Good, Clean Fun
Despite labels carrying such reassuring claims as “extra gentle” and “safe for Baby’s delicate skin,” dozens of top-selling children’s bath care products contain trace amounts of the toxins 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, according to a buzzworthy report from a consumer watchdog group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Far from safe and gentle, both substances are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans.”
Coming Clean about Dirty Ingredients
Spurred by a previous investigation that detected toxic chemicals in bath products marked “all natural,” this time the Campaign decided to round up a sampling of mainstream children’s bath products. From baby shampoo to bubble bath, lotion to body wash, 48 well-known products were independently tested for 1,4-dioxane; 28 were also checked for traces of formaldehyde.
Lab result highlights?
- Of the products tested, 61 percent (17 out of 28) contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane. These included some big names:
- Johnson’s Baby Shampoo
- Sesame Street Bubble Bath
- Grins & Giggles Milk & Honey Baby Wash
- Huggies Naturally Refreshing Cucumber & Green Tea Baby Wash
- Eighty-two percent of products (23 out of 28) contained formaldehyde at levels ranging from 79 parts per million (ppm) to 610 ppm. Exposure to formaldehyde concentrations as low as 250 ppm may cause skin rash in children with chemical sensitivities; the product with the highest level of formaldehyde—Baby Magic Baby Lotion—would require a warning label if sold in Europe (where the formaldehyde cutoff is 500 ppm).
- Sixty-seven percent of products (32 out of 48) contained 1,4-dioxane at levels ranging from 0.27 ppm to 35 ppm. American Girl shower products from Bath & Body Works contained the highest levels of 1,4-dioxane. The United States classifies the toxin as a “probable human carcinogen,” but has not set cutoff levels for its use. In contrast, Canada and Europe completely ban products containing any amount of 1,4-dioxane.
If these results have motivated you to scour the ingredients of your favorite baby shampoo, you won’t find 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde listed, even if you use one of products mentioned above. Both toxins are considered contaminants, meaning they ended up in the product as a result of chemical breakdown during the manufacturing process—and were not intentionally added.
As Stacy Malkan, a lead author of the Campaign’s report, points out, “because they’re technically not ingredients, formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are exempt from current US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling laws.”
Ban the Bubble Bath?
Since the study’s worrisome findings were made public March 12, 2009, many manufacturers have stepped forward to defend their products. In a statement released by Johnson & Johnson, the company noted that “trace levels of certain compounds can result from processes that make our products gentle for babies and safe from bacteria growth. The FDA and other government agencies around the world consider these trace levels safe.”
Dr. Jim Sears, MD, author of The Baby Book and co-host of the new hit syndicated television show The Doctors, urges parents to remain calm. “Since this is the first study to look at these substances in baby products, it’s probably going to be a while before we see any big changes in the ingredient lists,” he says. “I’m not too worried about these ingredients, since we don’t know for sure if their effects are harmful…. Hopefully, the FDA will take a closer look at these chemicals, and if there is a problem, there will be a change in regulations.”
And according to Dr. Sean Palfrey, MD, a pediatrician in the Boston area, “What parents need to know is that unless a child actually swallows the shampoo or lotion [ingesting the product directly from the bottle], there is no immediate risk of toxic poisoning from any of these products.”
But Malkan believes real risk is present, even when the amounts being debated are so small. “These results might seem insignificant to some—it’s just a little bit of carcinogen absorbed through the skin,” she says. “The problem is that the same toxic chemicals are found in many products and these small exposures can add up. For example, the same baby can be exposed to formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane from baby shampoo, bubble bath, and body wash—in a single bath.”
Dr. Greg Germain, an expert on pediatric health, understands why this report prompts parents to feel concerned—and he’s also a little confused himself. “Unfortunately, toxic exposure is complicated and somewhat controversial,” he says. “How much exposure is really toxic? What if animal data exists, but no human data? Does mouse data even apply to your baby?”
Tips for Picking Safe Bath Products
Malkan’s report also reminds parents that small babies do not require a tub full of cleaning products every time they take a bath. Unless they are dirty, infants do not require a daily head-to-toe bathing, and when they do, water and a tiny amount of mild soap are all Baby needs. (Read more baby bathing tips here.)
But what if you’re in the market for new baby bath care products? How can you be sure you’re choosing wisely? Labels can still hold valuable clues about the kinds of toxins a product may contain. According to Malkan, formaldehyde contaminates personal care products when common preservatives release formaldehyde over time in the container.
The ingredients that signify that formaldehyde may lurk within the bottle or tube include the following:
- DMDM hydantoin
- imidazolidinyl urea
- diazolidinyl urea
1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of a chemical processing technique called ethoxylation, in which harsh cosmetic ingredients are processed with ethylene oxide to become gentle enough for human use. Manufacturers can easily remove the toxic byproduct, but are not required by law to do so.
Common ingredients likely to be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane include the following:
- PEG-100 stearate
- sodium laureth sulfate
Another toxin-avoiding tip? “Try to choose more ‘natural’ products with the shortest ingredient list possible,” recommends Dr. Sears.
Avoid Toxins Outside the Tub
Dr. Germain advises parents who aim to reduce their child’s overall chemical exposure to look beyond the suds: Cigarette smoke is a potent and direct source of both formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane. By taking such steps as not smoking around your child and not exposing her to second-hand or so-called “third hand” smoke (cigarette smoke sediment on clothing), you greatly reduce your family’s exposure to these potentially carcinogenic ingredients.
According to Dr. Germain, there are countless ways parents can reduce toxic exposure in everyday life. Some of his favorites? “Avoid heating foods in plastic dishes and breastfeed your baby for as long as possible,’ he says. “Clean up mold around the house as soon as you see it, and don’t forget to install carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. Also, keep your children’s vaccines up to date. Bacteria [from illness] release toxins, too.”
A Less Toxic Tomorrow
Finally, some good news! Even before the Campaign for Cosmetic Safety’s report rocked bathtubs across the nation, positive signs started to emerge that consumers, manufacturers, and state and local governments are newly committed to reducing toxins in our environment and in the lives of children.
Consumer demand for toxin-free baby products is higher than ever, and more than 1,000 companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to replace hazardous chemicals with safe alternatives. To pick up the slack for lax federal laws, in 2005, California passed the Safe Cosmetics Act, requiring companies to disclose toxic chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. Other states have introduced similar cosmetics legislation.
“The onus should be on companies to fix this problem, because they already know how to fix it,” says Malkan. “In the meantime, we can reduce chemical hazards in our homes by choosing safer products. But we can’t just shop our way out of this problem; we also need to change the laws so parents can stop worrying about this stuff.”