How to avoid chemicals in common baby products

Your baby smells even more beautiful after her bath, but as you wash her hair, lather her up with soap, and then slather on lotion, you could actually be exposing her to toxic chemicals. Chemicals—studies show—that are linked to cancer, autism, learning disabilities, infertility, allergic reactions and skin irritation, and other health complications.

Take Johnson’s baby shampoo. The product description states “as gentle to the eyes as pure water,” yet it isn’t as mild as you’re led to believe. In 2009, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found two chemicals in the shampoo that are linked to cancer: 1,4-dioxane, which is added to   create suds, and quaternium 15, a preservative that kills bacteria by releasing formaldehyde. This past October, the chemicals showed up once again in product tests.

Of particular concern to the medical community and environmental health advocates are phthalates. A group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, phthalates affect the body’s hormonal system and can cause harm at critical times of development like during infancy and puberty.

“Phthalates interfere with reproductive functioning by  reducing the levels of sex hormones that are critical for development and functioning of sex organs,” according to Lisa Archer, National Director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at the Breast Cancer Fund.   “Our hormonal systems are really exquisitely finely tuned, and when we mess with those systems, you can have real problems,” she said.

And babies are especially vulnerable. According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics,  81 percent of babies were found to have high levels of phthalates in their systems after using  shampoo, lotion and powder. And the more products they were exposed to, the higher the levels.

“Their systems are still developing. Toxic chemicals have a much larger effect on them pound for pound than they do for us as adults,” Archer said.

Phthalate exposure has also been linked to autism and learning disabilities, breast cancer, infertility and even childhood obesity, according to a recent study by the Children's Environmental Health Center at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Another group of chemicals that are commonly added to products are parabens. Parabens are preservatives, added to many water-based products to prevent bacteria from growing. And like phthalates, they are hormone disruptors; they mimic estrogen in the body and have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive problems.

“The reason that we’re concerned about chemicals like phalataes, is that they’re one of many chemicals that have the potential to disrupt hormonal activities,” according to Dr. Maida Galvez, Associate Professor in the Departments of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who said that researchers need to look at the mixture of chemicals that our families are  exposed to.

“Fragrance” is misleading  
Look at the list of ingredients on practically any product and chances are that fragrance will be listed. Yet what you think might be the product’s natural scent, is actually a blanket term manufacturers use to hide allergens, synthetic musks and hundreds of chemicals including phthalates.

“Labels are put on products to inform you, but often they leave you empty handed,” according to Margie Kelly, an environmental health advocate and communications manager for Healthy Child Healthy World. “If it says fragrance, that’s code for phthalates,” she said.

New legislation is necessary
Surprisingly, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to regulate the cosmetics industry. And the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel, and industry-funded, self-policing body which was created to assess the safety of chemicals has also fallen short. “In the 33 years since it was created, it has evaluated less than 20 percent of 12,500 ingredients used in cosmetics,” Archer said.

Many chemicals used in America are banned in other countries too. In fact, the European Union bans 1100 chemicals that are linked to cancer or reproductive problems, while the United States bans only 8.  “In the U.S, it’s the wild west of chemical use. Industries can use whatever they want to, whenever they want to, even cancer causing chemicals,” Kelly said.

The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 would give the FDA authority to regulate cosmetics and ensure their safety.  First and foremost, chemicals that have a proven link to cancer and reproductive and developmental problems would be phased out. Manufacturers would be required to provide a complete list of all ingredients including those currently called fragrance. Finally, the FDA would be able to assess the safety of chemicals. In addition, a safety standard that protects babies, children, and pregnant women would be put in place.

What you can do
The best way to avoid exposure is to use less but when you do, buy organic products labeled phthalate and paraben-free, and those free of synthetic fragrances. If a product uses a non- phthalate fragrance, the label may state where the fragrance was derived from, like from an essential oil, for example.

Avoid products that contain quaternium 15, or words with the letters PEG at the beginning or ETH at the end. Use a diaper cream that doesn’t contain micronized zinc oxide and use mineral-based sunscreens without nanoparticles, also known as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

For products that use natural ingredients, check the expiration date and opt for pumps or bottles rather than jars. If the packaging is transparent, but the bottle in the back of the shelf as exposure to light can make it go bad faster.

Check the Environmental Working Groups’ Skin Deep site for tips, guides, and product ratings or download the Good Guide app and use the barcode scanner when shopping to find out if a product is safe. Also, email your U.S. representative today in support of the Safe Cosmetics Act.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at