How phthalate exposure impacts pregnancy

In recent years, scientists have linked chemicals known as phthalates with complications of pregnancy and fetal development.

Now, a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health sheds light on the mechanism that may be to blame.

Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic materials more flexible and can also be found in personal care products such as perfumes, deodorants and lotions. They can enter the human body by being ingested, inhaled or through the skin. Most often phthalates are metabolized and excreted quickly, but constant contact with them means that nearly everyone in the United States is exposed, some more than others.

Kelly Ferguson, a postdoctoral research fellow, and John Meeker, associate professor of environmental health sciences and associate dean for research at the School of Public Health, along with their team, tested urine samples from pregnant women and found an association between the presence of phthalates and increased levels of biomarkers of oxidative stress.

“It is not fully known what the impacts of increased oxidative stress on pregnancy might be, but this is an active area of research,” Meeker said. “We recently showed in another analysis among the same cohort of women that biomarkers of oxidative stress were associated with increased risk of preterm birth. Other effects, such as adverse fetal development and maternal health complications, may also be related to oxidative stress.”

Kelly Ferguson et al. Urinary Phthalate Metabolites and Biomarkers of Oxidative Stress in Pregnant Women: A Repeated Measures Analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2014 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1307996

Products to watch out for...

Phthalates (DEHP, DBP, DEP, etc.)

  • Help perfume linger
  • Make nail polish last longer


  • DEP has been linked to damaged sperm and reproductive toxicity
  • Cause concern to liver & endocrine function 
  • Body stores large amounts of it
  • Carcinogen
  • *DEHP & DBP banned in EU, all phthalates banned in children’s toys
  • *All products except fragrance must state if they contain phthalate 


  • Mascara (where it’s used as a preservative)


  • Known neurotoxin
  • *Must be listed on label. May also be listed as ‘thimerisol’
  • *Parabens, formaldehyde, quaternium 15 or diazodylin urea may be used in leu- they are also toxic, but not as bad. 
  • *check out Afterglow Cosmetics Pure Soul Mascara, which is natural and made with organic botanical extracts, free of harsh preservatives. Does not clump, flake or smudge. 


  • Injects caffeine, enzymes, anti-inflammatories, phosphatydalcholine, deoxycholate. It can generate ulcers, skin infections and tissue damage. 


  • Nail Polish (preservation) 


  • Overexposure can cause rashes, skin irritation and even breathing problems. 
  • Probable human carcinogen
  • *products must state if they contain formaldehyde

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Phthatale family or di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) and di(2-ehtylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)

Can result in: endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCS) and carcinogen linked to birth defects; premature breast developments; lowered sperm counts; testicular injury; damage to reproductive organs; lung, liver and kidney cancer

Why used: makes plastic soft and malleable.

Found in: nail polish, hair-straighteners and sprays, body lotions, and deodorants.

Banned in: Europe


Industrial Chemicals in Cosmetics: The Truth is Out

The average woman uses a dozen personal care products containing 168 chemical ingredients everyday. Men use about six products a day containing 85 chemicals.

- Stacy Malkan, 2007 from Not Just a Pretty Face 

Cosmetics and personal care products are loaded with industrial chemicals.  Over the past decade this issue has been thoroughly documented by environmental groups, alternative media outlets, scientists, government studies, and even mainstream beauty magazines.

The David Suzuki Foundation has forwarded the campaign “What’s Inside? That Counts” to highlight the Dirty Dozen worst chemicals that are known to cause health and environmental problems.  The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a coalition of non-profit environmental groups working to raise awareness about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics. This group has organized around Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cosmetics”, a video that succinctly demonstrates the connections between industry practices, consumer society, and toxins in cosmetics.

The Environmental Working Group has established the Skin Deep Database which enables users to search most body care products and find out their impact on  human and ecological health.  Stacy Malkan has pretty much dedicated her life to the issue. Author of the book Not Just A Pretty Face and founder of the blog by the same name, she has effectively written the book on chemicals in cosmetics.  Alternet has run numerous articles on issues like which cosmetic chemicals to avoid, why natural products may be bad for you, chemical legislation in the US, and lead in lipstick. Gill Deacon, recent book There’s Lead in Your Lipstick: Toxins in Everyday Body Care Products and How to Avoid Them is a similar guide as Malkan’s book but focuses more on the DIY practices that can be done at home. She claims to help  “save you money, save the planet” and set you “on the road to eco-enlightenment”.

Googling “toxic cosmetics” yields over 6,700,000 hits.  Clearly this is an issue that is on a lot of people’s minds. So what is the problem with body care products?

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