden Harm in Haircare


Did you know that common ingredients in your hair products could lead to breast cancer? Phthalates, often described as the ‘Everywhere Chemical’, are a family of chemicals used in all sorts of consumer products, from plastic goods and lubricating oils to haircare and cosmetics. Read on to find out why phthalates are so harmful and what can be done about them.

What exactly are phthalates?

Phthalates are a family of phthalate ester compounds. They are usually derived from short-chain alcohol molecules and phthalic acid, and have been used in plastics manufacturing for more than 50 years. They are primarily used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics as a plasticiser—a way to make plastics softer and more flexible. PVC plastic products are found anywhere and everywhere, from food packaging to shower curtains to medical tubing. Phthalates are also used to dissolve other compounds, or as preservative or stabilising agents.

Many hair care products marketed to Black women contain phthalates and parabens, both of which have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive defects.

The market share of cosmetic phthalates is dwarfed by the sheer amount of plastic produced worldwide—about 90 to 95% of all phthalates are used in plastic manufacturing—however, this doesn’t prevent it from being any less pervasive or harmful in the industry of personal care and beauty products. Phthalates can be found in lotions, hair spray, eyeshadow, nail polish, and even liquid hand soap. They are used as a gelling agent, to make colours and fragrances last longer, prevent polishes from becoming brittle or cracking, and to keep skin and hair smooth after a product dries.

How do they cause harm?

People can be exposed to phthalates almost anywhere they go. Food and drink in plastic packaging—or prepared in contact with vinyl food preparation gloves—can become contaminated with phthalates. Phthalates can also be absorbed or inhaled through the air in colognes and scented products. Phthalates with lower molecular weight are more likely to leach out of plastics.

Phthalates have been found to have ties to cancer and developmental impairment, as well as having endocrine-disrupting effects. A complete picture of the effects in humans has not yet been fully researched, however animal trials have shown phthalates reducing testosterone levels and causing hormone-based birth and reproductive defects. A recent study from JAMA Pediatrics has also linked phthalate exposure to preterm births in humans, which is one of the biggest causes of infant mortality.

Black women are disproportionately exposed to phthalates due to the maintenance and care of Black hair types. A 2021 study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that Black and Latina hairstylists in particular were at higher risk of phthalate exposure, due to the constant exposure to hair care products in day-to-day work. 

Research has found that Black and Latina hairdressers are exposed to ten times more phthalates than office workers of the same background.

How to spot phthalates

Scented products with ‘fragrance’ listed as an ingredient will often contain phthalates. Manufacturers do not need to disclose phthalate content of fragrances, as the composition is regarded as proprietary in many jurisdictions.

In plastic products, they may be listed as DEHP (di-ethylhexyl phthalate), BBP (benzyl-butyl phthalate), or DINP (diisononyl phthalate). PVC plastics are also indicated by a number three in the widely used resin code system—a triangle made of three arrows, with a number inside. In cosmetics and personal care products, the most common phthalate species is DBP (dibutyl phthalate). 

What can be done?

In 2017, a ban was placed on eight phthalate compounds previously used in children’s toys and baby care products in the United States, however there is still little legislation for cosmetics. The European Chemicals Agency has placed a restriction of four phthalates in plasticised consumer goods, effective 7 July 2020, limiting concentrations of the chemicals to less than 0.1% by weight. This regulation, however, does not affect food contact materials or cosmetics formulae.

Despite this legislative gap, consumers are becoming more informed about the effects of phthalates. As such, many companies have started labelling their cosmetic products as phthalate-free, in a similar fashion to the BPA-free plastics trend roughly a decade ago.

If your personal care product doesn’t mention phthalates or a lack thereof, you can take some comfort in the knowledge that fragrance-free or naturally scented products are less likely to contain phthalates. However, depending on the product, phthalates may remain in plastic packaging which can leach into the product, so phthalate-free packaging is often the way to go.

Chemwatch is here to help.

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