Medications and supplements are supposed to make us feel better, and the main ingredients often do. But researchers are finding that certain plastic additives designed to release the ingredients into our systems more slowly could actually be making us sick.
In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, U.S. researchers sampled a small portion of pills on the market—medicines for conditions ranging from acid reflux, infections, and inflammation to ulcerative colitis and high blood pressure, among others—and found that 10 to 20 percent contained two types of plasticizing chemicals tied to lifelong health problems. These plastic chemicals, known as phthalates, are often found in vinyl flooring and shower curtains, cleaning products, nail polish, perfumes, and fragranced personal care products, insecticides, and food packaging.
In studies, scientists have found a link between phthalate exposure and damage to the developing male reproductive system, birth defects, infertility, stunted growth, and low IQs. Now, add meds to the list. "Ingesting drugs and supplements containing phthalates may significantly add to the total burden of exposure," says pharmacist and lead author of the study, Kathy Kelley, MPH, RPh, research pharmacist at Boston University. "If possible, it may help to avoid exposure when there are alternatives."
Although scientists are still trying to figure out the definitive effects phthalates have on human health, Kelley cautions that based on the available studies, it may be important for pregnant women and children to avoid additional exposure to these chemicals if possible.
While that may not always be possible, finding safer alternatives may just be a question away. "Many of the medications and supplements that we identified as containing phthalates are available in multiple formulations, some of which may be "phthalate free," explains Kelley. That means you can ask your pharmacist or healthcare professional about alternatives.
Learn the top pharmacy and label-reading tricks so you can start avoiding these harmful pill coatings today!
Medicines designed to break down more slowly for maximum absorption may contain phthalates, so be wary of labels containing claims like "enteric coated," "time release," "film coated," or "safety coated," Kelley warns.
Some prescription medicines have label information available online at the company or product websites. "It can be challenging to obtain this information on all drugs, but a patient can ask their pharmacist to check the complete product label that comes with the medication they have been given," suggests Kelley.
For over-the-counter medicines, you can read the drug facts panel under "inactive ingredients." In both cases, you're looking to avoid products where a word containing "phthalate" winds up on the label. Diethyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalates are most linked to health problems, while phthalate polymers like hypromellose phthalate, cellulose acetate phthalate, and polyvinyl acetate phthalate are believed to be more benign because the body doesn't readily absorb them. "However, sometimes these are combined with a phthalate plasticizer, such as diethyl phthalate, so you still need to get the most complete information about the product," says Kelley.
As with medicine, watch out for ingredient names like "aqueous enteric coating," and labeling terms like "enteric coating" and "time release" when you're dealing with supplements. Supplement regulations are more lax, though, so you may need to contact the manufacturer or distributor for the most complete ingredients information.
To reduce the amount of phthalates you're exposed to in other ways, use these tips:
1. Find safer personal care products. Anything that lists "fragrance" or "parfum" on the ingredients label potentially contains phthalates. To rate your products' safety and to find safer sources, visit Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database.
2. Veto vinyl. Avoid vinyl shower curtains and other soft plastics—they likely are laced with phthalates. Safer shower curtain options include cotton and hemp.
3. Avoid fake fragrances elsewhere, as well. Forgo chemical air fresheners and scented candles. (Beeswax candles are a safer option.) In the laundry department, choose unscented, plant-based products whenever possible. Save money and your healthy by making your own green cleaning products.