Avoid These Common Chemicals That Decrease Fertility: Phthalates

This is Part 2 in a series on toxicants and egg quality.

Read Part 1 about how BPA impacts fertility 

Bisphenols aren’t the only environmental toxicant that can zap your fertility...

How are phthalates harmful when you are trying to get pregnant?

Phthalates are a class of chemicals commonly found in and around us daily. They are used as plasticizers and found in some plastics. Phthalates are often used in artificial fragrances, such as in air fresheners or laundry products. They add to the flexibility and durability in nail polish.  For many women, much of their daily exposure comes from the phthalates added to cosmetics and personal care products.

We are exposed to phthalates through ingesting them, absorbing them, and inhaling them.  Our body then breaks them down (metabolizes) and excretes the phthalates through urine or stool.

Almost every adult in the US (and most of the developed world) has metabolites of phthalates in their urine or blood every day.  They are truly ubiquitous in our modern world.

But are they a problem?  Research clearly shows that phthalates act as an endocrine disruptor to harm fertility and the quality of your eggs.

Research proves that phthalates are harmful when TTC:

Numerous studies demonstrate the harmful effects of phthalates on fertility. Here are a few of them:

  • A study of 187 women undergoing IVF in the US found that higher concentrations of phthalate metabolites in their urine corresponded to a lower number of oocytes (egg cells) retrieved and decreased oocyte maturity. Both of these factors decrease the chance that IVF will work. (study)
  • A review of studies on how phthalates affect fertility in IVF clearly showed that higher phthalate levels (metabolites in urine) correlated to decreased number of quality eggs and fewer total and fertilized eggs. (study)
  • Phthalates have been shown to impact progesterone and estradiol levels, key reproductive hormones when trying to conceive. (study)
  • Animal studies clearly show how phthalate exposure affects antral follicle count, decreasing the number of pregnancies.(study)
  • A study of almost 600 women undergoing IVF and their male partners found that higher levels of phthalates per couple caused a significant decrease in pregnancy outcomes. This study is a good reminder that phthalate exposure also impacts male fertility as well. (study)
  • Higher exposure to phthalates is also linked to a 60% increase in miscarriage risk.(study)

How are you exposed to phthalates on a daily basis?

Phthalate exposure can come by eating foods that contain phthalate residue, inhaling phthalate particles, or absorption through skin exposure.

Cosmetics, lotions, hair care products, nail polish, shampoo, and fragrances all can contain phthalates. A study in 2011 found that most of these products contain some kind of phthalate, including products marketed for baby care. (study)

Reading the labels is important - but confusing! There are many types of phthalates in personal care products.Take the time to read through labels on the products you use regularly.  Look for terms such as dibutyl phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, and ‘fragrance’.

You can check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to see what is in the products you normally use.

Vinyl shower curtains and other vinyl products also can give off phthalates, which you can breathe in during a hot shower. Consider switching to a fabric shower curtain!

Similarly to BPA, household dust often contains phthalates. This is one good reason to get out a damp rag and clean off the fan blades and baseboards regularly.

How can you decrease the harmful effects of phthalates?

While reducing exposure is very important, realistically, you will likely have some exposure to phthalates.

The good news is that some manufacturers are reducing their use of phthalates due to consumer concerns. In fact, a very recent study showed that phthalate exposure has dropped in women undergoing IVF over the past five years.(study)

Getting enough folate may also help decrease the negative effects of phthalates.  A study of pregnant women examined their phthalate metabolite levels during their first trimester. This was compared with the time it took them to get pregnant. Higher phthalate and BPA levels corresponded with longer time to conception… BUT, supplementing with folate eliminated this increase. Folate is important for many reasons when trying to conceive a healthy baby, and its role in counteracting the effects of phthalates is another one. (study)

5 action steps you can take today to reduce phthalate exposure:

  1. Check your laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets.  These often contain artificial fragrances that increase your phthalate exposure. Switch to a natural laundry option that is labeled ‘free and clear’ or contains essential oils for fragrance.
  2. Add more folate to your diet! Grass-fed beef liver is a great source of folate and other essential vitamins. A 100g serving of liver packs a whopping 212 mcg of folate.  Not a liver fan?  Eat more dark, leafy green vegetables.  Take a methylfolate supplement to ensure adequate levels - 800 mcg a day is recommended.
  3. Go through your cosmetics, hair care products, and lotions.  Read the ingredients to see if they contain phthalates. Find replacements for the items that contain ingredients that are likely to be impacting your fertility.
  4. Get rid of the artificial air fresheners around your house and workspace.
  5. Break out the dust rag and clean up any household dust that may contain phthalates and BPA in it.