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Phthalates in consumer products

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Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a family of organic chemicals produced from oil. They look like clear vegetable oil and have little or no smell.

These chemicals are not used alone. They are placed into products during manufacture to act as a lubricant or softener. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) contains phthalates to make the plastic soft and flexible. By varying the quantity of plasticiser, manufacturers can select precisely the degree of flexibility necessary to meet the mechanical requirements of the end product. Phthalates have been used in this way for about 50 years and are the most commonly used plasticisers in the world.

In recent years some concern has arisen in relation to some phthalates internationally and as a result some have been banned in Europe and in the United States. Australian research has identified a minimal risk in relation to one phthalate, DEHP. A ban has been introduced prohibiting certain products that contain DEHP above a prescribed level.   

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Types of phthalates

Around two million tons of phthalates are produced across the world each year, and more than 20 types of phthalates are in common use, including:

  • Dimethyl phthalate (DMP)
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
  • Diallyl phthalate (DAP)
  • Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP)
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Butylbenzyl phthalate (BBP)
  • Bis(2-methoxyethyl) phthalate (DMEP)
  • Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP/DOP)
  • Diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • Dinonyl phthalate (DNP)
  • Diisooctyl phthalate (DIOP)
  • Diisoheptyl phthalate (DIHP)
  • Diundecyl phthalate (DUP)
  • Diisoundecyl phthalate (DIUP)
  • Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
  • Ditridecyl phthalate (DTDP)
  • Diisotridecyl phthalate (DITDP)
  • Di-C6-10-alkyl phthalate (610P)
  • Di-C9-11-alkyl phthalate (911P)
  • Di-C7-9-alkyl phthalate (79P)
  • Dipropyl phthalate (DPP)
  • Diisohexyl phthalate (DIHP)
  • Dipropylheptyl phthalate (DiPHepP)


Common uses of phthalates

Phthalates are used in many products, including:

  • automotive components
  • building materials, vinyl flooring furniture, pool liners and garden hoses
  • cosmetics, perfume and nail polish
  • footwear, outdoor clothing and rain wear
  • inflatable products
  • medical devices such as intravenous and feeding tubing, catheters, blood bags, anaesthetic and dialysis equipment
  • printing inks
  • solvents such as adhesives, lacquers and varnishes
  • sporting goods
  • toys
  • wires and cabling—in many machines and appliances and as insulation for transmission cables and fibre optics.


Possible hazards

The various phthalates have different uses, chemical structures and toxicity profiles. It is therefore difficult to generalise about the safety of all phthalates as a group. The main health concern associated with some phthalates is that animal studies have shown that high regular doses can affect the reproductive system in developing young, particularly males. While there is no significant risk to the general population, young children may experience higher exposures than the general population if they chew or suck on phthalate-containing toys, or if they ingest phthalates over a long period from other products containing high levels of phthalates.

Generally, young children are more vulnerable to chemical hazards for a variety of reasons. Their bodies, internal organs and major physiological systems are still growing and developing. Metabolic, immunological, hormonal and reproductive systems are immature and more vulnerable to toxins. Low body weight and high relative food intake means their relative dietary exposure to substances is high. Innate behaviour such as sucking and frequent hand-to-mouth contact means they ingest substances present in their immediate surroundings and they are too young to respond to instructions or modify their behaviour.

The uncertainty around whether young children are exposed to harmful amounts of phthalates has initiated further investigation and precautionary regulation in some countries. Some scientists believe that the risk is negligible and that limiting the use of phthalates will have net negative public health consequences due to their utility, especially in medical applications, and the substitution of less studied alternative chemicals. For more details, view Interim ban—Children's plastic products with more than 1 per cent DEHP.

Australian research and regulation

In 2008 the ACCC commissioned a small survey of toys available in Australia to determine levels of six commonly used phthalates. Only one sample had quantifiable levels of the phthalate Diisononyl phthalate (DINP). 

