Parting the Curtain: Find Healthy Shower Curtains

How safe is your shower curtain?

| July/August 2004

  • Hand-crocheted hemp macramé rings with wooden buttons and sewn grommets are eye-catching accessories for natural fiber shower curtains.
  • Hand-crocheted hemp macramé rings with wooden buttons and sewn grommets are eye-catching accessories for natural fiber shower curtains.
  • This hemp shower curtain (from Gaiam) offers a healthy, environmentally friendly alternative to traditional PVC-laden plastic curtains.
  • Making healthy choices doesn’t mean you’re limited in styles or colors, as this striped curtain (from Earth Runnings) illustrates.

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.

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