The phthalates make up a family of substances each with its own, unique, spectrum of properties, united only because they each have a similar chemical group somewhere in the molecular structure.
Some phthalates will possess useful properties: some phthalates possess undesirable properties. (In the same way, fungi as a family include both nutritious mushrooms and poisonous toadstools.) It is therefore quite wrong to consider all phthalates as the same: they are not.
Some, but by no means all, members of the phthalate family have been found to be reprotoxic when tested at high doses in laboratory animals. These phthalates have been banned from cosmetic products even though there was no conceivable risk to human health from the low levels used.
Some phthalates are still allowed to be used in cosmetics and it must be emphasised that these substances have no reprotoxic properties. The safety of these specific ingredients is not in dispute amongst the scientific community.
The main phthalate which may be used in cosmetics and personal care products, which includes hairsprays, in the UK and Europe is diethyl phthalate (DEP). All scientific reviews to date around the world by key scientific experts and governmental agencies have concluded that DEP is safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products under the current conditions of use. DEP has been reviewed by the European Commission's independent scientific expert committee (the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, SCCP), most recently in March 2007. The SCCP has positively approved the safe use of DEP in cosmetic products, and has not deemed it necessary to impose any specific warnings or restrictions for its use. In fact the SCCP, as well as confirming the safety of DEP, has acknowledged that traces of other phthalates (including those that are banned as ingredients in cosmetic products) might be found to be present in products due to their other possible uses, such as in packaging for example. The SCCP states that traces of up to 100 ppm (parts per million) total or per substance do not indicate a risk to the health of the consumer.
Claims that phthalates are 'hidden' in fragrances
Fragrances are usually composed of many individual substances that are blended together to achieve the desired smell. If a cosmetic product contains a fragrance this is labelled using the word 'parfum' in the ingredients list rather than having to list out all of the individual components. This is legally allowed by the strict UK cosmetic safety laws and is common practice.
It is however not a way of 'hiding' ingredients as is sometimes, wrongly, claimed. All of the ingredients that make up the fragrance are still assessed very carefully as part of the safety assessment. Diethyl phthalate may sometimes, legally and safely, be used as part of the fragrance mix.
No substances banned from use as cosmetic ingredients are allowed to be used in fragrances for cosmetic products.