The Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project is pleased to address some specific questions about cosmetic products which have been sent to our website recently.



Q: Last month, I read an article in the Boston Globe about phthalates and their use in cosmetic products.  What are they?


A: Phthalates are a chemical used in cosmetics and other products as softeners and plasticizers.  They are the chemicals which give nail polish their slickness, and hair conditioners and moisturizers their softening abilities. They are also found in many soft plastics. 


Q: What are the risks of such chemicals?


A:  Phthalates can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled as fumes, ingested when they contaminate food or when children bite or suck on toys, and are inadvertently but directly administered to patients from some PVC (polyvinyl chloride or vinyl) medical devices. In various animal studies, these chemicals disrupt the hormone system and are linked to certain birth defects, infertility, and other illnesses. They can adversely impact reproduction and development. They have been found to affect levels of the male hormone androgen and sperm production in male rodents as well as estrogen levels and fertility in female rats. 


Q:  Have phthalates been removed from any products yet?


Phthalates were removed from children’s plastic toys after the chemical’s water-soluble properties were determined to cause chemical exposure to children who put the toys in their mouths.  More recently, hospitals have stopped using phthalate-containing plastics for vulnerable populations such as male infants. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control has determined that phthalate exposure is both higher and more common than previously suspected.  A study conducted by the CDC in 2000 found that every person in the study had a high exposure to the chemical, particularly women of childbearing years who participated in the study.  This led them to suspect the presence of phthalates in cosmetic products and to conduct studies on cosmetics.


Q: Given that they have been removed from children’s toys and certain hospital products, why haven’t they been removed from cosmetics too?

A: Major loopholes in United States federal laws regarding cosmetics have made it possible for cosmetic manufacturers to continue using phthalates. For example, manufacturers can claim that the chemical components that made up a cosmetic product are part of their trade secrets.    However, it is worth noting that, at the beginning of November, the European Union agreed to remove phthalates from cosmetic products manufactured in Europe.  However, in the United States, the Cosmetics Ingredients Review (CIR) Panel determined that phthalates are "safe as currently used," a ruling vigorously contested by health groups, women’s rights advocates and environmentalists.  Since the government neither conducts nor requires safety testing of chemicals that go into health and beauty products, and since the CIR Panel is funded and advised by the cosmetic industry, “the panel's assessment was heavily influenced by cosmetic industry science advisors and would not stand up to modern standards for public health protection," said Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research at the Environmental Working Group.


Q: What cosmetic products are phthalates specifically found in?


A: Phthalates can be found in hairspray, shampoo, conditioner, hair gel and mousse, deodorant, perfume, moisturizer, and nail polish. Because of the lax FDA labeling rules, it is difficult to determine which products contain phthalates.  While it is prudent to only buy products on which you can find a full list of ingredients, be forewarned that not all products containing phthalates actually indicate so.  Additionally, the lists of ingredients on a nail polish bottle, for example, can arguably only be read with a magnifying glass. 


Q: How can I determine if the products I use are phthalate-free?


A:  Phthalate-free products are available for most types of cosmetics. Products which are phthalate-free are listed in on the following website:   There are also products which have been found to contain phthalates listed on that website.  As a result of the European Union’s ruling, the Body Shop (which is an international company) announced that the company will phase out phthalates from all of its products. This statement was issued after product tests in Europe found phthalates in the company’s deodorant. They have taken action to avoid the use of phthalates in all of their new perfumes used in products, and aim to phase out the phthalates that remain in existing perfumes as soon as practicably possible.



Q: Are phthalates known by any other names?


A:  Yes, although they all end with the word “phthalate.”  They can also be listed as: diethyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate, butybenzyl phthalate, diethylhexyl phthalate, and dimethyl phthalate.



The WCPP would also like to respond new questions that arise about concerns you may have. Please forward your questions to  We will make every attempt to respond via this column or via email to every inquiry received.