RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Phthalates, the chemicals used to soften plastic, help cosmetics cling, and make fragrances last that are found in hundreds of personal care and cleaning products, could be making children obese, according to research presented last week to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
THE DETAILS: In a part of a larger, 5-year, “Growing Up Healthy in East Harlem” study, researchers asked 255 girls and 95 boys to answer questions regarding which personal care products they used in the last week, such as shampoo, hair gel, and moisturizers. Product use was highest among girls. When researchers analyzed urine samples taken from the children, they found levels of phthalates were highest among girls with the highest body mass index and weight compared to thinner girls with less body fat.
While phthalates are plasticizers used in vinyl products to make them soft and flexible, phthalates are also used in many lotions and make-up products to help these products cling to your face. They’re used, too, as fragrance carriers in products ranging from cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, body sprays, and perfumes to detergents, air fresheners, and scented candles.
WHAT IT MEANS: While researchers aren’t exactly sure what consequences phthalates exposure may cause, scientists are increasingly concerned that these chemicals can affect the hormones and development of children. “We don't have a great amount of data about how hazardous they are, but we have a lot of suspicion because of lab studies,” says researcher Phil Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of the department of community and preventive medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “It’s prudence rather than firm information.”
While research continues, you can trade in potentially dangerous, phthalate-containing products for safer alternatives.
• Begin in the bathroom. Your bathroom could be a phthalate hangout. Replace vinyl shower curtains with cotton or hemp versions and choose unscented soap, hair, and make-up products.
• Be wary of plastic baby toys. Although Congress has banned certain phthalates from being used in baby toys, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has allowed stores to keep phthalate-containing items on shelves until they sell out. Unless there’s a phthalate-free label, there’s really no telling what’s in flexible plastic baby toys.
• Don’t spray it. Studies have shown many air fresheners contain carcinogens and other hazardous ingredients. Instead of covering up stinky smells with chemical fragrances, put out a bowl of distilled white vinegar or baking soda to fight odors. Aside from being much safer, this approach is also a lot cheaper.
• Go for “free and clear” formulas. Detergents are often packed with phthalate-rich chemical fragrances. Look for plant-based, “free and clear” products that don’t use heavy perfumes or dyes. And forget fabric softener. Just toss in half a cup of distilled white vinegar during your washer’s rinse cycle for the same effect.