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Is It Safe? Plasticizers in Personal Products

March 14, 2014
by Gary Ginsberg

Q: I have heard that there are plasticizers in body lotion, deodorant and perfume. Is this true? If so, what are they doing there and will it harm me to wear these products on my skin?

A: This is a very important topic. People worry about toxic chemicals in all sorts of places, from cleaning products to couch cushions. Not that those aren’t important, but probably the greatest exposure is from what you wear on your skin all day. This kind of intimate contact gives chemicals the chance to be absorbed into the body. The plasticizers that you are referring to are called phthalates. Although they have been banned from children’s toys, they are in many personal care products. Their purpose is to help dissolve the fragrances in the product and then fix them to your skin. On average, women use 12 personal care products per day and men use about half that many. Most of these products contain fragrance and thus phthalates. These plasticizers are not known to damage the skin, but once absorbed can disrupt the natural hormones, inhibiting testosterone and enhancing estrogen. Associations have been seen between phthalate exposure and breast cancer in women and low fertility in men (see new research at: Phthalates cross the placenta and have been associated with improper development of baby boys. While phthalates do not have to be on the label they are usually present with fragrance, an ingredient that is on the label. Essential oils make for pleasing scents and are usually phthalate-free. Look for essential oils rather than “fragrance” on the label to move beyond plasticized products for your skin.

Dr. Gary Ginsberg is a public health toxicologist in Connecticut and a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health. He has written a book geared toward the general public, “What’s Toxic, What's Not,” and also has a website,, to answer questions about chemicals found in consumer products and in our homes.

The Yale School of Public Health invites you to submit questions for Dr. Ginsberg as part of this recurring monthly series. Contact us through Facebook or by e-mailing Michael Greenwood at

Submitted by Denise Meyer on March 14, 2014