It is common to find phthalates in cosmetics, but what are these chemicals, and why are they necessary?
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are materials derived from an organic chemical compound called phthalatic acid. Phthalates in cosmetics, and many other major products, like toys, sporting apparel, and packaging, are used to provide a certain amount of flexibility to rubber, plastic or resin. Note, however, that phthalates are a broad class of ingredients and as such, each class has its own toxicological profile that should be considered separately.
Why Are Phthalates in Cosmetics?
Phthalates are common because this particular organic chemical compound is a solubulizer (an agent that something else can be dissolved into) and they are plasticizers and denaturants (which can make a product bitter to the taste).
The most frequently used phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products is diethyl phthalate (DEP). Other derivatives include dimethyl phthalate (DMP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP); you will often find these ingredients in nail polish since they make the polish flexible and chip resistant.
Consumers should know that the dibutyl phthalate organic compound was banned in some countries and as such, most manufactures have discontinued using it. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is no longer used at all to manufacture cosmetics and personal care items, including nail products.
DEP is most commonly used as a solubulizer in perfumes and understandably, as a denaturant in alcohol (because it renders certain alcohol products unfit for oral consumption).
The FDA and Phthalate's Safety
At this point, one may wonder: "Are these organic compounds safe"? To answer that question, consider the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) stand on phthalates. Currently, the FDA has chosen not to take regulatory action against the use of DBP and DEHP in cosmetics, but in 2004 the European Union (EU) did prohibit the manufacturing and sale of cosmetics containing these ingredients.
Following on the heels of the EU's position, California, in 2005, listed both DEHP and DBP as chemicals that are known to cause reproductive and developmental "toxicity". Plainly put, California decided that these two chemicals were, and are, detrimental to the health of humans.
Further, California went on to require label warnings whenever these two substances are found at higher amounts than their designated value. California also listed DEMP as a chemical "known to the state" to cause cancer.
The FDA, however, maintains a different stance. Through their own personal studies, the FDA has concluded that DEP has a long and safe history of use, and those consumers that have regularly been exposed to the substance, have known no ill effects.
In short, the FDA has concluded that DEP poses no health hazards and therefore, is safe for use in fragrances and cosmetics. Furthermore, the US Alcohol Tax & Trade Bureau has also concluded that the use of DEP as an alcohol denaturant is perfectly safe.
Making an Informed Decision
Now that the facts about phthalates are known, what should the next steps be? Consumers should make an informed decision about the makeup products they purchase, and more specifically, what goes into making those products.
To help on that front is Cosmetics Database. Here, a concerned consumer can scroll through the following categories:
- Baby products
- Bath products
- Eye makeup products
- Facial makeup products
- Nail products
There are many more categories to choose from (a total of fourteen in all). Once you select a category, for example, Eye Makeup Products, that category is then further broken down into:
- Eyebrow pencil
- Eye color
- Eye makeup remover
From there, lists of commonly found ingredients are listed. Each product and their ingredients are then given a "hazard" score:
- 0-2 Low hazard
- 3-6 Moderate hazard
- 7-10 High hazard
This way, one can know at a glance where each specific cosmetic product falls within this "hazard" range. In the end, using this system simplifies, and lessons the worry of having these chemicals in cosmetics because the choice to use, or not to use, is left up to the consumer.