Phthalates are actually not preservatives. They’re meant to alter the feel of products. Used predominately in nail polishes, shampoos and soaps, phthalates make materials more pliable, according to Dr. Friedman.
Some fear that topical products containing phthalates can disrupt hormones, and if women use phthalates when pregnant, it could affect the fetus, Dr. Friedman says. Specifically, it has been suggested that exposure may lead to abnormal development in male infants, including low hormone levels and small genital size.
While the there’s not enough evidence to substantiate the claims, according to the FDA, many manufacturers have eliminated phthalates and consumers can choose among plenty of phthalate-free products.
One thing dermatologists might see from these inactive ingredients, according to Dr. Friedman, is allergic contact dermatitis.
“Parabens and phthalates are potential allergens. And this is well-known,” Dr. Friedman says. “The incidence of allergic contact dermatitis to different agents varies, but there are great resources out there to make sense of it all, such as the American Society for Contact Dermatitis.”
Agents that create the foam or suds in most cleansers, called surfactants, can also be irritating to the skin, according to Dr. Levin.
“A great example would be sodium lauryl sulfate, which is beautifully esthetic when put in a cleanser. It has really nice foaming properties … (but) can also cause a lot of irritation. We think that it does this because it’s actually stripping the lipids and proteins that are beneficial to the skin,” Dr. Levin says.