Phthalates, Fragrances and Pregnancy

phthalates-fragrance-pregnancyLong standing reader Ffiona has not only a question but also some happy news as she expecting her first baby in July.

Hello Colin love the blog I always scan my feeds to see if you have written anything new and read that first.  I have another question, this time about phthalates.  I have seen stuff that says pregnant women should avoid fragrances because they contain phthalates.  Is this just a scare story or is there something in it?

Thanks for the kind words Ffiona and thanks for sticking with Colin’s Beauty Pages for such  long time.  So what is the relationship between phthalates, fragrances and pregnancy?

The background to the publicity this story got in the UK press a couple of years ago is the work of a Dr Sharp at the Human Reproductive Sciences Unit funded by the Medical Research Council – so a very credible source.  He has found that a common component of fragrances, dibutyl phthalate, inhibits the development of the sex organs in male rats.  The levels of phthalates used in this study were much much higher than you would be likely to get from smelling a fragrance or using a fragranced product on your skin.

I hate stories like this, because it is difficult to know how you should react to them.  On the one hand, it is often that case that work done under laboratory conditions often has no relevance to real life.   It is also quite likely that the amounts of phthalate even an avid user of fragrances absorbs will never reach anything like the levels needed to cause the effect in any case.  And it is not even particularly likely that what happens in a rat would happen in humans anyway.  I have seen comments saying that mice aren’t affected by phthalates in similar studies – though I haven’t tracked those papers down yet.

My gut feeling is to simply ignore it.

On the other hand, reproductive problems are increasing and can we really be sure that Dr Sharp hasn’t pinpointed the problem?  It is perfectly possible to formulate fragrances without phthalates, and a lot of companies do exactly that.  And while it is important to be aware of the shortcomings of lab work – it isn’t wise to ignore it either.  There must have been a point in time where it wasn’t clear whether or not smoking was a health hazard.  A recent review of all the literature in this area for phthalate diesters, of which dibutyl phthalate is one, concluded that there isn’t yet sufficient evidence to conclude whether or not there is a general problem in the environment with these chemicals.

So the case against phthalates isn’t a particularly strong one.

The other consideration is that even if the possibility that there is a risk to reproductive health is small, we are talking about something that is very damaging if this small possibility turns out to be true.   As a mother to be I imagine you’d agree.  So if I were you I’d avoid fragrances purely for peace of mind, even if the chances are your newborn will suffer no ill effects at all.


You can form your own view of the research from the following:

This is where Dr Sharpe works.

This is his research on rats.

Recent review paper.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.