When you’re smoothing that sweet-smelling lotion on your baby’s skin, are you doing more harm than good? It depends on whom you ask. Recent news reports might have us believe that when it comes to infant care, the more natural the better, but many mainstream scientists have found little evidence of hidden health hazards in commonly used baby products. We spoke to people in both camps to give you a balanced look at what’s really going on inside that bottle of baby bubble bath.
Whiff of danger
Practically every product on the store shelf — from baby lotion to laundry detergent — has some kind of fragrance. So what’s the problem? Scented products are more likely than fragrance-free varieties to trigger asthma symptoms and eczema flare-ups in susceptible kids. Nor are artificial perfumes the only offenders — natural fragrances can also set off symptoms. What’s more, some essential oils, such as citrus, can severely irritate skin, even in people who aren’t eczema-prone.
Barbara Harris, a representative of the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, contends allergies to fragrances are becoming more common, and the ubiquity of perfumed products is partly to blame. “When you’re constantly exposed to something, the chance of sensitization is greater,” she says.
While there’s no proof that exposure to scented products can actually increase the probability a child will develop eczema, allergies or hay fever, if any of these “allergic diseases” runs in your family or your partner’s, that’s reason enough to consider going fragrance-free when it comes to baby’s skin.
The flap over phthalates
What keeps that body wash bottle squishy? Or prevents the perfume in baby lotion from evaporating as soon as it’s exposed to air? Often, the chemical in question is a phthalate, a group of chemicals recently thrust into the media spotlight. Some research — most of it on animals — suggests these chemicals block the effects of testosterone, which could potentially cause reproductive system abnormalities in baby boys, and alter the normal balance of sex hormones in older boys. For instance, a 2005 study found baby boys of mothers whose urine contained high levels of phthalates were more likely to have smaller penises and less developed testicles than the sons of women whose urine showed lower levels, says Kapil Khatter, a family physician and pollution policy advisor for Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based advocacy group.
All that sounds scary, but many mainstream medical experts argue that while phthalates may interfere with the male hormone, the amounts we encounter every day seem to be too low to cause health problems. And that’s keeping in mind these chemicals are also widely used in a host of other products, such as vinyl toys, plastic bags, household cleansers and air fresheners, notes Warren Foster, a phthalate researcher and director of the Centre for Reproductive Biology at McMaster University in Hamilton. Health Canada is taking a two-pronged look at phthalates. First, it’s measuring phthalate levels in blood and tissue samples taken from 5,000 Canadians. Second, it has launched a study of 2,000 pregnant women, and their newborns, that will broaden our understanding of how environmental chemicals affect the population.
Harris, for one, will be examining the study’s findings. She says that phthalates are linked to miscarriages, birth defects, infertility and cancer. Certain pesticides, she points out, when combined in low doses, are much more toxic than much higher doses of either single chemical. “These things are very difficult to study because the more things you combine, the more complex and expensive the research is,” she says. Harris also asserts babies may be particularly vulnerable to the potential ill effects of phthalates and other chemicals; because their immune systems and organs (including those that get rid of toxins) are still developing, they breathe in more air relative to their body size and chemicals can more easily penetrate their skin.
Regardless of which side you believe, you may still want to minimize your baby’s exposure to phthalates. So what can you do?
First, choose products specifically formulated for kids. According to Luisa Carter-Phillips, head of Health Canada’s cosmetics division, no children’s toiletries sold in Canada contain phthalates as one of the main ingredients. And even though the agency doesn’t consider them to be a health threat, Health Canada, as a precautionary measure, plans to ban certain phthalates from kids’ personal care products, replacing the current voluntary ban.
Skip the scent. Phthalates are often found in synthetic scents, so you can reduce exposure further by going scent-free.
Limit your child’s use of perfumes, colognes and nail polishes. According to tests conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), some perfumes and colognes contain much higher concentrations of diethyl phthalate than other personal care products. A more recent round of testing by the EWG also revealed relatively high levels of dibutyl phthalate in many nail polishes. While there’s no proof the chemicals are harmful, advocates like Khatter argue it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially when it’s possible to avoid unnecessary exposure.
Ever wonder why lotions don’t separate and go sour? While other preservatives can do the job, a group of chemicals called parabens are commonly used to lengthen the shelf-life of products such as lotions. The problem, though, is that “parabens mimic estrogen,” notes Harris, which may be a concern since high levels of the hormone have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly breast cancer.
But, just as with phthalates, there’s little evidence that the amounts in toiletries pose this hazard, according to Michael Rieder, a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Drug Therapy and Hazardous Substances Committee. While a 2004 study detected these chemicals in breast tumours, scientists later discovered all of the samples in the study — including ‘blanks’ containing no tissue — were contaminated with parabens. Still, Health Canada will continue to monitor any new research suggesting a link between parabens and breast cancer.
Rather avoid parabens anyway? Here’s how:
Look on the label. Parabens will often be listed by name on the box or bottle — some examples include methylparaben and propylparaben.
Do your research. Use the sites listed in “Resources” to find products that are paraben- and phthalate-free. Or check out the “cheat sheets” at safemama.com.
It’s the ingredient that makes many shampoos and body washes froth, but its possible effects on baby could get you in a real lather. Sodium lauryl sulphate (or SLS; found in some shampoos, bath products and toothpastes) can irritate skin and eyes. (Since infants’ skin is sensitive, many manufacturers already avoid using the chemical in their baby products.) SLS may also worsen skin reactions to other irritants in susceptible kids, so steer clear if your baby has sensitive skin or if allergies run in your family.
SLS has also been the subject of several Internet hoaxes alleging the chemical is known to cause cancer — but according to the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (checnet.org), there’s no evidence that SLS is carcinogenic. However, groups such as the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia claim SLS can react with other ingredients to form small amounts of cancer-promoting chemicals. Is it worth skipping toiletries containing SLS? Only you can decide. Arguably, any risk would be small — most of these products are rinsed off almost as soon as they come in contact with the skin.
The bottom line
A small hypothetical risk — if any — sums up what mainstream medical experts told us. That said, there may be other valid reasons to skip lovely-smelly lotions, washes, creams and shampoos until your newborn is a few months old. Cleansers can strip protective oils from that petal-soft skin. After all, the most natural approach to skin care is knowing when to leave well enough alone.
Out of harm’s way
Here are a few of the product lines that get the seal of approval from the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s Guide to Less Toxic Products (lesstoxicguide.ca) or the US Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database (cosmetics database.com).
• Anointment Handmade Natural Skincare
• Aubrey Organics
• California Baby
• Earth Tribe
• Moonsnail Soapworks
• Canadian Cancer Society (search for phthalates)
• Health Canada
• The Lung Association
• Paula’s Choice