Phthalates in Cosmetics from a Chemical Point of View

BY Aljoša Krajnc, B.A.Sc.

What are phthalates?

Phthalates (or if you want to sound fancy – phthalate esters) are substances derived from phthalic acid. That is their chemical definition, but that does not tell us much about the substances, so naturally, to the caring consumer, our next question is:

What do they do?

In short, phthalates are substances added to synthetic polymers (a scientific word for plastics) to make them more flexible, durable and longer lasting; the scientific word for such substances is plasticizer.

These are all properties producers want in their products to sell them for more, but they do not bring only good properties, they are also harmful. Cosmetics are the second biggest source of phthalate uptake, second to contaminated food consumption [1]. With all this exposure, one might worry that their health is at risk, which is why we made this blog, because next we’re going to talk about:

Are phthalates toxic?

The short answer: yes, but not all and only in high enough concentrations.

The lengthy answer is a bit more complicated though so stick with us. Phthalates have been reported to exhibit endocrine disrupting effects [2] [3], meanwhile high concentrations in tests have induced fetal death, cancer, liver and kidney damage on top of reproductive toxicity [4] [5], though researchers say human toxicological data is insufficient to say for sure.

This is all pretty grim news, but there are some things that help to protect us.

First, there is the fact that more commonly used phthalates are badly absorbed through the human skin, meaning that if there is any present, only a fraction would get into your body [6]. Second is the fact that so far, only some phthalates were found to be toxic; among the more toxic ones being DEHP, DBP and BBP (so we don’t bore you to Hell, we are using abbreviations instead of those long substance names, but if you want to you can look up the names of these substances here) The list of tested phthalates is not yet complete but before they are used in manufacturing they need to go through rigorous testing. That brings us to the third point; consumer protection. The European Union has strongly restricted or outright banned the use of the aforementioned phthalates along with the use of DINP, DIDP and DNOP phthalates in cosmetics and toys [7]. All new ones need to go through the same testing to be approved or restricted accordingly.

Did you know? 😮

Prior to its ban in the EU, DBP was used in nail polish as an ingredient that made the paint crack less and last longer. Since then, it is not found in EU produced and sold nail polishes. Due to less strict regulations, DBP along with other phthalates can still be found in cosmetics products of some other countries. Therefore we should be careful when ordering those items online.

GS tip: Since they are a pretty hot topic, phthalate use has come under heavy pressure from the general public and from the governments. All that led to the bans of many phthalates and therefore a big leap towards safer consumer products. There are still phthalates being used in cosmetics products that are being monitored but for now considered safe, so caution is advised when picking your cosmetics.


  • Aljoša Krajnc, B.A.Sc.

    Faculty of Environmental protection graduate in 2022, continuing his studies as a MSc student within the faculty. With an interest in applied sciences, environmental protection, ecotechnologies and polymers in the environment he enjoys tackling issues caused by the modern day of living and how to improve the quality of life without degrading the environment.


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