Phthalates: Your Soap May Be Hurting You

by Allison Janse Patient Expert

When it comes to fighting germs, do you think that a little dab of soap will do ya? Well, new research shows that a little dab may just be doing you in. That's right, in addition to getting rid of germs, the soap you're using on your skin-and your kids' skin-every day may be silently altering your hormone function, and causing a slew of other problems down the road.

A new study reported in the February issue of Pediatrics sheds a sinister light on that oh-so-sweetly packaged bar of baby soap in your bathroom. The study showed that using common hygiene products on babies markedly increased the levels of toxic chemicals called phthalates in the babies' bodies.

Phthlatates on Babies' Skin Could Lead to Allergies and Eczema

So what's wrong with a few phthalates between friends? Plenty. [Lead researcher Sheela Sathyanarayana explains]: "We found that infant exposure to phthalates is widespread and that exposure to personal-care products applied onto the skin may be an important source. This is troubling because phthalate exposure in early childhood has been associated with altered hormone concentrations as well as increased allergies, runny nose, and eczema."

That's not all, decades of research from animal studies show that phthalates (pronounced 'thah-lates') can cause infertility, birth defects, and other malformations of the male reproductive tract. Research by epidemiologist Shanna Swan also found an association between higher phthalate levels in pregnant women and changes in the genitals in their infant sons. Yikes

Phthalates, which were grandfathered into use under the [Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976], are sometimes referred to as the "everywhere chemical," because they're literally everywhere. Used to make plastic flexible, they're found in plastic tubing, children's toys, cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, lotions, nail polish, lubricants, paint, and pesticides. While using a soap containing phthalates isn't theoretically as problematic as using a lotion, since you wash the soap off, an average person can wash their hands up to eight to ten times a day, which adds up to an enormous lifetime exposure. Couple that with all of the other products you use, and you have a veritable toxic soup of chemicals brewing in your body.

It's enough to make you want to go live in a bubble-except that wouldn't help either, since it's very likely your bubble would also be made with phthalates. So what's a consumer to do?

Finding Phthalates: Try Fragrance-Free Producs If You Have Allergies

It can be a bit challenging to readily identify products that contain phthalates because complete labeling is not required. Typically, with makeup products and soaps, you will look for and avoid the following:

  • DBP, or di-n-butylphthalate

  • DEP, or diethylphthalate

  • DMP, or dimethyl phthalate

  • BzBP, or benzylbutyl phthalate.

Basically, if you can't pronounce it, don't buy it. Since phthalates can hide under the word "fragrance," look for "fragrance-free" and "unscented" products, especially if you have allergies. But, don't just rely on a product saying "fragrance-free": Make sure there is no "fragrance" in the list of ingredients.

Finding Phthalate-Free Soap and Products

The good news is, there are many great phthalate-free products out there. Hopefully, with more research and more consumer demand, the offerings will only increase-and the prices decrease-in the future. For now, here are some that I like:

Tom's of Maine Unscented Bar Soap and Natural Moisturizing Hand Soap

Burt's Bees Ginger Spice Shower Soap

Natural Baby & Kids Bath Soap

For more information on phthalates and other personal care products, check out: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at

Allison Janse
Meet Our Writer
Allison Janse

Allison wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Allergies, Asthma, and Cold & Flu.