The Hidden Dangers in Baby Skin Care Products—Plus How to Avoid Them
Keep your newborn safe by learning how to avoid the many dangerous chemicals found in most baby skin care products.
Here are some things that should be safe to assume:
- The sky is blue.
- 2 + 2 = 4
- Baby skin care products are safe for babies’ skin.
Unfortunately, only two of those statements are accurate—and the last time we checked, the sky was still blue and two plus two still added up to four.
As far as baby skin care products? Unfortunately, they’re not always safe. Instead, many of these products are jam-packed with potentially harmful ingredients.
In a damning 2009 report, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) found that more than 60 percent of the tested children’s bath soaps, lotions, shampoos, and other skin care products contained carcinogenic chemicals.
The CSC continues to report that toxic chemicals still run rampant in many mainstream baby products, including products that label themselves as “natural.” The organization notes that several baby product categories are of particular concern; these include baby soaps, shampoos and conditioners, lotions, and oils. To make matters worse, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require companies to test their products for safety before selling them to parents—and there’s very little regulation of these products once they’re on the market.
So what’s a concerned parent to do?
For starters, it’s important to get savvy about label reading. By learning to recognize potentially harmful ingredients, you can dramatically decrease your infant’s exposure to these products. In the following sections, we’ll outline why baby skin is more sensitive than adult skin as well as some of the most common toxins in different types of baby products—plus how to avoid these toxins in the name of your baby’s health.
Adult skin and baby skin have several things in common. In both cases, the skin is responsible for several important functions, including:
- Creating a barrier that helps protect against germs, toxic chemicals, and other harmful substances
- Protecting against UV damage
- Helping to maintain and regulate body temperature
- Guarding against dehydration
- Producing certain hormones
For the most part, that’s where the similarities end. Just like the rest of her or his body, a baby’s skin is not fully developed, and that means two things: For starters, it’s not equipped to perform all of skin’s usual functions without some extra assistance. And secondly, it’s (way) more susceptible to damage.
This is true for several reasons:
- Infants’ skin is more permeable than adult skin. That’s a fancy way of saying that more “stuff” (such as allergens, germs, irritants, or chemicals) can make its way through a baby’s skin. Because it’s easier for harmful substances to enter an infant’s body, it’s also easier for these substances to accumulate in the baby’s body over time. This helps explain why a review from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that infants and young children are much more vulnerable to carcinogenic substances than adults.
- Infants’ skin doesn’t maintain moisture very well. The moisture levels in a baby’s skin are more prone to fluctuation relative to adult skin. For this reason, it’s quite common for babies to develop dry, rough skin.
- Infants’ skin is more easily irritated. This is true partly because infants’ skin is more permeable, partly because it doesn’t maintain moisture very well, and partly because of issues relating to skin pH. In general, people are born with fairly neutral skin pH, which gradually becomes more acidic over time. Before this slightly acidic pH is established, babies’ skin can be especially susceptible to fluctuations in pH. For this reason, alkaline body care products may provoke skin irritation.
Because infant skin is more sensitive than adult skin, it needs to be treated with more care. Unfortunately, many big-name manufacturers of baby products don’t seem to have gotten the message.
Soaps are supposed to clean the skin, but many baby soaps may leave behind a host of potentially harmful chemicals in the process. These include:
- Formaldehyde. You may be familiar with formaldehyde from dead frog dissections in high school biology class, but it’s also found in a huge number of baby skin care products. That’s bad news, because it’s been associated with central nervous system impairment and cancer. Formaldehyde is a byproduct of many other potentially harmful chemicals, so it won’t usually show up on ingredients labels. Instead, keep an eye out for formaldehyde-releasing chemicals including 1,3-dimethylol-5, diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, glyoxal, meethenamine, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and quaternium-15.
- Parabens. These common preservatives have earned a nasty reputation—and for good reason. They’re easily absorbed into the skin and have been linked to endocrine system dysfunction and cancer. To identify them, look for any ingredient that ends in “paraben.”
- Synthetic fragrance. Companies aren’t required to share the ingredients that make up their synthetic fragrances, but we can still predict their side effects. Synthetic fragrances are notorious for causing allergic reactions and provoking skin irritation. Fragrances that include phthalates have additional negative effects in the form of endocrine system disruption, while fragrances that include styrene have been linked to cancer. Some synthetic fragrances have also been shown to negatively impact infant development.
- Triclosan. If a soap claims to be antibacterial, then odds are good it contains triclosan—but frankly, you might prefer the bacteria. Triclosan is a known skin irritant and is thought to be a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor. The evidence against triclosan is strong enough that more and more soap manufacturers are removing the ingredient as a result of consumer pressure.
Scrub-a-dub-dub, carcinogens in the tub! Here are some of the most common toxins that show up in baby shampoos and conditioners:
- Cocamidopropyl betaine. A common foaming agent, cocamidopropyl betaine has been linked to contact dermatitis and eye irritation.
