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Ten Ways to Avoid Gender-Bending Chemicals

The other night, 60 Minutes ran a spot about phthalates, a category of chemical plasticizers that has been linked to gender-bendy birth defects in baby boys. Phthalates, as the episode made clear, are everywhere. They're in the plastic in your car, your shower curtain, your moisturizer, your hairspray, your air freshener, your makeup, your cologne, and your kids' toys. So what to do?

First, let's make one thing clear: The effects of phthalate exposure have been fairly conclusively established, and that research is acknowledged by countless public-health experts and environmental-health organizations—but not by the FDA. (Naturally, the chemical and cosmetic trade organizations that sell and use these ingredients also claim phthalates are safe, but never mind them.)

Some phthalates are already banned in toys. There's a growing feeling that they should be removed from personal-care products as well, because their ubiquity in beauty products is suspected to be the reason why so many baby boys are born with hypospadias (which is a birth defect where the opening of the urethra is in the wrong place) and undescended testes (which is exactly what it sounds like), and why so many girls have breasts before their 10th birthday.

Clearly, we'd all do well to avoid them to whatever extent we can. But the 60 Minutes spot felt a little hopeless, as if to say "They're everywhere, so live with it." And a recent New Yorker feature about BPA and phthalates, while thorough, left a lot of people scratching their heads.

There are a lot of instances where we can't control our phthalate exposure, it's true—but there are tons where we can. Here are some easy places to start:\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n

1. Pick another shower curtain. New-shower-curtain-smell is a dead giveaway for the presence of phthalates. Phthalates are used to soften PVC, so avoid vinyl curtains altogether. Instead, try cotton or hemp, or go for polyester, which is made from petroleum (bad) but is recyclable and phthalate-free (good). Ikea has cheap PEVA ones, too.
2. Ditch your perfume or cologne. Fragrance almost always contains phthalates, which are used to make smells stick to you and last a long time. In a perfect world, in addition to perfume, you'd also avoid anything with artificial fragrance in it—including your moisturizer, shampoo, shaving cream, deodorant, and so forth. But if you don't want to go whole-hog, at least chuck your cologne. Everyone in the elevator will thank you.
3. Use DBP-free paint and nail polish. Nail polish and wall paints needs plasticizers of some kind of another to make them spread easily, but not all contain phthalates. Thankfully, lots of companies have phased out the use of DBP, a particularly gnarly phthalate, making it easier to avoid than ever. For nails, opt for O.P.I.—which phased out DBP and other nasty chemicals a couple of years ago—or an eco brand like Priti nails. For your walls, there are plenty of low-VOC options at all the big-box stores.
4. Don't use air freshener or chemically scented candles. They give people headaches, and usually smell kind of gross. If you want to make your place smell nice, make some cookies, simmer cinnamon sticks in a pot on the stove, or burn soy- or beeswax-based wax candles scented with essential oils.
5. Don't use hairspray. And if you must, get some from the health-food store or make it yourself out of vodka. When you use hairspray you are basically spraying flexible plastic onto your hair to make it stay put. It can be inhaled and absorbed through the scalp—and it almost certainly contains artificial fragrance, which makes it a phthalate trifecta. Stay away.
6. Use plastics with the recycling codes 2, 4, or 5. This is an admittedly inexact way of figuring out if plastics in reusable food containers contain these stealth chemicals, but those codes mean the plastics are less likely to contain phthalates or BPA—another hot-button chemical you probably don't want in or around you. Plastic #1, which is what most water and soda bottles are made of, as well as many shampoos, leach phthalates if you reuse them. So, don't.
7. Start reading labels on your personal-care products. Fragrance is a no-no (see above), but because of a legal loophole, the ingredients that make up that fragrance don't get listed on labels. Anything with artificial fragrance—and that means just about anything in your bathroom or makeup bag—should be avoided if you're pregnant, and, depending on how hardcore you want to get, the rest of the time, too. Sometimes phthalates are on labels, and those should be avoided as well: DBP, DMP, DEP, and BzBP are verboten.
8. Buy toys and teethers carefully. Favor wooden and cloth toys, but anyone who's ever been around a baby knows how much they love plastic. Get to know different brands, and how ethical their manufacturing and labeling practices are. And don't let your kids chew on anything that isn't specifically listed as being BPA- and phthalate-free. Speaking of which....
9. Be wary of product claims. It would be against the law for a product to call itself phthalate-free if it isn't ("misbranding" is the fancy term), but the truth is, there are just not that many people checking these things yet. In the meantime, err on the side of caution—especially when you're talking about babies.
10. Don't drive. OK, not totally realistic for some people, but dashboards and other pliable-plastic car parts contain these chemicals. Do with that what you will. But when you go to the carwash, and they ask you what "scent" you want, say "None, thanks."

This is the first installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a forthcoming book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Thursday.

Illustration by Brianna Harden

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