Avoiding Phthalates in Deodorant and Everywhere Else

I've been searching for a less-toxic deodorant for my husband for years.  My husband has gone along with most of my green upgrades pretty willingly, but he insists on having a deodorant that is up to the task, and so far the less-toxic deodorants have largely not worked for my husband.  Now I am willing to let a thing or two slide here and there, but I have not let go of my quest for a new deodorant for my husband for one major reason: he often sleeps with our kids, and after they sleep together, I can smell the fragrance of his deodorant on my kids.  Which means the fragrance is on them.

So what's wrong with fragrance?  The problem with fragrance is that the term "fragrance" is the mother of all loop-holes in ingredient disclosure.  Fragrance is a trade secret, so manufacturers don't have to disclose what's in it.  Independent testing of fragrance products by Environmental Working Group demonstrated that some individual products literally hide 24 different chemicals under the name "fragrance."  Try calling manufacturers to figure out what exactly is or is not in the fragrance and you will find that many manufacturers don't even know what ingredients are in the "fragrance" used in their products because they purchase the fragrance from a different company, who keeps the specific ingredients a trade secret.

After decades of complete secrecy, last year the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) published a list of ingredients that its members reportedly use to make consumer products (webpage is no longer available).  Guess how many chemicals were on that list.


According to the Environmental Working Group's analysis using their own system for assessing the hazard level of chemicals: 1 in 20 earned a "high" hazard score (7-10 of 10), and a full 1 in 6 rated at least a "moderate" hazard score (3-10 of 10). Twenty-five of the chemicals scored a 10, the highest hazard score.   And 2 of those 25 highly hazardous chemicals: dibutyl phthalate, diethylhexyl phthalate -- members of the infamous phthalates family.

In fact, phthalates are exactly what I am worrying about when I smell my husband's deodorant on my children.  That's because phthalates have been linked to:
  • lower testosterone levels
  • decreased sperm counts
  • poor sperm quality
  • malformations of the male reproductive tract and testicular cancer
  • obesity
  • reduced female fertility
  • preterm birth and low birthweight
  • a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms
  • behavior changes

Young children and developing fetuses are especially at risk.  

I would settle for a conventional deodorant for my husband if it just didn't have "fragrance" listed as an ingredient.  But I haven't been able to find one. I once walked the aisles of Target looking at every single deodorant for men, and not one was without the ingredient "fragrance" (except the Tom's of Maine brand, which works for me, but not for my husband).  The ingredient "fragrance" seems nearly ubiquitous not only in deodorants, but in all conventional personal products and cosmetics, as well as conventional cleaning products and detergents, air fresheners and candles.  

Here are some tips for avoiding phthalates in fragrance, as well as elsewhere:
  • Do not buy products with the ingredient "fragrance." This sounds simple, but isn't. You can succeed if you follow two rules: don't buy any product that lists "fragrance" as an ingredient; don't buy any product that doesn't list its ingredients.  Even if your shampoo or lotion says "hypoallergenic," "natural," or "unscented," it may still have "fragrance" as one of the ingredients. If you want to avoid undisclosed ingredients, check the list of ingredients when shopping for personal products, and avoid any product that lists "fragrance" as one of its ingredients.  Only buy cleaning products that disclose all ingredients right on the label (most conventional cleaning products don't) and do not use "fragrance."  Even when I know that a particular company (like Whole Foods or Method) does not use phthalates in their products, I won't buy any product with the ingredient "fragrance" simply on principle.  If you don't want to tell me what's in your product, I don't want to buy it.  
  • Do not use air fresheners or candles (unless you know exactly what is in them, like a soy candle scented with essential oils).
  • Do not buy any plastic products labeled PVC, vinyl, or #3 (which are usually treated with phthalates to make them flexible and softer), especially in food packaging (such as cling wrap).  I avoid buying any plastic product, particularly food-contact products, if I can't determine the type of plastic it is, since it could be PVC.
  • Consult the Healthy Toys database for toys bought before 2009 - they may contain phthalates.  In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission imposed a permanent ban on phthalates in products marketed to children younger than 12, so all teethers and toys currently on store shelves should be phthalate-free.
  • If a new product smells "new," leave it outside or air it out until the smell diminishes.  Your new car, shower curtain, car seat, small appliance is probably off-gassing phthalates.  
  • If you own vinyl floors, wet mop frequently to pick up dust and avoid shining direct sunlight on the vinyl tiles.  Phthalates cling to dust and sunlight accelerates the release of phthalates from the vinyl. 
  • Support the Safe Chemicals Act

Update (3 March 2011): I have found a fragrance-free deodorant that works for my husband! Check out this post to learn more about the deodorant that works for my husband as well as the many natural deodorants he tried that didn't cut it.

Additional Resources
National Library of Medicine's Tox Town: Phthalates (includes an extensive list of products that may contain phthalates)
EWG's Chemical Families: Phthalates

How do you avoid phthalates?


  1. Not sure if your hubby would go along with this, but have you tried baking soda (on its own, or mixed half and half with cornstarch)? It works for me... my husband tried it but did say that for work days (he's a stadium security guard and often outside) he wanted something stronger so we went back to conventional deodorant for him. Maybe your husband would have better luck?

  2. Just finished the chapter in Slow Death by Rubber Duck about phthalates and the ubiquitous "fragrance" - it's amazingly hard to avoid.

    My husband uses Herbal Clear (w/essential oils)because the Tom's didn't work for him either. We both keep a stick of the evil aluminum deodorant on hand for airplane travel days and the like when you really need to keep odor under control.

  3. Have you ever tried Crystal Body Deodorant? http://www.thecrystal.com/ I have been using it for years and it works very well. I don't have the container in front of me so I can't tell you the exact ingredients but it is a mineral salt deodorant. I can find it at Meijer here in Ohio.

  4. Thanks for this post. You wrote what is on my mind :)

  5. Have you looked into the men's Alloy deodorant from Melaleuca? There is no fragrance in it. Though some of their products do have fragrance, many of them don't and they are awesome, affordable, green alternatives. I actually just switched over to buying a lot of toxic and chemical free products from there, and now refer people. My husband is super happy with the deodorant and he is a sweaty construction worker. -amy@greenmomscare.com

  6. Deodorant is the worst. I have tried a lot of natural deodorants myself and had tons of trouble. I love my Tropical Traditions stuff but it isn't strong enough for my post-partum hormone surges. The worst is the stickiness of most commercial deodorant, and I also feel you on smelling fragrance on kids. Majorly rubs me wrong.


  7. I am having the same problems with deodorant. None of the natural one's work!

  8. So...you're worried about phthalate esters if you smell something? The vapor pressure of dibutyl phthalate at room temperature is vanishingly small. They use phthalate esters in high-vacuum work because they produce so little vapor. If you can smell it, it's not a phthalate.


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