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Common cosmetic chemicals linked to diabetes

Just when we thought the list of phthalates' potential health effects couldn't get any longer, new research links these all too common chemicals to diabetes. Here's what you should know about the latest science and how to avoid phthalates when shopping for personal care and other household products. 

By now many of us are aware that chemicals used in lotions, shampoos, soaps and other everyday personal care products have been associated with a variety of health issues ranging from allergic reactions to endocrine and reproductive damage.

The latest: Research from the journal Environmental Health Perspectives indicated phthalates—a group of chemicals commonly found in fragrances and nail polishes (as well as children’s toys, shower curtains and other soft plastic household products)—could even be linked to diabetes. 

According to the study published online last week, of 2,350 women, those with the highest levels of two types of phthalates—mono-benzyl phthalate and mono-isobutyl phthalate—were nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes as those whose urine contained the lowest levels of the chemicals. The “inconclusive” results show a connection between phthalates and diabetes but don’t prove that phthalates are the cause of diabetes, according to researchers.

But what this study, along with past research on the health effects of phthalates, does show is that these chemicals are still very much a concern in consumer products. Luckily the government has taken some measures to regulate use of phthalates after years of research linking them to hormonal system disruption and following the lead of a European ban. In 2008, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act banned the use of six phthalates in children’s toys and personal care products.

It's not enough.

Clearly, these are some of the most concerning chemicals in our products and their health implications may be even more severe than we once thought.

So why are manufacturers still using them? Cheap: check. Easy: check. Effective: check.

What makes this even more discouraging is that we often won’t know when the products we’re using contain phthalates; these chemicals remain hidden in unlabeled plastic products and manufacturers aren’t required to reveal what’s in their fragrances, where phthalates most commonly lurk.

Hopefully manufacturers will wise up. In the meantime, there are several ways to avoid them.  

5 ways to avoid phthalates in personal care and plastics

  1. Know 'em when you see 'em. 
    Phthalates can appear on labels in many forms: DEHP, butyl benzyl phthalate, di-n-butyl phthalate, di-n-octyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate dimethyl phthalate, mono- (2-ethyl-5-hydroxyhexyl), mono- (2-ethyl-5-oxohexyl), mono-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, mono-butyl phthalate, monobenzyl phthalate, monoethyl phthalate, monomethyl phthalate.
  2. Demand transparency. 
    Look for companies that list every ingredient, including those that make up fragrance. Check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Champions for some leading manufacturers in this area.
  3. Contact brands directly.
    If you’re buying any plastic product, contact the manufacturer directly to ask about its practices or look for companies that specify that they use phthalate-free plastics. 
  4. Look for certifications on beauty products.
    To eliminate any question, choose brands that have earned NPA Natural, USDA Organic, NSF/ANSI “contains organic,” NaTrue or EcoCert labels, all of which prohibit the use of phthalates. Here's our complete guide to these labels. 
  5. Shop at a trusted retailer.
    Many natural products retailers enforce their own ingredient standards, ensuring that the products on their shelves don’t contain certain chemicals. Be sure phthalates are on the list of prohibited ingredients. 

How do you avoid harmful chemicals in personal care products? Share in the comments.

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