Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Phthalate exposure from everyday products increases risk of preterm birth: study

“It is difficult for people to completely eliminate exposure to these chemicals in everyday life, but our results show that even small reductions within a large population could have positive impacts on both mothers and their children.”
pregnant woman
The Associated Press/ Charles Krupa

Story at a glance


  • Phthalates are used in a variety of consumer goods.

  • But new research indicates these chemicals are linked with an increased risk of preterm birth among pregnant individuals.

  • Eating fresh food without plastic packaging and selecting phthalate-free cosmetics may help reduce exposure risks. 

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in a multitude of consumer products, such as food packaging and cosmetics, whose primary purpose is to make plastic more durable. 

However, their ubiquitous nature could be cause for concern, as new research published in JAMA Pediatrics shows exposure during pregnancy is a risk factor for preterm birth. 

Researchers analyzed urine samples from more than 6,000 pregnant women collected over 30 years, while urinary phthalate metabolites served as biomarkers of exposure. 

Preterm birth, defined as any delivery occurring at 37 weeks of gestation or less, occurred in 539 women. Although phthalates were detected in more than 96 percent of participants, those with higher concentrations of multiple phthalate metabolites in their urine were at the greatest risk of preterm birth. 


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Risk ranged from 12 to 16 percent, but exposure to four of the 11 phthalates detected was associated with the highest odds recorded. These chemicals are commonly used in nail polish and cosmetics.


“Having a preterm birth can be dangerous for both baby and mom, so it is important to identify risk factors that could prevent it,” said lead author Kelly Ferguson of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in a press release

Investigators also found hypothetical interventions reducing the mixture of phthalate metabolite levels by 50 percent could lead to a 12 percent reduction in risk on average. 

Data were pooled from 16 US studies, and the current analysis marks the largest study to date on this topic. 

In addition to reducing exposure to the chemicals throughout pregnancy by selecting phthalate-free personal care products, researchers suggest changes in regulations and standards could help mitigate this risk, in addition to voluntary actions by companies to reduce their use in products. 

Eating fresh food and avoiding those packaged in plastic containers or wrapping may also help reduce exposure.

“It is difficult for people to completely eliminate exposure to these chemicals in everyday life, but our results show that even small reductions within a large population could have positive impacts on both mothers and their children,” noted co-author Barrett Welch, also of NIEHS.