How phthalates and BPA affect your body (and where to find them)

Woman reaching for Tupperware containers in her fridge

Have you ever read the label "BPA-free" and wondered what that could mean? Or considered what a phthalate was (and even just how to say it)? Find out what these plasticizers mean from OB-GYN Jennifer Griffin Miller, MD, MPH, as well as how to avoid them. 

What are phthalates and BPA? Explaining plasticizers

Phthalates, pronounced ph-tha-lates,and bisphenol A or BPA, are both plasticizers. Manufacturers add plasticizers to a material to make it softer, more flexible, more durable or some other improvement.

"These plasticizers are found in things we use every day, like water bottles, baby toys or takeout boxes," explains Dr. Griffin Miller. "Your beauty products, like shampoo bottles or facial creams, may also contain phthalates or BPA."

Potential names of common plasticizers include: 

  • Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)
  • Di-isodecyl phthalate (DiDP)
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Di-n-hexyl phthalate (DnHP)
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP)

How phthalates and BPA affect the endocrine system

Both phthalates and BPA are endocrine disruptors. That means they can interact with our bodies the way normal hormones can. 

"Any hormone in our body is part of the endocrine system," explains Dr. Griffin Miller. "Estrogen, testosterone and other hormones are chemical messengers that regulate specific body functions."

Your body has estrogen and progesterone receptors, as part of your normal endocrine system. Your body makes and sends hormones, like estrogen or progesterone, to interact with those receptors. When hormones interact with their receptor, that's how they send messages and make changes in the body. But plasticizers can send messages, too.

"Phthalates are chemicals that have the potential to interact with a hormone receptor," says Dr. Griffin Miller. The receptor is only supposed to respond to its hormone, but the phthalate can interact with it as well. That's how phthalates disrupt key body functions – by sending signals that aren't supposed to be there.

OB-GYN Jennifer Griffin Miller, MD
Plasticizers like phthalates and BPA are most likely to be found in plastic products, says OB-GYN Jennifer Griffin Miller, MD. "BPA is found more in food can lining and water bottles," says Dr. Griffin Miller. "Phthalates are used more in food packages, beauty or skin care bottles and anything vinyl."


How BPA affects the body

Documented effects of BPA include:

  • Affecting prostate and uterus development
  • Lowering sperm count
  • Early puberty
  • Tumor proliferation
  • Reduced immune response
  • Altering brain chemistry and behavior

How phthalates affect the body

Research has linked phthalates to these health issues:

  • Breast cancer
  • Developmental issues
  • Decreased fertility
  • Obesity
  • Asthma

How to avoid phthalates and BPA

"BPA is found more in food can lining and water bottles," says Dr. Griffin Miller. "Phthalates are used more in food packages, beauty or skin care bottles and anything vinyl."

They can also be hidden in food product packaging. For example, phthalates often line the inside of aluminum cans to prevent the metal aluminum from leaching into the food. "They'll line the can with a plastic to prevent the product from bleaching metal, but then there's the potential of leaching the plasticizer into the food instead," explains Dr. Griffin Miller. "More acidic canned foods have a higher chance of plasticizer leaching."

Plasticizers like phthalates and BPA are most likely to be found in plastic products. "In general, the less you can use plastics, the better," says Dr. Griffin Miller.

Products containing phthalates and BPA

Baby items

Children ages three and younger have a higher risk from plasticizers because of their smaller sizes and developing bodies. Babies also tend to explore their environment by putting objects in their mouths. Look at the packaging of a container for words like "BPA free" or "phthalates free." 

  • Baby bottles
  • Bottle nipples
  • Plastic pacifiers
  • Teething rings
  • Toys

Personal care items

Avoid personal care products that contain "fragrance" or "perfume." The word fragrance is considered a trade secret, and the FDA doesn't regulate what it means. Fragrance or perfume can mean added phthalates since they can help a scent last longer. Choose packaging labeled

"DBP-free" or "toxic trio free" on the following items:

  • Nail polish
  • Perfume
  • Shampoo bottles
  • Skin care products
  • Soaps
  • Toothbrushes

Food and beverage holders

Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers and don't drink hot liquids out of plastic containers. Phthalates leach out more with heat. Microwaveable steam bags are specially designed for microwave use and should be BPA and phthalate free.  

Also avoid packages with the recycling number "7" or "3" on the bottom – it means a plasticizer was used.

Plasticizers are most commonly found in these products:

  • Plastic containers for storing food
  • Microwaveable food containers
  • Hard plastic water bottles
  • Canned vegetables and fruits, especially acidic foods
  • Takeout boxes

To avoid any plastic mixups, switch your plastic food containers out entirely. Try glass, steel or porcelain, all of which don't contain phthalates or BPA. 

Home goods

Read the labels of these home goods to see if plasticizers are present. 

  • Adhesives
  • Clear food wrap
  • Detergents
  • Paints
  • Pesticides
  • PVC products
  • Varnishes