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Phthalate safety in cosmetics defended after study links them to premature births

By Chris BARKER , 21-Nov-2013
Last updated on 04-Dec-2013 at 10:53 GMT2013-12-04T10:53:22Z

Phthalate safety in cosmetics defended after study links them to premature births

Phthalates, preservatives utilized in certain beauty products, have received another blow to their image in the cosmetics industry as a new study links them to a rise in premature births, although industry still defends their safety.

According to researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, women with the highest exposure to this class of chemicals may be two to five times more likely to have a preterm birth compared to women with the lowest exposure.

This announcement comes at a time when numerous companies, for example J&J and Walmart, are phasing out the chemicals from many different lines of cosmetics products in response to negative media and consumer reactions to their use as preservatives.

John Meeker, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the U-M school of public health, comments: “Preterm birth is a major public health challenge. Rates are significantly higher than they were 20 years ago and we don’t know why…this helps shed light on a potential for environmental influences.”

The PCPC has rejected claims that the chemicals have negative health implications, stating that DEP, the most commonly used phthalate in cosmetics, was not found to be linked to premature births by the study. 

Phasing out by the industry?

Phthalates are already being phased out by several major players in the beauty industry, including cosmetics giant Proctor & Gamble, which stopped using the chemicals in 70 percent of its personal care products and fragrances earlier this year.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, phased out 10 chemical preservatives earlier this in 2013, a group which experts believe included phthalates. Mark Rossi, co-director of Clean Product Action, commented at the time: “Wal-Mart’s policy signals a new era of going beyond regulatory compliance to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals.”

“Companies like Wal-Mart are realizing that they need to be proactive rather than reactive to the rapidly increasing consumer demand for safer products.”

PCPC comments

The Personal Care Products Council has responded to the research with the following statement: "A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics does not show a link between the use of phthalates in personal care products and preterm birth. In the study, urinary concentrations of several phthalates and their metabolites were measured in pregnant women, and the association between levels of the phthalates and preterm birth was evaluated.  The source of exposure to the different phthalates was not determined."

It also pointed out that the study found no link between DEP, the only phthalate with significant use in personal care products, and premature birth, and that the chemical has been tested and found to be safe by all relevant scientific authorities.

A cause of premature birth?

The study examined 482 women who gave birth in Brighton & Women’s hospital from 2006-2008, and concluded that the 130 who gave birth before the 37-week mark had higher levels of phthalates in their body.

The researchers were cautious in reporting their findings, with Dr. Thomas McElrath, a key co-investigator of the study, stating: “This is by no means the cause of premature birth, but it is a possible contributor...This finding may be dramatic, but women should not be alarmed. This is only the first step in a long research process that will be needed to clarify and confirm these results.”

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