Something else to avoid in pregnancy: Phthalates

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Most pregnant women know that they should avoid things like alcohol and tobacco while they are pregnant, as well as certain foods like sushi and soft cheeses. But not many pregnant women think about avoiding lipstick, perfume, or lotions — and it turns out that they probably should.

The problem is a type of chemical called phthalates. It’s nearly impossible to avoid phthalates entirely, as they are quite literally everywhere. They are in plastic products including packaging, in toys and garden hoses, as well as in cosmetics and other personal care products. They can act like hormones and interfere with male genital development, as well as increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The risks of phthalates, though, begin before birth. A study showed that children whose mothers were exposed to phthalates during pregnancy were more likely to have problems with motor skills, the skills that we use not just in sports but also in everyday activities, and another showed that the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy had problems with language development.

Even if it’s impossible to avoid phthalates entirely, there are ways women can decrease their exposure:

  • Limit exposure to plastics, especially anything with the number 3 or 7 on them. Use glass, ceramic, or metal containers for food and drink.
  • Try to buy foods that don’t come in plastic packaging.
  • If you have to use plastic, don’t microwave it, and wash it by hand rather than in the dishwasher to limit the leaching out of chemicals.
  • Avoid anything with fragrance in it, as phthalates are commonly used in making fragrances.
  • Look into handmade cosmetic and personal products that don’t use any chemicals (and skip the products entirely when you can). The Environmental Working Group has a database you can use to learn more about commercial products.
  • Go DIY. Things like honey, coconut oil, baking soda, vinegar, and salt can be used in place of many commercial beauty products. Do a little research — you may find that it’s easier than you think to make a moisturizer, a shampoo, or a perfume.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.

Once the baby is born, continue to be mindful about chemicals that can cause harm. Look for fragrance-free products that are as all-natural as possible, keep up with DIY including for cleaning products, and limit plastics in the house, especially baby bottles and toys. We can’t escape all the harmful chemicals around us, but by getting back to basics, we can make things safer for our children.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire


  1. Ilaha

    Thank you so much )

  2. azure

    And never ever expect your health care providers to advocate against these toxic compounds on your behalf, it’s up to you and other laypeopel to advocate for yourselves and against powerful lobbying (corporate) interests.

    Ditto for manufacture & use of other toxic substances, like many herbicides/pesticides, particulates in diesel exhaust (cardiovascular problems, higher rates of asthma in children . . ). Very few health care providers have had the courage to say anything against the widespread use of these compounds as well as their carcinogenic and teratogenic (causing birth defects) effects. Use so widespread that some of these compounds, like TCDD, are now ubiquitous in our environment–detected in human breast milk. Whether or not there are synergistic effects of say, pthalates w/TCDD? Who knows? AMA’s sure not lobbying for research funds to find out.

    You’re on your own, just like you will be if your child is born w/birth defects and/or developmental disabilities.

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