Phthalates are a group of chemicals

What are Phthalates?


With current concern about the presence of phthalates around us, and the resulting exposure to these products, it’s important to understand exactly what these substances are. So, ‘what is a phthalate?’.

Phthalates definition from Wikipedia: ‘Phthalates or phthalate esters, are esters of phthalic acid and are mainly used as plasticizers (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity).’
So, in other words, they are a family of manmade chemical compounds. They are then added to plastics such as PVC to make them more flexible and less brittle. Phthalates are produced by a simple chemical reaction between an alcohol and phthalic anhydride. The physical and chemical properties of phthalates: a colourless and odourless oily liquid.

Phthalates are the most extensively used plasticizers in the world and are used in toys, food packaging, plastic film, flexible tubing, shower curtains etc. As well as their use as softeners in plastics, they are also solvents (dissolving agents) and emollients (moisturizing agents), used across many shampoos, soaps and lotions for both adults and infants.


Here is a list of the most common phthalates that BabyCenter has put together;
• DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
• DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)
• DiNP (diisononyl phthalate)
• DEP (diethyl phthalate)
• BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate)
• DEHP (di 2-ethylhexl phthalate)
• DiDP (diisodecyl phthalate)
• DnHP (di-n-hexyl phthalate)
• DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
• DnOP (di-n-octylphthalate)

However, you can’t use this list to avoid phthalates in toiletries, as currently any ‘fragrance’ does not need to have it component parts specified.

How do we get exposed to Phthalates?

Recent research has shown the presence of Phthalates across a great proportion of the US population. How does this happen?

There are several ways phthalates can enter our bodies. From plastics, the phthalate compounds are not firmly bound to the product. Because of this, they slowly leach out over time. The ‘new car’ smell is a good example of this in action. As the phthalates leach out you can even observe the plastics in products becoming a little more brittle over time .

The chemicals enter our bodies through inhalation, or, particularly in infants, directly through the mouth as they put hands and toys in the mouth. Additionally, food packaging gives an opportunity for the phthalate compounds to enter the human body, as the food inside is eaten.

In toiletries and cosmetics, the product, along with the phthalates, can be absorbed through the skin (eg lotions and shampoo), inhaled (fragrance in products) or even ingested (lipsticks and lip balms).

A detailed list of where exposure to phthalates may occur is found in our article on