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Phthalates: Unseen Contributors to Environmental Health Concerns

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on May 22, 2023

Phthalates, pronounced "thal-ates," are a group of chemicals often discussed in the realm of environmental health. Despite their widespread usage, they remain largely invisible to consumers. In this post, we will explore what phthalates are, where they're found, and how they might impact our health.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often referred to as "plasticizers." Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials. (1)

Where are Phthalates Found?

Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous in our environment. They're found in a wide range of products, including vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, raincoats, and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes). Some phthalates are also used in food packaging and can potentially leach into our food. (2, 3)

Phthalates and Health Concerns

Over the past decades, several studies have raised concerns about the potential health impacts of phthalate exposure. Most notably, phthalates are known as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with hormone systems. (4)

Research has linked phthalate exposure to numerous health issues, including developmental, reproductive, and respiratory problems. Some studies suggest that phthalates may also contribute to obesity and insulin resistance (5). However, it's important to note that most of this research has been done in animal models or observational studies in humans, which cannot establish a direct cause-effect relationship.

Reducing Phthalate Exposure

While it's nearly impossible to avoid phthalates entirely due to their widespread use, you can take certain steps to reduce your exposure. (6)

  • Opt for phthalate-free products whenever possible. Many manufacturers now offer alternatives.
  • Since phthalates can leach into food from packaging, opt for fresh, unpackaged foods when possible.
  • Be mindful of plastic products in your home. PVC plastics, recognizable by the recycling number 3, often contain phthalates.

Phthalates are a significant player in discussions surrounding environmental health due to their ubiquitous presence and potential health impacts. While more research is needed to fully understand the implications of phthalate exposure, it's prudent to be aware of their presence and to take steps to reduce exposure when possible.


  1. Wang Y, Qian H. Phthalates and Their Impacts on Human Health. Healthcare (Basel). 2021 May 18;9(5):603. doi: 10.3390/healthcare9050603. PMID: 34069956; PMCID: PMC8157593.
  2. Serrano SE, Braun J, Trasande L, Dills R, Sathyanarayana S. Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data. Environ Health. 2014 Jun 2;13(1):43. doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-13-43. PMID: 24894065; PMCID: PMC4050989.
  3. Benjamin S, Masai E, Kamimura N, Takahashi K, Anderson RC, Faisal PA. Phthalates impact human health: Epidemiological evidences and plausible mechanism of action. J Hazard Mater. 2017 Oct 15;340:360-383. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2017.06.036. Epub 2017 Jun 19. PMID: 28800814.
  4. Qureshi MS, Yusoff AR, Wirzal MD, Sirajuddin, Barek J, Afridi HI, Üstündag Z. Methods for the Determination of Endocrine-Disrupting Phthalate Esters. Crit Rev Anal Chem. 2016;46(2):146-59. doi: 10.1080/10408347.2015.1004157. PMID: 25831046.
  5. Dales RE, Kauri LM, Cakmak S. The associations between phthalate exposure and insulin resistance, β-cell function and blood glucose control in a population-based sample. Sci Total Environ. 2018 Jan 15;612:1287-1292. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.09.009. Epub 2017 Sep 8. PMID: 28898934.
  6. Chen CY, Chou YY, Lin SJ, Lee CC. Developing an intervention strategy to reduce phthalate exposure in Taiwanese girls. Sci Total Environ. 2015 Jun 1;517:125-31. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.02.021. Epub 2015 Feb 25. PMID: 25725197.

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