Cancer: Phthalates in cosmetics could increase your risk, according to research

With shelves stocked with products of various sizes, colours and prices, one can spend hours in drugstores, searching for the perfect beauty fix. Whether you end up choosing the bottle that comes with a great price or opt for the one that targets a problem you’re trying to solve, the list of ingredients printed at the back rarely plays a part in this decision-making process. However, a certain chemical hiding in the small, black print that lists ingredients could increase your risk of cancer, according to research.

From skincare to haircare, it doesn’t matter whether your routine consists of expensive bottles and various steps or simply includes one go-to moisturiser and shampoo, various cosmetic products contain phthalates.

New research, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, found that phthalates in shampoo and other cosmetics can raise women’s risk of diabetes by nearly two-thirds.

However, Dr Deborah Lee, from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, has warned that’s not the only thing they are guilty of.

Hiding in cosmetics, tampons, perfumes, nail polish, hair spray and other products, phthalates are chemicals which are used as solvents and stabilisers.

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Listed as a “chemical of concern” by Breast Cancer UK, phthalates are also known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs).

Dr Lee said: “These are chemicals which can mimic or disrupt normal hormonal function in the body by clicking onto hormone receptors.

“[They] may affect vital cellular processes such as cell metabolism, detoxification and the immune response. 

“Binding with oestrogen receptors (ER) could stimulate the production of other steroid hormones.”


These chemicals could increase your risk of breast cancer, osteosarcoma, and lymphoma, according to the doctor.

Osteosarcoma is a type of bone cancer that begins in the cells that form bones while lymphoma crops up in the cells of the lymph system.

Don’t just take the expert’s word for it, as research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that exposure to phthalates increased the risk of osteosarcoma in children and doubled the risk of lymphoma.

When it comes to breast cancer, research papers don’t offer better news.

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Comparing 233 women with breast cancer to 221 healthy subjects, a Mexican study found higher levels of diethyl phthalate (DEP) in those with the deadly condition.

“The risk of breast cancer was doubled in those with the highest concentrations of DEP,” Dr Lee said.

Another 2021 study tested a group of women from different racial backgrounds (African American, Latino, Hawaiian, Japanese American and White) with breast cancer for phthalates at the time of their diagnosis.

The risk of breast cancer was higher in all women with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies.

Dr Lee added: “As with all research, it’s best to take a cautious approach. 

“These two studies are both observational studies, which means they have recorded observations in a specific population but they cannot prove causation.”

Furthermore, Cancer Research UK stresses that cosmetic products in the UK don’t cause cancer, as UK law is “very strict” about the ingredients in cosmetics.

If you don’t want to take a chance with this chemical, Dr Lee recommended to “read the product labels” and “avoid” ones that contain fragrances.

“Choose skincare products – skin creams, facial washes, cleansers, and moisturisers – which are phthalate-free. Also, phthalate-free cosmetics – lipstick, eyeliner, mascara and foundation,” she added.

Some examples of phthalates to watch out for in your cosmetics include:

  • Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and its main metabolites mono-ethylhexyl phthalate (MEHP), and mono-ethyl-5-hydroxyhexyl phthalate (MEHHP)
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP) and its major metabolite mono-ethyl phthalate (MEP)
  • Dimethyl phthalate (DMP) and its major metabolite mono-methyl phthalate (MMP).

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