Baby Care Products & Chemicals

Baby lotion, powder and shampoo can lead to higher concentrations in an infant's body of phthalates, chemicals that are linked to allergies and altered hormones that affect reproduction.

The study on the effects of the chemical group of phthalates on infants and young children has revealed that they are absorbed through the skin and may pose significant health risks, particularly to infants. Other studies have found that prenatal exposure or exposure through breast milk can alter hormone concentrations, the study says. The lead author of the study, Dr Sheela Sathyanarayana, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington medical school, describes the findings as "troubling". She adds that phthalate exposure in early childhood has been associated with altered hormone concentrations as well as increased allergies, runny nose and eczema. This means that phthalates fall into the ‘endocrine disruptor’ category of chemicals and that they can affect the immune system.

The study conducted at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute found that babies treated with common baby care products such as lotion, shampoo, and powder were more likely to have phthalates in their urine than other babies.

Phthalates are man-made chemicals commonly found in personal care and other household products, including plastic children's toys, lubricants and chemical stabilisers in cosmetics. In plastics, phthalates are used to increase the flexibility of the product.

Researchers measured the levels of nine different phthalates in urine samples collected from 163 infants, aged 2 months to 28 months and asked the babies' mothers to fill out questionnaires on their use of baby care products in the previous 24 hours.

The scientists found that at least one phthalate in every baby's urine sample, and that using baby powder, lotion and shampoo were strongly associated with higher phthalate levels in the urine.

Phthalates present included monethyl, monomethyl and monoisobutyl phthalates.

This association was strongest in young infants under 8 months old. Younger children are more vulnerable to developmental and reproductive toxic effects as they have not yet developed a way of excreting toxic products.

"Babies may be more at risk than children or adults because their reproductive, endocrine and immune systems are still developing," says Dr Sathyanarayana.

As a result of the study, parents are advised to limit their baby's exposure to shampoo, lotions and powder. "If parents want to decrease exposures for their children, they can try to use lotions, shampoo, and baby powder sparingly unless otherwise indicated for a medical reason," Sathyanarayana suggests.

In 2006, the European Union banned the use of six phthalate softeners in PVC toys designed to be placed in the mouth by children younger than three.

Chemical use in industry and agriculture is a feature of modern life, and so the stories of chemical exposure to children and adults alike are only going to become more frequent. For many of these substances, the full picture of the effects on health and safe exposure levels will only be revealed in the years ahead.

In the meantime, what are concerned parents to do? I put chemical exposures into two categories – those that you cannot avoid, and those that you can. The contents of skin care products, for babies, children and adults alike are absorbed through the skin into our bloodstream. Fortunately, these fall into the ‘avoidable chemical’ category. Reading labels for risky contents is arduous and confusing at best. We advise our clients to buy organic cosmetics that are safe and chemical free. They may cost more, but you can use them sparingly and with peace of mind. Buying chemical free/organic products also sends a stark message to cosmetic companies, that consumers want to use products that they know are safe for themselves and their children.

For study details -