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) is the Australian Government regulator of industrial chemicals. It conducts scientific risk assessments of chemicals and provides advice to the ACCC in relation to chemical hazards.

In June 2008 NICNAS published a series of hazard assessments on 24 different phthalates.

NICNAS  declared the following nine phthalates as Priority Existing Chemicals (PECs) on 7 March 2006. As a result, NICNAS will conduct human health risk assessments on consumer applications of these phthalates:

  • Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)
  • Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
  • Dimethyl phthalate (DMP)
  • Diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Butylbenzyl phthalate (BBP)
  • Di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP)
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP)
  • Bis(2-methoxyethyl) phthalate (DMEP)

DEHP was considered to be the phthalate of potentially greatest concern and was therefore the first to be assessed. In 2010 NICNAS published a draft report on the first of the phthalates to be assessed, Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). The NICNAS draft report recommended that the ACCC take action to limit the amount of DEHP in children’s toys and childcare articles. The recommendation was based on a worst case scenario requiring extensive recurrent mouthing of products with very high levels of DEHP over a number of years. For more information on the report, contact NICNAS.

Although research in Australia and New Zealand showed few relevant plastic products containing more than 1 per cent DEHP, which is a low level, Australia introduced an interim ban on certain products containing more than 1 per cent DEHP. For more details, view Interim ban—Children's plastic products with more than 1 per cent DEHP.

The ACCC continues to collaborate with NICNAS and to monitor international research into phthalates, and may take specific regulatory action to address recognised risks to people associated with the use of phthalates in consumer products.


Overseas research and regulation

The European Union (EU) began to take action on phthalates, as a precautionary measure, in 1999. Regulations have been amended many times since then, but currently the EU bans the use of six phthalate esters in toys and children’s products that might be placed in the mouth, at levels greater than 0.1 per cent of the total object weight. The phthalates subject to this regulation are:

  • Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP or DOP)
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)
  • Di-isononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • Di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
  • Di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP)

The EU has also applied limitations to the use of these phthalates in general food contact applications (packaging and closures) and medical device applications. In addition, several phthalates have been listed as 'substances of very high concern' (SVHC) requiring reporting of their content in articles exported into the EU under the REACH regulations.

Although DINP is still banned, an assessment by safety experts in the EU concluded that it:

  • posed no risk to either human health or the environment from any current use
  • did not need classification as a hazardous substance
  • will not be subject to the REACH authorisation process.

On 14 August 2008, the United States Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) introduced regulation of phthalate esters as components of children’s toys and childcare articles for children under the age of 12 that could be 'placed in the mouth'. A 'children’s toy' means a product intended for a child 12 years of age or younger to use when playing, and a 'childcare article' means a product that a child of three years or younger would use for sleeping, feeding, sucking or teething. For CPSIA purposes, the following phthalates were permanently banned at levels greater than 0.1 per cent:

  • Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP, DOP)
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP)

 The CPSIA also imposed an interim ban on the use of the following phthalates at levels greater than 0.1% pending the results of further CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) review:

  • Di-isononyl phthalate (DINP)
  • Di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
  • Di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP)

Supplier obligations

Suppliers should always consider the safety and suitability of any chemicals used in their products regardless of whether there are specific regulations. Manufacturers, importers and other suppliers must ensure that their products meet community safety expectations or face possible liability for injuries sustained as a result from chemicals present in a product.



  • The total amount of phthalate contained in a toy product varies from about 10 to 50 per cent, depending on the degree of softness required.
  • Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) account for around 60 per cent of all plasticisers used in Europe. They are most commonly used phthalates in Europe by volume. Di-2ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) accounts for about 20 per cent of all usage.
  • More than 90 per cent of the phthalates produced each year in Europe are used in the plasticisation of PVC.
  • About 25 per cent of all plasticised PVC is used by the wire, cable and electrical industries.
  • Phthalates are no longer manufactured in Australia.

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