What we put on our skin matters just as much as what we put in our bodies, and what we put on our baby’s skin matters even more. Their skin is more vulnerable, permeable to chemicals and susceptible to irritation, requiring products with gentler formulations. But, just as products that are marketed as “natural” aren’t necessarily better for your body, baby products that claim to be “gentle” aren’t necessarily safer for our little ones.
Some baby products can contain harmful ingredients, like carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, skin allergens and irritants. It can be difficult to know, as some of these harmful chemicals are not required to be listed, and others can hide behind different names. To understand why, we need a little background on the cosmetics industry:
Doesn’t the FDA regulate products for safety?
First, it’s important to note that the term “cosmetics” isn’t just restricted to makeup. The FDA broadly defines cosmetics as articles applied to the human body for the purposes of “cleansing or beautifying,” subsequently including everything from nail polish to baby wipes.
In an industry this large, one would think there would be extensive regulations — and in other countries, there are. Internationally, there are many ingredients that are completely prohibited from cosmetics, must come with a warning label, or are restricted to maximum concentrations, specific intended uses, or areas of application. The European Union has banned 1,328 ingredients from cosmetics and restricted the use of 256 others. Canada has banned 599 ingredients and restricted 267. The United States, however, has banned or restricted only 11.
Second, the FDA regulates cosmetics very differently than it regulates drugs. Unlike drugs, cosmetics products do not need premarket approval from the FDA, and manufacturers are not required to register product formulations (though they can voluntarily) or adhere to good manufacturing practice.
That means any product can go straight to the market without review — as long as it does not contain any of the few ingredients that are explicitly banned — and will only be tested if reported as unsafe.
While no banned ingredients are directly added to your baby’s bubble bath, there are some not-so-great ingredients that are. It’s worth noting that some ingredients, while recognized as safe on their own, can react with other ingredients and release concerning chemicals as a byproduct. HowGood has compiled a database of over 30,000 ingredients used in the cosmetics industry and determined the safety of each and every one.
Our philosophy is similar to the precautionary principle: if it hasn’t been proven safe, then it’s something people should be aware of.
Top nine potential toxins in baby products
Following those guidelines, below are nine ingredients to be aware of, in order of how commonly they can be found in baby products. Interestingly, many of these have risen in popularity due to manufacturers scrambling to remove parabens after mounting public concern.
Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the FDA requires manufacturers to disclose all ingredients in a product’s formulation — with a few exceptions. The specifics of fragrance can remain private due to industry efforts to maintain “trade secrets.” Fragrance ingredients are therefore not required to be explicitly listed, and instead can simply be stated as “fragrance” or “parfum.”
Why does this matter? The commonly-used ingredients listed below are often linked to allergies or other health implications, and the exceptions granted by the FDA make it impossible to know whether or not they were used.
1) Diethyl Phthalate
Diethyl phthalate is a “plasticizer” used to help scents linger. It can actually be found in everything from toothbrushes to toys to baby lotion. Like some other plasticizers, diethyl phthalate is a proven endocrine disruptor with the ability to mimic hormones and interrupt hormone production. It is also listed by the EPA as a Clean Water Act Priority Pollutant due to its insolubility and potential to penetrate the soil and contaminate groundwater.
Resorcinol helps bond dye in hair color treatments and removes rough skin in acne medications, but can also be used as a fragrance ingredient due to its faint, aromatic odor. The European Union mandates maximum allowable quantities when it is used in products, and requires warning labels due to endocrine-disruption concerns related to thyroid hormones. Resorcinol could appear on an ingredient list in a number of different names, including: 1,3-benzenediol, resorcin, 1,3-dihydroxybenzone (m-hydroxybenze, m-dihydroxyphenol).
3) Synthetic Musks
Synthetic musks are often used in fragrant products as a substitute for expensive, rare, natural musks, which are derived from musk deer, civet, or sperm whales. The common musks Xylene and Ketone are restricted to maximum concentrations in fine fragrance, eau de toilette and other products in the EU for causing skin irritation and inhibiting hormone production. Xylene can also be listed as 5-tert-Butyl-2,4,6-trinitro-m-xylene. Ketone can be called 4’-tert-Butyl-2’,6’-dimethyl-3’,5’-dinitroacetophenone.
In addition to human health concerns, there are environmental impacts as well. The chemical structure of synthetic musks prohibits them from degrading easily. They make their way down bathroom drains to wastewater effluent, soil and waterways, where they bioaccumulate and cause toxicity in aquatic species.
Because these ingredients are often left off an ingredient list, avoiding them can be difficult. Look for products that are labeled “fragrance-free,” (rather than unscented, which could mean that there are fragrance ingredients being used only to mask other odors), or that explicitly state the fragrance ingredients on their packaging.
Phenoxyethanol is a “glycol ether” used as a fragrance ingredient and preservative that kills bacteria and extends a product’s shelf life. It’s found naturally in green tea but is often manufactured synthetically by reacting phenol with ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. Phenoxyethanol has become a more common alternative as manufacturers phase out parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, as it has been assumed to be a safer option despite lingering concerns.
