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What are they and where they are found?

Phthalates are manmade chemicals that are added to plastics for flexibility and resilience. Phthalates include a group of more than 50 chemicals that are often added to personal care and other products, some of which are listed below.

How do people come into contact with them?

Phthalates are used to soften PVC (vinyl) products. If a vinyl product is flexible, it contains phthalates unless the label specifically says it does not.

Phthalates are commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products to carry fragrances. They are also found in flexible tubing, medical supplies, children’s teething rings and soft plastic toys, vinyl flooring, vinyl siding, garden hoses, paint, food packaging, beverage containers, detergents, auto supplies, vinyl shower curtains and room fresheners.

Phthalates are so widespread that everyone is in contact with them at some level.

What health concerns are associated with chemical?

Some varieties of phthalates are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as probable human carcinogens. In animal studies, phthalates have been shown to cause hormonal and reproductive harm. Unborn and small babies and children are most at risk for the health effects of phthalates, which can cross the placental barrier and are found in breast milk.

What can I do to protect myself, my family or my employees?

Identifying and avoiding consumer products that contain phthalates is an important first step. However, that can be challenging because complete labeling is not required on many products.  In general, use the list below to identify phthalates:

Phthalate Name

Common Use

(di-(2-ethyl hexyl) phthalate) or
(Bis (2-ethyl hexyl) phthalate)


Used as a softener in PVC products, such as IV bags, flexible medical tubing, and other medical devices.

(benzyl butyl phthalate)

Used in vinyl flooring, car-care products, and personal care products.

(di-n-butyl phthalate)

Used in nail polish and other personal care products.

(diethyl phthalate)

Used in personal care products, such as deodorants, perfume, cologne, aftershave lotion, shampoo, hair gel, hand lotion.

(dimethyl phthalate)                          

Used in insect repellent, plastics, safety glasses, molding powders, lacquers and solid rocket propellant,

*The Department of Health & Human Services has determined that it is reasonable to anticipate DEHP is a human carcinogen. The EPA classifies it as a “probable human carcinogen”.


 How to limit your contact with phthalates:

  • Check your cosmetics. Products such as nail polish, hair spray, and deodorant can contain phthalates. The ingredients may only mention "fragrance," which often contains phthalates.
  • Don’t allow children to chew on plastic; give them cloth, wooden and other phthalate-free toys.
  • Use glass, stainless steel and ceramics instead of plastics; avoid cooking or microwaving in plastic.  
  • Ventilate your home. Indoor air contains higher levels of phthalates because many household items and building materials contain phthalates that can end up in dust and air.
  • Shop wisely. Many companies have introduced phthalate-free toys and baby products. Find products with the Green Seal of Approval.

What's being done to protect public health?

In July 2008, the U.S. Congress passed legislation banning six phthalates from cosmetics and children's toys.

Nineteen states (AL, CN, HI, IL, IN, ME, MD, MA, MN, MO, MI, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, SC and WV) have proposed legislation banning phthalates.

Where can I get more information? 

ATSDR fact sheets:

Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA), Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Dimethylphthalate