The Truth About Phthalates and Parabens

WinterskinPhthalates and parabens are buzzwords in the natural beauty industry. As synthetic additives found in many skin care products, they came under the microscope in the late 1990s when they were first suspected to be toxic. But are they really as scary as we think? Here’s what you need to know about where you may find parabens and phthalates, and how to avoid them.


Phthalates are chemicals used to retain fragrances in products, and also used as softeners. They’re used in cosmetics and skin care products like lotions, shampoos and nail polish. You’ll find them listed as DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate) or DEP (diethl phthalate) on ingredient labels.

Parabens are common preservatives used to limit bacteria growth in skin care products that contain significant amounts of water. The ones most commonly used are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben.

Health risks

While the amount of exposure that’s considered dangerous is up for debate, studies in both the U.S. and Europe have proven that phthalates and parabens can impact human cells and hormonal functions.

Phthalates have been shown to interfere with hormones, and can cause defects in the male reproductive system at birth. Some have even been labeled as carcinogens. The European Union has banned DBP and DEHP in cosmetics, and the state of California listed DBP and DEHP as chemicals that are known to cause reproductive or developmental toxicity. The FDA, however, has lagged behind and says the amount of phthalates used in cosmetics do not pose a safety risk.

Parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, which can be linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity. Parabens mimic estrogen, and researchers have found parabens in breast tumor tissue. Recently, the European Commission banned five lesser-used parabens in cosmetics, and they are currently proposing to lower the allowed maximum concentrations of butyl and propylparaben. But the FDA (in partnership with an industry-led Cosmetic Ingredient Review study) says consumers should not be concerned about using cosmetics or skin care products with low concentrations of parabens.

Baby care

In the last few years, phthalate-containing skin care products for children have come under special scrutiny. Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center found high levels of phthalates in the urine of babies after common baby shampoos, powders or lotions containing these chemicals were applied. Congress has banned specific levels of certain phthalates in toys, based on toxicity studies.

As for parabens, The European Commission banned leave-on products with these chemicals for the “nappy (e.g. diaper) area” in children under age three.

Buy wisely

Although regulations may take years to pass in the US and research continues about the safety of these ingredients, it makes sense to avoid phthalates and parabens as much as possible. Fortunately Pharmaca offers a number of safe choices. Evanhealy, for example, is a high-quality line of phthalate- and paraben-free products approved by top estheticians. “They’re very pure, and highly rated on the EWG (Environmental Working Group) website,” says Bambi Stenberg, esthetician in Portland.

Acure products come highly recommended as well. “It’s a well-priced organic line and customers love their paraben- and phthalate-free shampoos and body moisturizers” explains Bambi. For kids, Babo Botanicals is a top customer choice. The plant-based line offers pure hair, scalp and skin care products for babies and children.

Learn more about other ingredients to avoid in your skin care.

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