Phenoxyethanol can be found in baby sunscreen, lotion, shampoo, soap, bubble bath and wipes. A high concentration can cause contact dermatitis, worsen eczema, and could even affect the central nervous system. In 2008, the FDA warned mothers not to use nipple creams containing phenoxyethanol as the chemical can cause vomiting and diarrhea in nursing infants. Due to strong safety concerns in the event of an infant ingesting it orally, make sure to avoid phenoxyethanol in products that come in contact with your baby’s mouth, including hand lotion, bubble bath, etc.
5) Benzyl Alcohol
Benzyl alcohol is an “aromatic alcohol” that is used as a fragrance ingredient, bacteriostatic preservative, local anesthetic and viscosity-decreasing solvent. It occurs naturally in some fruits, flower oils and trees, but is often synthetically produced by combining benzyl chloride with sodium hydroxide. It is highly common in baby products, and particularly those marketed as natural. Like phenoxyethanol, its prevalence has increased as manufacturers seek alternatives for parabens.
While benzyl alcohol is an effective preservative, it can act as a skin sensitizer and cause contact dermatitis. At concentrations of 3% or greater it has been shown to cause irritation, and is restricted to a maximum concentration of 1% in cosmetics in the European Union. If you suspect that benzyl alcohol could be causing irritation, look for products without essential oils, including ylang ylang, jasmine, rose and hyacinth.
6) Sodium Benzoate
Sodium benzoate is yet another common alternative to parabens. As a fragrance ingredient and preservative, it can be found in nearly any type of baby product. Like benzyl alcohol, sodium benzoate occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, seafood and dairy products. More common, however, is it’s synthetic counterpart, which is used as a food additive that’s GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA up to a concentration of 0.1%.
While generally not problematic on its own, sodium benzoate can form benzene, a known carcinogen, when it reacts with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) under specific conditions. This doesn’t prove to be an issue in products without vitamin C, but can become so when sodium benzoate is found in oral products, including toothpaste, teething gel and mouthwash.
Parabens are a class of alkyl ester preservatives that are both inexpensive and highly effective at extending a product’s shelf life. Multiple parabens are often used in the same formulation to target a wide range of microorganisms. Some parabens are banned from cosmetics in the European Union (including benzylparaben, pentylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben), while others are not harmful and commonly used as food additives and preservatives in cosmetics. Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben are the most common parabens in baby products, specifically in sunscreen, shampoo, soap, bubble bath, oil, lotion and diaper cream. None of these four have been proven safe.
Parabens have come under fire for their ability to mimic estrogen, trigger skin allergies and cause irritation. Since irritated and damaged skin can allow for increased penetration and absorption of parabens, the EU has banned propylparaben and butylparaben from leave-on products that are used on the diaper area of children below the age of 3. Methylparaben and ethylparaben are not banned, as their chemical structures make them less likely to penetrate the skin.
As most manufacturers are phasing out parabens due to increasing public concern, it’s becoming easier to find products with a “paraben free” claim. If there isn’t one, look out for any ingredients ending in -paraben.
8) DMDM Hydantoin
Although you won’t see it on a product label because it isn’t added directly to a product’s formulation, formaldehyde can end up in baby products that include preservatives like DMDM Hydantoin and Bronopol. These chemicals, aptly named formaldehyde-releasers, slowly decompose to prohibit bacterial growth and extend shelf life. In addition to being a known carcinogen, formaldehyde is categorized as a skin sensitizer that can lead to an allergic response or cause contact dermatitis.
DMDM Hydantoin acts as an antimicrobial preservative in diaper creams to prevent spoilage from fungi, yeast and bacteria. In addition to releasing formaldehyde, there’s strong evidence that DMDM Hydantoin is a skin irritant, immune toxicant and allergen.
Bronopol, or 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-diol, is an antimicrobial preservative found in wipes. It’s restricted in the European Union to a maximum concentration of 0.1% due to its ability to form nitrosamines (reasonably anticipated human carcinogens) when combined with triethanolamine, but has no such restriction in the U.S. It is also known to worsen eczema.
To avoid formaldehyde altogether, stay away from the following ingredients: quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, hydroxymethylglycinate or any polyquaterniums.
Where can I find safe, non-toxic baby products?
Largely due to a lack of oversight and a drive to reduce production costs, the baby product market is rife with toxins and harmful chemicals. Manufacturers are starting to listen to consumers and phase out toxic ingredients from their formulations, but the lack of transparency makes it extremely difficult to know.
Below is a starter guide for some of the best clean, safe products in each category, but there are many more brands out there creating great products. The HowGood Safety Scanner is a free plug-in for identifying potential toxins while you shop on Amazon, and recommending these safer alternatives. You can get it for free on the Chrome Web Store.
The following products are free from ingredients that are banned, restricted, or undisclosed, and do not contain chemicals of concern currently undergoing review.