Phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”) are everywhere, and they could be affecting your fertility and the health of your baby during pregnancy.
I’m in a few groups for moms on Facebook, and I’ve noticed a couple of trends. The first is the number of women who say their husbands have little to no interest in sex. The second is how many women I see struggling to get pregnant.
There’s a surprising link between these two issues.
The hidden culprit
Endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic or disrupt hormones within our bodies, surround us. They are throwing off our delicate hormonal balance.
One of the most common endocrine disruptors (that is literally everywhere) are phthalates. Studies indicate these chemicals may negatively affect fertility in both men and women.
Phthalates seem to primarily target testosterone, but the effects are visible in women as well.
Phthalate effects on female fertility
In women studies indicate a lower sex drive and major problems with ovulation. These problems may be due to phthalates’ effects on estrogen.
Studies have shown decreased estrogen which can result in
- failure to ovulate
- delayed ovulation
- less-developed egg follicles (leading to eggs that aren’t fully ripened)
This study analyzed the follicular fluid of women undergoing fertility treatments. The results showed a significant relationship between phthalate concentration and reproductive hormone levels. Similar results came from this study, which analyzed egg retrieval and pregnancy outcomes in relation to phthalate levels.
This study from 2019 showed that phthalates’ effects may last longer than scientists originally thought. Mice exposed to phthalates were less fertile than a control group even up to 9 months after the exposure stopped.
Phthalate exposure may also lead to earlier menopause.
Phthalate effects on male fertility
When women are pregnant with male babies, there appears to be a correlation between the amount of phthalates in the mother’s system and the production of testosterone in the womb.
This study concluded that DEHP’s effects in the womb can alter a male baby’s anatomy and affect his future ability to have children of his own.
Phthalates can cross the placenta, and in the past 30 years there’s been a significant increase in the number of males born with sex organ deformities, such as undescended testicles and hypospadias (a birth defect that causes problems in urination).
Phthalates appear to inhibit the production of testosterone in adult males as well, contributing to low sex drive and fertility. Studies also show DNA damage to sperm and effects on sperm concentration and motility.
If you’re trying to conceive, phthalates are a big deal for both you AND your partner.
What are phthalates?
From ToxTown, a division of the National Institute of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, “Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl.”
They also bind and extend certain chemicals and are commonly found in synthetic fragrances. This is one of the major reasons my family uses essential oils instead of synthetic fragrance.
You’ll find phthalates in hundreds of products, including
- hair sprays
- nail polish
- vinyl flooring
- children’s plastic toys
- shower curtains
- automobile parts
- garden hoses
- food packaging
- medical tubing
Are phthalates toxic?
Government agencies and researchers around the world are studying phthalates and their effects on human health. One phthalate specifically, DEHP in a known endocrine disruptor. DEHP and DINP may cause cancer.
Other phthalates have been linked to effects on human reproductive health.
Studies (here, here, and here, among others) have also shown a statistically significant link between exposure to phthalates and asthma. There are also studies showing links between phthalates and obesity, children’s brain development, oxidative stress, and diabetes.
Although phthalates are often used in low levels in any given product, it’s the combined exposure from so many products with a range of types of phthalates that can accumulate with toxic effects.
Can phthalates be absorbed through skin?
Phthalates are not chemically bonded to their host plastics and as a result are very easily separated. Even just touching the plastic can release phthalates onto your skin and into your body.
This study evaluated phthalate exposure through particles in the air. The researchers concluded that just as much phthalates were absorbed through the skin as through inhalation.
How can you avoid phthalates?
So what can you do to avoid phthalates?
The good news is that manufacturers are beginning to see the dangers of phthalates and are eliminating them from the products they produce. Legislation is beginning to limit their use in commercial products.
- certain phthalates are no longer allowed in children’s products
- the EU has started banning some phthalates in cosmetics
- California and Maine have categorized certain phthalates as “known to cause birth defects or reproductive harm” and “chemicals of high concern.”
- the FDA has recommended health care providers reduce newborn boys’ exposure to DEHP
- Walmart and Target are taking steps to reduce or eliminate phthalates in the products they carry
They also pass through our systems fairly quickly.
The bad news is that we’re exposed to them multiple times a day.
They’re still pretty ubiquitous… and manufacturers don’t have to list them on labels. Often the exposure comes not from the product itself but from its packaging.
And since much of our packaging is produced overseas, lawmakers in the US cannot control what goes into the packaging.
We all have them
Numerous tests have shown that a huge percentage of people have phthalates circulating in their bodies. Center for Disease Control (CDC) researchers found that “phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.”
Measurable levels have been detected in urine, breast milk, umbilical cord blood, and amniotic fluid. Women experience higher exposure levels since they tend to use more personal care products containing phthalates.
Food is a major source, especially fatty foods such as dairy and meat, where the exposure could come from packaging or, for example, the plastic tubing used in milking machines. Fats tend to pull the phthalates out of their plastics.
A recent study indicated that even eating small amounts of fast food significantly increases human phthalate concentration.
Even organic foods can contain phthalates, likely from packaging or processing.
In short, they’re hard to avoid. But before you throw up your hands in despair, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure.
How to limit your exposure to phthalates
- Eat more fresh foods than processed foods. Phthalate-based plastics are often used in factories for food production.
- Don’t heat or store your food in plastic; use glass or stainless steel instead. Phthalates continue to leech from plastics over time, so transferring plastic-packaged food into glass can also reduce exposure.
- Avoid or limit fast food as much as possible.
- Use an activated-charcoal or reverse-osmosis water-filtration system for drinking and cooking.
- Avoid products packaged in plastic with the “3” or “7” recycling code. 1, 2, 4, and 5 plastics are made without phthalates.
- Avoid products that include the vague ingredient “fragrance” on their label—these almost certainly contain phthalates.
- Regular dusting can reduce the concentration of phthalates in your home.
- When you must purchase plastics, opt for those made with polyethylene or polypropylene rather than vinyl or PVC.
- Use essential oils rather than air fresheners. (When you use high-quality oils, this approach has the added benefit of contributing to your whole-body wellness rather than jeopardizing your health. Read this post for my pick for the best essential oils company.)
- Reduce the amount of conventional dairy and meat in your diet. This study found the highest food concentrations of phthalates in chicken and cream.
Phthalates and your fertility
Phthalates can have seriously negative effects on your ability to get pregnant and maintain a pregnancy. They’re hard to avoid, but it is possible to reduce your exposure. With some extra care about the foods and products you allow in your home and on your body, you can increase your chances of a successful pregnancy.
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