What You Need to Know About Phthalates in Shampoo

bubbles and droplettes

Marilar Irastorza/Stocksy

When shopping for shampoo, it's equally important to understand what isn't in a product as it is to understand what is listed as an ingredient. Some ingredients, like sulfates, are excluded from formulations that are intended for specific hair types due to the effect they have on that hair type. Other ingredients are beginning to be excluded due to their concerning side effects that have the potential to effect any user. One such ingredient? Phthalates.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a family of chemicals with the same basic chemical structure that are used as “plasticizers” to increase the flexibility and durability of a wide range of products, including shampoo and hairspray. Research has shown that exposure to phthalates is associated with various disorders, but most significantly with reproductive disorders.

Phthalates are categorized as an "everywhere" chemical—a troubling classification that demonstrates their presence in most products, including baby formula and hairspray. Their widespread use has raised concerns about human health, as we come into contact with them multiple times every day. Research has linked exposure to phthalates with several disorders, but most significantly with reproductive disorders, which is exacerbated by the frequency of contact with these chemicals.

Meet the Expert

  • Sarah Gee, MD, is a Harvard-trained board-certified dermatologist and the co-founder of Austin Skin.
  • Orit Markowitz, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of OptiSkin in New York City.

With all of the risks associated with using phthalates, we wondered why they are included in many haircare formulations. To understand the use of phthalates and understand their impact on our bodies, we turned to two dermatologists for their expert opinions. Read on to hear their takes on phthalates in shampoo.

Phthalates for Hair

Type of ingredient: Plasticizer and gelling agent.

Main benefits: Gives hair products their pleasant smell, promotes flexibility in hairspray, and stabilizes hair product formulations.

Who should use it: No one, as research supports the avoidance of phthalates for people of all ages due to their link to various health concerns.

How often can you use it: Due to their presence in everything from shower curtains to medical devices, it's recommended that you avoid phthalates wherever you can - especially personal care products.

Works well with: Phthalates are often used in products that provide flexible hold, like hairspray, due to their ability to act as a plasticizer. However, there is significant research that supports avoiding phthalates due to their adverse effects on human health.

Don’t use with: There are no known ingredients that negatively interact with phthalates, but heat can accelerate their release so they should be avoided when heat styling.


Why are Phthalates in Shampoo?

Phthalates are most often found in products with a gel-like consistency and those that are intended to give a flexible hold. Gee mentions that one particular phthalate, dimethylphthalate (DMP), is used in many flexible hold hair sprays to avoid over-stiffness and promote bendability to help you achieve that perfect beachy wave that can last the whole night. She adds that their use in shampoo is often as a gelling agent, but also because they promote the pleasant scent of shampoo—even allowing it to linger on the hair for days.

But do they actually provide any benefit to the hair or scalp? "Shampoos are really meant to clean the scalp first and the hair second," Gee says. "Phthalates do not have any proven benefits for the scalp, per se, except to enhance the absorption and delivery of other topical agents that are used on the scalp."

She adds that they enhance fragrances of hair products and many hair products rely on fragrances to enhance the “clean” feeling of hair post shampooing.

Health Effects of Phthalates

Despite the benefit phthalates provide to haircare formulations, they can have serious negative effects on your hair and overall health. Both Gee and Markowitz identified phthalates as hormone disruptors. Gee says phthalates have been linked to “endocrine disruption," and research suggests phthalates can contribute to issues such as endocrine and reproductive dysregulation, early puberty, endometriosis, infertility, altered fetal development, breast and skin cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, cardiotoxicity, asthma, and allergy. Markowitz mentions that the respiratory issues, such as asthma and allergy, have been observed at higher rates in hairstylists who are frequently inhaling phthalates.

Both men and women are susceptible to hormone disruption, but research has shown phthalates have a significant effect on the female reproductive system. Gee explains that they have been shown to both mimic or block female hormones. "If you are trying to get pregnant or if you are having fertility problems, it is recommended that you avoid phthalates as much as possible," Gee cautions. Research has linked phthalates to fertility disorders in both males and females.

Phthalates and Hair Loss

Markowitz mentions that hormonal disruption is a common cause of hair loss. "Phthalates can contribute to hair loss because they can disrupt the hormones that function to regulate your hair cycle. Preliminary studies also link phthalates (and other fragrances) to eczema, which, in turn, can cause scalp inflammation and hair loss," adds Gee. However, both experts caution that phthalates alone are unlikely to be the sole cause of hair loss. Markowitz says that while there isn’t a specific publication showing direct link to hair loss, one can infer it, so the recommendation is to try it as best as possible to avoid these ingredients.

Final Verdict

Our experts agree that all hair types and textures are susceptible to hormonal disruption and therefore can be impacted by the use of phthalates. Neither expert feels there are any direct benefits of phthalates to the health of the hair or scalp. Both reference the mounting evidence of negative effects of phthalates on human health to recommend avoiding their use.

Best Phthalate-Free Shampoos

Color Security Shampoo
Color Wow Color Security Shampoo $24
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Markowitz recommends the Color Wow Color Security Shampoo as a phthalate-free option, even adding that she uses it herself. She says, "It's nontoxic and it leaves my hair feeling quite good."

Olaplex
Olaplex No.4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo $28
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Amika Shampoo
Amika Normcore Sulfate Free Shampoo $55
Shop
virtue shampoo
Virtue Recovery Shampoo $38
Shop
living proof shampoo
Living Proof Perfect Hair Day Shampoo $20
Shop

Gee recommends Olaplex, Amika, Virtue, and Living Proof as her favorite phthalate-free hair companies.

FAQ
  • What are phthalates?

    Phthalates are a family of chemicals with the same basic chemical structure that are used as “plasticizers” to increase the flexibility and durability of a wide range of products, including shampoo and hairspray.

  • Why are phthalates used in shampoo?

    Phthalates are often used in shampoo as gelling agents and also for their ability to preserve the pleasant scent of products on the hair.

  • Are phthalates bad for you?

    Research has shown that exposure to phthalates is associated with various disorders, but most significantly with reproductive disorders.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Hlisníková H, Petrovičová I, Kolena B, Šidlovská M, Sirotkin A. Effects and mechanisms of phthalates’ action on reproductive processes and reproductive health: a literature review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(18):6811.

  2. Hlisníková H, Petrovičová I, Kolena B, Šidlovská M, Sirotkin A. Effects and mechanisms of phthalates’ action on reproductive processes and reproductive health: a literature review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(18):6811.

  3. Luís C, Algarra M, Câmara JS, Perestrelo R. Comprehensive insight from phthalates occurrence: from health outcomes to emerging analytical approaches. Toxics. 2021;9(7):157.

  4. Hlisníková H, Petrovičová I, Kolena B, Šidlovská M, Sirotkin A. Effects and mechanisms of phthalates’ action on reproductive processes and reproductive health: a literature review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(18):6811.

  5. Wang Y, Qian H. Phthalates and their impacts on human health. Healthcare (Basel). 2021;9(5):603.

  6. Giuliani A, Zuccarini M, Cichelli A, Khan H, Reale M. Critical review on the presence of phthalates in food and evidence of their biological impact. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(16):5655.

  7. Hannon PR, Flaws JA. The effects of phthalates on the ovary. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2015;6:8.

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