Did the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho give you goose bumps? The shower curtain itself may contain scarier material. Plastic shower curtains that are made with dibutyl phthalates (pronounced THAY-lates)—sticky compounds that make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pliable—may cause health problems. Studies link phthalate exposure to developmental and reproductive disorders, hormone disruption, and cancer in animals. Research has found traces of phthalates in human blood, but no definitive studies show a correlation between human exposure and illness. However, concern has prompted several organizations to seek bans on the plasticizer compounds.
While some scientists and companies refute the findings, at least ten countries—including Sweden, Japan, Germany, and Denmark—have recommended restricting phthalate use. And health-minded consumers are choosing substitutes when bathing.
What’s that smell?
Plasticizers hit the headlines in the 1980s, when several countries proposed bans on toys that contained phthalates. A few years later some medical groups requested that medical supply companies replace phthalates because the compounds can outgas into the surrounding environment. Yet many people voluntarily bring phthalates into their homes in plastic shower curtains. In fact, phthalates have been used in household products from children’s toys to food wraps, vinyl fabrics, and more for the last fifty years.
Shower curtains made from natural fibers such as linen, cotton, canvas, and hemp provide alternatives. These are less likely to mildew than cheaper plastic shower curtains, plus they shed water and dry quickly, last longer, and are environmentally friendly and nontoxic. Phthalate-free plastics such as polyethylene are also available.
What price beauty?
Some environmental professionals attribute demand for natural alternatives to consumer aesthetics rather than health concerns. “Many people aren’t aware of the potential health hazards of vinyl, but they’ll pay for more aesthetically pleasing shower curtains,” says Catherine Galligan, clearinghouse manager for the Sustainable Hospital Project (SHP) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Public awareness may change, however, as groups such as Health Care Without Harm—an international group of medical professionals working to create safe, ecologically sustainable public health care—request PVC alternatives.
If phthalates in toys, medical supplies, and food items—such as water bottles—are under scrutiny, are shower curtains next? Probably not, say experts, who cite bigger fish to fry. On an institutional level, shower curtains rank far below feeding tubes and IV bags, which leach plasticizers to patients, Galligan explains.
For your health
Currently, a vinyl shower curtain costs $8.99 at Drugstore.com, while a hemp shower curtain sells for $99 at RealGoods.com and linen shower curtains cost $98 at Anthropologie.com. Mid-priced options, such as nylon or Tyvek curtains (about $25) aren’t natural like hemp or linen, but they’re environmentally preferable to vinyl, Galligan notes.
Many retailers who sell plastic shower curtain alternatives don’t mention the potential health risks associated with plastic, perhaps because there’s not a lot of definitive research proving phthalates’ health risks. The Environmental Protection Agency says phthalates “appear to have relatively low acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) toxicity” and doesn’t classify them as carcinogens. However, it recommends phthalate limitations in lakes and streams to prevent “possible human health effects.”
Most retailers do advertise the mold-free aspects of natural shower curtains. “Hemp is reputed to have natural bactericidal, antifungal properties that discourage mildew growth,” says Bill Giebler, Real Goods product manager for Gaiam. Cotton, hemp, and canvas can also be washed to prevent mold in humid climates.