The Checkout

Nothing Rhymes with Phthalates

Excuse the title. I'm a bit punchy this morning. Still recovering from nine days of single parenthood while the husband was off covering the Super Bowl. (Direct quote from the hub: "I'm surrounded by professional football players and half-naked women. It's terrible!")

Despite my sleep deprived state, I managed to read Susan Morse's story in Health on a new study in the journal Pediatrics that found infants and toddlers who use shampoo and lotions were more likely to have higher concentrations of phthalates in their urine.

Phthalates are the latest chemical boogey man on the block. They are used in the manufacture of lubricants, cosmetics and plastic products including children's toys and have been linked to reproductive problems in male infants exposed in utero. The authors of the study are recommending people reduce infants' exposure to phthalates as much as possible. The personal product industry disagrees. You can read the industry's response in Susan's story.

When confronted with such news as a consumer, you have to make the decision: to buy or not to buy. Or as often is the case these days: to throw out and buy something different.

I couldn't tell whether our body wash/shampoo had phthalates or not, so to be on the safe side I bought some Burt's Bees product that is phthalate free. It works fine but boy, was it pricey. Yeesh. Like those Born Free bottles, which I didn't get.

How are the rest of you handling the daily barrage of everything-you-touch-has-some-bad-unpronounceable-chemical-in-it news?

By Annys Shin |  February 7, 2008; 10:06 AM ET Consumer News
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Try Dr Bronner's liquid soaps. You dilute it so the cost isn't quite so extreme and it lathers like crazy. Works fine as shampoo.

Posted by: M | February 7, 2008 11:40 AM

You can find out the risk levels of thousands of health and beauty products at the Environmental Working Group's "Skin Deep" site:

Posted by: ZF | February 7, 2008 12:14 PM

Annys, that article by Susan Morse was woefully underinvestigated (by Susan Morse). I mean, the author of the study reports something and then the industry person says something that would negate the main findings. So, what would a good reporter do? Go back to the author of the study, repeat what the industry guy said, and see what the author has to say to that.

Frankly, I don't know what to think of phthalates because they're ubiquitous and are actually a category. There are many different types of phthalates.

To ZF, I checked your website. The problem with its safety ratings is that it doesn't give any explanation or how risky something is. That is, we have a problem with many of these "risky" chemicals: a) we don't know how good the evidence is for their health risk and b) we don't know serious the health risk is. Both of these apply to phthalates.

Annys, what evidence are you citing when you say that phthalates have been linked to reproductive problems in male infants exposed in utero? I've only heard about studies with animals.

Posted by: Ryan | February 7, 2008 12:47 PM

Don't panic!!

Millions of Americans have shampooed with phthalates and have survived just fine. The risk is very, very low.

Posted by: andrew | February 7, 2008 12:56 PM

You know...this is one of the very reasons I got into making my own soap, which is fun, productive, and fairly easy (it takes about an hour and a half from start to finish, and the results last me a year or so).

The resulting soap is gentle, and I have an exchange with some friends who ferment kombucha to share or make jams and jellies or lip balms.

I know lots of home soapers got into the hobby due to infants with sensitive skin. Miller's Homemade Soap website has the best instruction I've found so far.

Posted by: Rita | February 7, 2008 1:42 PM

Frankly, I'd be more concerned about the quack products in ads linked to the website--such as the one now hawking ineffective, and potentially dangerous, oral chelation therapy as a treatment for arterial plaques.

Posted by: oldguy | February 7, 2008 2:10 PM

You say that nothing rhymes with phthalates. How about phatalaties ?

Posted by: Alan Francis | February 7, 2008 2:38 PM

I grew up being sprayed by pesticides in the corn fields of Illinois and I am alive so though I do worry about my kids to an extent I think as humans we are pretty resilient. I got more freaked by the research on chemicals in sunscreen than by the phthalate discussion.

Posted by: Lisa | February 7, 2008 2:45 PM

Second on andrew's comment.

Phthalates are like Aspartame. We've been told for years that nutrasweet is bad for us. BUt we still use it and, as far as I know, no one has died yet from diet coke.

A phthalate laced products worse for us than natural homemade products?? No more than non-organic versus organic cotton fiber toilet paper.

Don't panic.

Posted by: FfxGal | February 7, 2008 3:26 PM

Perhaps you are right that phthalates are the latest bogeyman, but they certainly are not new. Some have been trying to turn them into a bogeyman for at least twenty-five years. It seems that we need something to be alarmed about at all times.

Posted by: John, Alexandria VA | February 7, 2008 3:39 PM

If people actually knew what went on in industry and all the measures they take to protect our safety if for no other reason then to cover their own people wouldn't be so affraid.

Everything on earth is a poison this is the basis for the whole science of toxicology. What you don't see on consumer labels is the amount that whatever chemical you have is present in the formula then figure out how much is present in the amount that you use factor in the fact with a shampoo you oh rinse it out so now its even smaller than what you started your body is not a sponge absorbing 100% of everything you come in contact with. If you are truly worried about this brush up on general science and chemistry and metabolism before you read a scientific journal in which you are not trained to understand. Its like trying to read a foreign language and explain it back although you can read the words literally you may not understand what they mean.

Realize the whole basis for Risk is the hazard something poses multiplied by the exposure to it. Phthalates is the least of the publics worries.

Posted by: T. Hart | February 8, 2008 3:29 PM

The difference between those who use chemical-free products and those who don't is that one will die with less money.

Posted by: showmeyours | February 8, 2008 4:09 PM

Nobody thought asbestos was dangerous at first.

And what exactly is phenalanaline? Tons of stuff has warnings such as "Phenylketonurics: Contains phenylalanine." Namely flavored water and many types of chewing gum.

The warnings seems to be gone now, but I seems to recall they used to say "causes cancer in laboratory animals."

Posted by: Anonymous | February 14, 2008 12:23 AM

ROFLMAO at the anonymous poster at 12:23 AM!

Dude, you should go back to school. Phenylalanine is an amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Nothing "unnatural" there at all. Phenylalanine does NOT cause cancer. Like I said, it's a basic building block of proteins.

People with phenylketonuria, however, cannot process phenylketones, which include phenylalanine. Therefore, they need to know when something contains that particular amino acid.

Next thing you know, you're going to start freaking out when something contains gluten simply because the product warns people it contains gluten.

Posted by: Ryan | February 14, 2008 11:52 AM

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