Personal care products for men are abundant today. Shaving creams, aftershaves, hair sprays, hair gels…the list goes on and on. And it's likely to keep growing . The men's personal care market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 6.0% from 2020 to 2027, and the decision to buy is not just influenced by looks. In fact, 81% of men globally believe that grooming purchase decisions are influenced by three things: health, hygiene, and looks (1).
But have you ever looked at the ingredients included in your go-to products? A large percentage of the men's personal care stuff out there today can contain harmful chemicals like phthalates.
So what the heck are phthalates and what dangers do they pose to our health? And how do we find non-toxic men's personal care products with clean ingredients? Read on and find out!
What are phthalates and what are they used for?
Phthalates (phthalic acid diesters) are a class of manmade chemicals that are used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products (2-4). They are found in personal care products, medications, paints, adhesives, and medical equipment made with polyvinyl chloride plastics (4).
Their function depends on the type of product and specific phthalate, but their role is typically as a plasticizer, solvent, and/or stabilizer. In nail polishes, phthalates are used to reduce cracking. In hair sprays and hair gels, phthalates are added to help avoid stiffness, allowing the spray to form a more flexible film on the hair. And in fragrances like in cologne or lotions, phthalates are included as a solvent.
A study of 72 personal care products obtained at a supermarket in the United States detected phthalates in more than 70% of hair gel/hair sprays, body lotions, fragrances, and deodorants (4).
How do they find their way into our systems?
Human exposure to phthalates occurs throughout most of our lifespan, due to the products that utilize them (3). Although the science is still being understood, it is thought that they can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed in the skin (4).
During childhood and adulthood, a major source of exposure is through the use of personal care products: hair sprays, hair gels, colognes, lotions, or deodorants, for example. Research has even shown that unborn children can be exposed in utero through maternal exposure (e.g., the mother inhales perfume or cologne that uses phthalates while pregnant) (3).
A 2005 questionnaire administered to 406 men ascertained their use of personal care products, including cologne, aftershave, lotions, hair products, and deodorants (4). They then studied the amount of phthalates present in the same group's urine samples. Men who used cologne or aftershave with the 48-hour period before the sample was collected had higher levels of phthalate in their urine. Further, they found that men who used multiple of these products had higher levels than men who used one.
What are the health effects of phthalate exposure?
Phthalates have been studied in animals extensively, but the human health effects are still being researched. But the potential effects on human health are starting to come to light.
Due to the way the phthalates are digested, continuous exposure to phthalates in humans may result in liver dysfunction (5). Some studies have shown a positive association between phthalate exposure and the development of hypertension and atherosclerosis in adults as well as some cardiometabolic risk factors in children and adolescents (6). In a Denmark study, high-level dibutyl phthalate exposure (≥ 10,000 cumulative mg, compared to no exposure) was associated with an approximately two-fold increase in the rate of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer (7). In addition, an association between phthalate exposure and allergic diseases has been suggested, although the literature is still far from conclusive (8).
The potential male reproductive effects of phthalate exposure are still being studied. However, there was a recent literature review of male reproductive effects associated with exposure to six phthalate types at typical exposure levels to humans (3). This review found that phthalates affect semen quality, testosterone levels, and time to pregnancy (3).
Ways to reduce your exposure
Given these health effects, it's a good idea to reduce exposure when you can. While reducing exposure may seem like a daunting task, thankfully there are some great non-toxic men's personal care products out there. So relax! We'll help you find some simple ways you can do it.
The easiest is to swap out phthalate-heavy products for safer versions. You can start with finding products that are fragrance-free, as fragrances tend to utilize phthalates. You can also swap your current personal care products for cleaner versions - and we'd recommend doing this with one product at a time so it's not overwhelming. A great place to start is our lists of non-toxic men's hair styling products and men's shaving creams.
Finally, it can be incredibly helpful to find retailers who limit the toxic chemicals in their personal care products. Target and Sephora both have a "clean seal" to help you search for safer products. And retailers like Credo Beauty, Detox Market, Whole Foods, and Follian have a wide variety of clean, screened products as well.
So get out there and start swapping out the non-safe for the safe!
1. https://www.grandviewresearch.com. Men's Personal Care Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product (Skincare, Personal Grooming), By Distribution Channel (Hypermarket & Supermarket, Pharmacy & Drug Store, E-commerce), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2020 - 2027.
2. FDA. Phthalates. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/phthalates. Accessed February 6, 2021.
3. Radke EG, et al. Environment International. 2018 Dec;121(Pt 1):764-793.
4. Duty SM, et al. Environ Health Perspect. 2005 Nov;113(11):1530-5.
5. Praveena et al. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2018 Apr;25(12):11333-11342.
6. Mariana and Cairrao. J Cardiovasc Dev Dis. 2020 Jul 22;7(3):26.
7. Ahern et al. J Clin Oncol. 2019 Jul 20;37(21):1800-1809.
8. Bølling et al. Environ Int. 2020 Jun;139:105706.