Baby Care Products Expose Infants to Toxic Chemicals

Going beyond cloth diapering
mom looking lovingly at newborn

Shockingly, 77 percent of the ingredients in 17,000 reviewed children’s products have never been assessed for safety by industry or government. The average baby is exposed daily to 27 untested chemicals in her baby care products alone! And a study done by the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics looked at 28 common beauty products sold for children and found that 82 percent contained traces of formaldehyde and more than half contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

While we have much more education than ever on what’s lurking in beauty care products there is still much to learn. It might be shocking to know that babies are born with dozens of these ingredients already in them, inherited from their mothers. In addition to breathing more and not having the ability to fully detoxify, children have thinner skin that absorbs more of what it comes in contact with. While it is widely understood that young children are vulnerable to pollutants in cosmetics, this knowledge isn’t always reflected in the products marketed for children. The US Environmental Protection Agency calculates that carcinogens are typically ten times more potent for babies, and some chemicals are up to 65 times more potent for children.

Baby care products are not always "baby-safe"

Parents often hear of the pros and cons of disposable diapers versus cloth diapers, but less is mentioned about the potentially toxic ingredients of these choices and the products that go with diapering such as wipes, powders, and creams.

  • Diaper wipes can contain parabens, perfumes, and numerous unintended contaminants, like formaldehyde, and the possibly carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane.

  • Talcum or baby powder can harm baby’s developing lungs if inhaled. There may be a link between baby powder and breast cancer as baby powder has been found in breast tumour tissue.

  • Diaper creams can contain many of the most prevalent toxins, including formaldehyde which occurs as an unintended byproduct from using preservatives such as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea or methyl aldehyde, among others.
  • Petroleum jelly can by contaminated with possible carcinogenic compounds and can inhibit the skin’s ability to release toxins.
  • Beware of boric acid and fragrance which can interfere with hormones and male infertility.

Baby care without chemicals

When choosing a natural diaper routine, you can DIY many baby care products or try setting up the change area on the bathroom counter where you can just rinse the baby in the sink and use a towel to dry. Simple, easy, and toxin-free.

Product labeling in North America

Canada is slowly moving in the right direction, with the 2006 requirement to put ingredient labels on most cosmetic products, but many loopholes remain. The labelling requirements don’t apply to trade secret chemical components like fragrances or parfums, “therapeutics” like antiperspirants, toothpaste, hand sanitizers, anti-aging lotions, and just about anything with sunscreen.

Also, just because an ingredient appears in a product and on the label, it doesn’t mean it’s safe. For these unsafe ingredients, Canada has begun the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, which is a compilation of ingredients found to pose a risk to human health. Unfortunately, the Hotlist has no legal authority and does not include the 4,000 chemicals Health Canada is still studying that are thought to potentially pose a risk to human health or environment. Further, if any of the known toxins on the Hotlist end up in cosmetics as impurities or byproducts, they do not have to be listed. For example, while formaldehyde is on the Hot List, the formaldehyde-releasing preservative DMDM hydantoin is not.

While the United States still does not require labelling of cosmetic ingredients, they do have California’s Proposition 65: The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which requires the government to publish a list of chemicals known to be carcinogens and/or reproductive toxicants. Any cosmetic product sold in the state that contains an ingredient on the list must be reported and properly labelled. Prop 65 is enforceable by the state and has already resulted in a number of significant lawsuits and fines.

Meanwhile, in Europe

The European Union goes further with REACH, the “Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals.” The law requires manufacturers and importers of chemicals to both identify and manage risks linked to these substances and to promote the use of safer alternatives to hazardous substances. REACH goes beyond labelling to allow the government to restrict the manufacture and marketing of substances found to pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment. These more effective regulatory systems provide a model of what is possible and prove that people can spur changes in a huge industry.

Reading cosmetic labels to help you avoid toxins

Though cosmetic labeling still feels a bit like the Wild West, you can still navigate it with confidence. The USDA Organic label is the gold standard in this regard. In order for a product to be approved it must contain at least 95% organic food-grade ingredients—not only does the beauty product need to be organic, it also needs to be edible! That other 5 percent of non-organic ingredients must be food safe as well. While Canada does have a USDA counterpart, The Canadian Organic/Biologique label, it doesn’t yet extend to beauty care, making USDA Organic your best bet.

If you are buying items that aren’t going to be edible no matter how natural they are, like baby bum cream, then it’s good to be armed with some knowledge. Be skeptical of any label containing a long list of hard-to-pronounce, chemistry-sounding items:

  • Fragrance/parfum (allergens, some linked to neurotoxicity, possible carcinogens)

  • SLS, sodium lauryl sulfate, PEG (possible human carcinogens), and ingredients that end in -eth (like laureth, steareth, ceteareth)

  • MEA, DEA, TEA (possible human carcinogens, allergens)

  • Triclosan, Microban (endocrine disruption, antibiotic resistance)

And don’t discount the sniff test: if it smells artificial, it probably is. Babies’ skin is almost as porous as their stomachs so if you wouldn’t feed it to them, don’t put it on their little bodies.

Read next: Avoiding Potential Toxins in Breast Milk and Formula

For ingredient lists and information on just how clean the products you’re using are, head over to EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database!