Phthalates may be the new parabens, except that nothing about them is new. These industrial chemicals, pronounced "thalates," have been used for decades, mostly as plasticizers in everything from toothbrushes and toys to vinyl flooring. But they're also in shampoos, lotions and other personal care products.
Strong debates surround phthalates' potential to do harm in humans. A number of studies, mostly on rodents, link these industrial chemicals to reproductive, endocrine, respiratory and other health problems.
A 2005 human study in Environmental Health Perspectives showed diethyl phthalate hindered testicular function and shortened anogenital distance in infant boys. Another 2006 study in the same journal demonstrated a correlation between the levels of DEP metabolite in mothers' breast milk and testosterone production in their 6-month-old boys.
Environmental groups and a rising chorus of voices in the natural products industry are fighting phthalates because of such health risks. They're also pushing for regulatory change that would require manufacturers to disclose phthalates on product labels.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates the cosmetics industry but does not require disclosure of all ingredients, nor does it test products before they hit the market, notes Kristan Markey, research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. "The laws and reviews for cosmetics are much weaker than those for drugs," he says.
What's more, since phthalates are synthetic, they shouldn't be in "natural" personal care products in the first place, argue many within the natural personal care industry, which has many companies and trade groups currently working to develop a "natural standard."Phthalate primer
There are many types of phthalates. Personal care products that list "fragrance" on the label likely contain DEP, which is used as an alcohol denaturant or as a solvent. Dibutyl phthalate is used in many nail polishes and also as a pharmaceutical coating.
Humans are exposed to phthalates through direct contact?spreading moisturizer on their face or chewing on a plastic toy?and through the air, as phthalates are released and become part of household dust. While some research suggests DEP may be less harmful than other phthalates, and phthalates exit our bodies quickly through urine, humans' rate of exposure is high considering personal care products are applied directly to the skin and lips. For some people, that amounts to several phthalate-spiked products several times a day, every day, for a lifetime.
"A lot of cosmeceuticals use lecithin to get into the body," Markey says. Lecithin allows skin care treatments to penetrate more deeply into the skin, he says. "You have to ask, what else is penetrating into the skin?"Governmental action
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency have warned that phthalates may cause cancer in humans. The European Union has banned use of certain phthalates. And last October, the state of California banned, effective in 2009, the use of phthalates in kids' products?an action that's grabbed the attention of media and consumers, parents chief among them, whose heads are swirling with news about toxins ranging from lead in toys to bisphenonal A in baby bottles and other plastic food containers.
However, while the European Union has banned DBP, diethylexyl phthalate and benzylbutyl phthalate, it classifies DEP as safe. In early December, a scientific experts panel with the U.S. National Toxicology Program (part of Health and Human Services) recommended discontinuing its study of DEP in rodents, noting nominal, if any, risk to human health, and instead directing resources toward study of other chemicals, including other phthalates, believed to be of greater health risk.
The chemical and plastics industries maintain that phthalates are safe if exposures are kept low enough, which the industry is doing, says Marian Stanley, spokeswoman for the Phthalates Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council. "Product stewardship and innovation are keeping exposures low," within limits specified as safe by the EPA, she says.
Stanley says the current body of research isn't convincing. "It's weight of evidence, amount of evidence," that's lacking, she says.
As for labeling, the fragrance industry is built on highly proprietary formulations and, for the most part, objects to full disclosure.Can phthalates be natural?
For Myra Michelle Eby, founder of Frisco, Colo.-based MyChelle Dermaceuticals, product stewardship means using all-natural ingredients and letting consumers know that.
Instead of using artificial cranberry "fragrance" that contains phthalates, she uses cranberry extract. Products are scented with hazelnut, pumpkin and vanilla. And she notes using the real thing is more expensive, because a little bit of synthetic fragrance goes a lot further.
Eby, who with co-author Karolyn Gazella wrote The Return to Beautiful Skin, due out from Basic Health Publications March 1, says that more naturals retailers, and Whole Foods Market specifically, are responding to consumer awareness of phthalates, and demanding all-natural ingredients from their personal care suppliers.
Whole Foods doesn't comment to trade press, but a fact sheet about benzylbutyl phthalate on its Web site says that the company is "concerned about the growing body of research which connects BPA and other estrogenic compounds, including phthalates, to certain negative health effects. ? We are currently evaluating certain products and packaging materials on a variety of criteria, including endocrine activity, toxicity, recyclability and functionality. Our goal is to help our customers avoid endocrine active materials in products and packaging where functional alternatives exist."
"It's unfortunate that manufacturers of natural skin care products don't [go all-natural] voluntarily," Eby says. "They should have their consumer in mind, and the environment."Setting the standard
While public awareness of toxins such as phthalates in consumer products is increasing, shoppers are placing greater faith in products labeled natural than they necessarily should be. Seventy-eight percent of American women believe natural personal care products are regulated or aren't sure if they're regulated, and 97 percent believe they should be regulated, according to a 2007 study by Yankelovich Partners, commissioned by Burt's Bees.
Burt's Bees has piloted the creation of an industry "natural standard," that would designate personal care products with a seal if at least 95 percent of their ingredients are natural, and specific harmful or potentially harmful ingredients are not included in the remaining 5 percent of ingredients.
To help the process along, "a retailer could say they want to sign on and support the standard," says Burt's Bees spokeswoman Mariah Kulp. Or, she said, a section within a store's personal care offering could be labeled as "all natural."
"A lot of people don't understand the long-term effects of chemicals on the body," says Linda Park, aesthetician for Nature's Den natural products store in Port Lucie, Fla. "They're starting to get educated. They need to get educated."
Kelly Pate Dwyer is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 33