Parabens & Phthalates: Reduce Your Exposure to These Xenoestrogens (Part 2 of 2)

Xenoestrogens are some of the biggest health disruptors a person can encounter, and the average person is bombarded by them every day. These Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDCs, mimic the hormone estrogen and directly interfere with hormone signaling. This interference contributes to an increasing number of health issues such as cancer, fertility problems, slow cognitive development, changes in metabolism, and immune disorders.

In a previous blog article, I talked about what xenoestrogens are and where you find them, and I highlighted one of the most prevalent xenoestrogen in our daily lives – Bisphenol A (BPA). Now let’s learn about two more common xenoestrogens: phthalates and parabens, plus easily adoptable suggestions for reducing your exposure.

Where Do Phthalates Come From? 

Phthalates are a group of human made chemicals used to make plastics more flexible or resilient, and they're a known xenoestrogen. Phthalates are used in hundreds of products, but here are some of the more common items that contain phthalates.

  • Children’s items, such as plastic/squishy toys, infant chew rings and teethers
  • Plastic shower curtains
  • Vinyl flooring
  • Food packaging
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Hoses and PVC pipe
  • Raincoats 
  • Faux leather handbags
  • Detergents
  • Nail polish and nail polish remover
  • Hair spray, shampoo and cosmetics
  • IV bags, blood bags, tubing
  • Adhesives and lubricating oils

Who wants their baby chewing on a squishy, phthalate-laden toy? I sure don’t!

People are exposed to phthalates in various ways. First, phthalates can enter via the skin (ie: perfumes, lotions, cosmetics). Second, phthalates can be inhaled because they off-gas and are present in residential indoor air. Third, phthalates are ingested by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates. Start by looking for labels that say phthalate free. Phthalate plastics are coded with a 3 or 7, so try looking for ones that have a 1, 2 or 5. Use of plastic containers is associated with higher urinary phthalate metabolites, so its worth the effect to reduce your use of plastic.

Phthalates and Your Health

Because phthalates are a known xenoestrogen, which disrupt hormones, they're associated with develomental and reproductive toxicity in both males and females. Interfering with hormone levels is especially a concern during vulnerable times such as fetal and infant development, and in early childhood years.

  • Human studies have explored possible associations between phthalate esters and altered semen quality, shortened gestation, reduced anogenital distance in baby boys, and premature breast development in young girls. 
  • Higher exposure to phthalates before birth is associated with lower motor function among girls. For boys, higher exposure to phthalates in childhood is associated with lower scores. 
  • Significant inverse associations have been seen between various maternal prenatal metabolite concentrations and child processing speed, perceptual reasoning, working memory, child verbal comprehension and child perceptual reasoning.
  • Prenatal exposure to specific phthalates are statistically significantly associated with language delay in children. 
  • Phthalates have been linked to obesity and a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms.

Where Do Parabens Come From?

  • 85% of cosmetics
  • shaving cream
  • moisturizers
  • make-up

Parabens and Your Health

Another group of xenoestrogens to avoid are parabens – they're so prevalant they're known as the BPA of the beauty industry. Parabens are commonly used as an antimicrobial and preservatives in makeup, lip balms, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, shaving creams, and facial and shower cleansers and scrubs. They can be found in the ingredients section of your beauty products under the names: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, butylparaben and benzylparaben.

Parabens are absorbed through your skin, blood, and digestive system (4).  

Parabens are estrogenic, interfering with the fetus & teenage puberty and potentially influence hormone related health issues. Studies in mother-infant pairs finds that median concentrations of parabens are similar in both maternal blood and amniotic fluid.

A 2004 UK study detected traces of five different types of parabens in the breast cancer tumors of 19 out of 20 women studied (5). This small study does not prove a causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer, but it is important because it detected the presence of intact parabens – unaltered by the body’s metabolism – which is an indication of the chemicals' ability to penetrate skin and remain in breast tissue. Check out the Environmental Working Groups Skin Deep Database for safety and toxicity data for thousands of products.  

Reduce Your Exposure To Xenoestrogens 

Learning this information for the first time may be quite overwhelming, so where can you begin to reduce your exposure to xenoestrogens? Start small--every little change will make a difference in your health.

1. Assess the skin and beauty products you use often (daily or multiple times a day), and start by eliminating these first because they pose the most risk due to how often they’re used. When you buy replacement products, look for “BPA free,” “Phthalate free,” and “Paraben free” on the label of the new products you purchase. 

2. Purchase paraben-free lotion, lip balms, shampoo, conditioner, and makeup. Here are 5 ingredients to avoid when choosing a shampoo

3. Limit your use of plastics. Avoid drinking from plastic water bottles and don’t refill plastic water bottles. If a plastic water bottle has heated up significantly, throw it away—do not drink the water. Do not heat your food or drinks in plastic containers. Instead, use glass, porcelain, silicon or stainless steel containers. A stainless steel bottle or Mason jar is a great alternative to a plastic bottle!

4. Avoid all pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Whenever possible, buy organic produce. Go here to get the most recent list of the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” fruits and vegetables.

5. Minimize your exposure to nail polish and nail polish removers.

6. Use chemical free, biodegradable laundry and household cleaning products whenever possible.

7. Use chemical free soaps and toothpaste.

8. If you have infants or children, buy phthalate free toys, especially those that will be put in mouths.

9. If you're pregnant, reducing your exposure as much as possible is crucial. Aside from parabens and phthalates, here are 10 more ways to reduce your exposure to xenoestrogens during pregnancy.

10. Get rid of your plastic shower curtain and purchase a fabric shower curtain that does not require a vinyl liner. Vinyl is very high in phthalates.

Check out Part 1 about another common xenoestrogen called BPA, including what it is and where it's found. It's definitely a chemical to avoid.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods

Hormone balance is dependent on liver detoxification, and your liver must detoxify efficiently in order to excrete hormones and xenoestrogens. Here are some ways to support healthy detoxification. 


1. Cho SC, Bhang SY.  Relationship between environmental phthalate exposure and the intelligence of school-age children.  Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Jul;118(7):1027-32. 

2.  Engel SM, Zhu C.  Prenatal phthalate exposure and performance on the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale in a multiethnic birth cohort.  Neurotoxicology. 2009 Jul;30(4):522-8. 

3.  Kim BN.  Phthalates exposure and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in school-age children.  Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Nov 15;66(10):958-63.

4.  Gray, J (2010). State of the Evidence: The Connection between Breast Cancer and the Environment. San Francisco, CA: The Breast Cancer Fund.

5.  Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS (2004). Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24:5-13.

6. Hauser R and Calafat AM. Phthalates and Human Health. BMJ Journals. Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Vol 62, Issue 11.

7. Phthalates: Toxic chemicals in vinyl plastic. HealthyStuff.  

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