- Formaldehyde. Just as formaldehyde can show up in baby soaps, it’s also frequently found in baby shampoos. (Again, it’s unlikely it will show up on the label, but formaldehyde is frequently found in products with formaldehyde-releasing ingredients.)
- Parabens. Like formaldehyde, parabens tend to show up in a host of baby skin care products, from soaps to shampoos, conditioners, creams, and lotions.
- Polyethylene glycol (PEG). These petroleum-based softeners frequently become contaminated with ethylene oxide (a known human carcinogen) and 1,4-dioxane (a probable human carcinogen) in the manufacturing process. Even if they aren’t contaminated with carcinogenic substances, PEGs can cause skin irritation.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate/sodium laureth sulfate (SLS). Like parabens, SLS has earned a dirty reputation in the skin care space. It’s been linked to a host of negative issues including diarrhea, depression, eye damage, liver issues, skin rashes, and cancer.
Creams and lotions are meant to soothe baby skin—not irritate the skin and potentially provoke health issues. Unfortunately, some lotions are doing more harm than good. Here are some of the most common baby lotion toxins:
- 1,4-Dioxane. This probable carcinogen is a chemical byproduct of other potentially harmful ingredients, so it’s unlikely to show up on a product’s label—but it exists in up to 34 percent of all baby lotions. It’s been linked to skin and eye irritation and is a respiratory toxin. Keep an eye out for PEG, TEA, sodium laureth sulfate, and ingredients that end in “ceteareth,” “oleth,” “laureth,” “myreth,” or “xynol”—all of these may produce 1,4-Dioxane as a byproduct.
- DMDM Hydantoin. This antimicrobial agent is commonly added to skin moisturizers. As noted above, it may release formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. It’s also been linked to allergic reactions, skin irritation, and immune system stress.
- FD&C Colors. Sure, it might seem cute to lather your baby up in berry pink lotion. But unfortunately, those colors additives can do much more harm than good. Synthetic colors have been linked to skin irritation, ADHD, and cancer. To avoid them, steer clear of ingredients that start with “FD&C” or “D&C” followed by a color and number (such as FD&C Red No. 6).
- Petrolatum. The EWG has found petrolatum in a whopping 40 percent of all baby body lotions. That’s bad news, because this petroleum-based product has been shown to clog pores, impair skin function, and aggravate skin conditions such as acne and rosacea.
- Propylene glycol. Most of us wouldn’t think to slather our baby in wiper fluid or antifreeze, but propylene glycol exists in those products as well as baby skin care products. Not only is propylene glycol linked to allergic reactions and skin irritation, but it’s also a possible carcinogen. Look out for ingredients such as propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol (PEG), or polypropylene glycol (PPG).
“Baby oil” has become all but synonymous with “mineral oil”—and most people (understandably) assume that a product with the word “baby” built into its name must be safe for babies.
- It’s typically derived from petroleum and mixed with synthetic fragrances, which basically means it’s just a bottle of toxic substances.
- It may clog pores, which can cause the skin to dry up—thereby provoking the very condition it’s supposed to prevent.
- It may cause skin irritation.
- If inhaled, it may cause serious respiratory issues.
- It’s associated with an increased risk of developing cancers of the lung, esophagus, and stomach.
The easiest way to avoid these negative effects? Simply stop buying mineral oil and opt for safer, healthier products instead. Which brings us to the next section…
It might be shocking to learn about all the potentially harmful chemicals lurking in baby skin care products—and it might be even more shocking to learn that the lists above represent just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty more toxins where those came from.
While that might seem daunting (if not downright hopeless), the good news is parents can take several steps to reduce their infants’ exposure to harmful substances. Here’s how to get started:
- Read labels closely. Avoid products that contain the harmful ingredients listed above, such as DMDM hydantoin, added fragrances, FD&C colors, parabens, PEG, petrolatum, SLS, and triclosan.
- Utilize an app or guide. The Think Dirty app and GoodGuide can make purchasing decisions easier.
- Reduce the number of skin care products that you use. Babies don’t require as many skin care products as adults, so don’t overdo it. Stick to the basics and recycle anything that you purchased “just because.”
- When you do purchase baby products, shop from brands you trust. Opt for brands that are aware of the dangers of the ingredients listed above and that make a point of avoiding them in their products. A commitment to organic and natural sourcing and the use of gentle, hypoallergenic ingredients is also ideal.
Not sure where to look for safer baby skin care? Check out our USDA Organic Mom and Baby Collection, which is explicitly designed with babies’ sensitive skin in mind. You’ll never find any harmful, impossible-to-pronounce ingredients in our products. Instead, you’ll find a commitment to safe, gentle, and organic ingredients that keep your baby’s skin healthy without risking their overall health.