Top 5 Chemicals to Avoid in Baby Products
If you’ve ever scanned the label on a personal care product (for babies or adults) you would’ve noticed a long list of chemical names. There are in fact over 40,000 chemicals permitted for use in Australia, with over 10,000 allowed for use in skincare, cosmetics and cleaning products1. These chemicals perform various functions such as colouring, fragrancing, stabilising and preserving the product, however there are growing concerns over the safety of their usage.
While it’s important to note not all chemicals are dangerous, the Safe Cosmetics Campaign Australia warns that there are a significant number currently in use in Australia that have been linked to adverse health effects and banned or restricted in other countries1. Further, the SCA warns, there are no pre-market regulations that stipulate mandatory testing of chemicals prior to sale in Australia.
Chemicals and your baby’s skin
The skin is the body’s largest organ and it absorbs up to 64% of what is applied topically1. So, it is vitally important that what we apply to our skin is safe for regular use, as it will be absorbed into our systems.
This is even more important for babies as they’re physiologically different to adults, making them more vulnerable. A baby’s skin is more permeable and babies have a faster metabolism which speeds up the rate of absorption. Conversely, infants don’t excrete chemicals in the same way as adults which makes toxins more “bioavailable” for their bodies2.
By this stage you may be feeling quite alarmed. How do you manage this important issue and keep your baby safe? The good news is you can minimise your baby’s exposure by choosing products that don’t contain potentially harmful chemicals.
To assist you, we’ve put together a list of the top five chemicals to avoid in baby products. This list is by no means exhaustive but is a good starting point and covers a range of baby products. Every step you take to reduce your baby’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals all adds up to a healthier child - so let’s get started!
Top 5 chemicals to avoid in baby products
1. Fragrance / Perfume / Parfum
Where it’s used: “Fragrance”, “Perfume” or “Parfum” on a label represents an undisclosed list of chemicals and scent agents used to create a pleasant smell. Fragrance is possibly one of the most concerning chemicals as it’s used in almost every product from skincare to bath, body and oral care, and can include any number of unlisted chemicals.
Why it’s harmful: Many of the chemicals used in fragrances have not been tested for toxicity, either alone or in combination. Many of these sneaky unlisted ingredients are irritants and can cause migraines, asthma symptoms and allergies5. In Australia, chemicals in Fragrance can include Benzene, a known human carcinogen and Xylene, a known human nervous system toxicant1.
What parents can do: Avoid any product that lists fragrance, perfume or parfum or its synonyms (see last paragraph). Instead, look for products which confirm they use plant-based fragrances or where possible choose certified toxic-free products.
Where it’s used: Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent, preservative and deodorant. It is commonly used in baby care products including body wash, shampoo and toothpaste1.
Why it’s harmful: Triclosan is a known endocrine disruptor, especially thyroid and reproductive organs, and a skin and respiratory irritant3. Some studies also warn that Triclosan may be contributing to creating antibiotic resistant bacteria.
What parents can do: Avoid any products listing Triclosan or its synonyms, particularly anti-bacterial products. Where possible, choose certified toxic-free products.
3. Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs)
Where it’s used: Formaldehyde is a preservative added to products to prevent microbials such as mould forming. It is commonly found in baby wash including soap and liquid wash1. It can be directly added to a product or released through another preservative, known as FRPs2.
Why it’s harmful: Formaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen and has been linked to allergic reactions including skin irritations1, respiratory issues, headaches and nausea2. In Australia, Bronopol is an FRP used in baby soap and shampoo with continued exposure leading to severe allergic reactions in some infants2.
What parents can do: Avoid any products listing Formaldehyde, Bronopol or their synonyms. Where possible choose certified toxic-free products.
Where it’s used: Parabens are the most widely used preservative in skincare products. They easily penetrate the skin and can be found in baby soaps, body washes, shampoos and moisturisers.
Why it’s harmful: Parabens are neurotoxins and have been linked to reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption and skin irritation3. Parabens have also been detected in human breast cancer tissues, suggesting a possible association between parabens in cosmetics and cancer5.
What parents can do: Avoid products listing Parabens and its synonyms. Where possible choose certified toxic-free products.
Where it’s used: Phthalates are plastic softeners used in food packaging and disposable nappies. Phthalates are also in PVC used to make vinyl flooring, bath mats and shower curtains8. Certain types of phthalates also appear in fragrances. Phthalates have been found in infant formula, breast milk and packaged foods6.
Why it’s harmful: Phthalates are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors mimic human hormones and have varying impacts depending on the timing of exposure, with fetal development, infancy and early childhood especially critical windows6. Phthalates have been linked to serious adverse health issues including reproductive malformations in baby boys, neurodevelopmental disorders such as lowered IQ and ADHD, and asthma and allergic reactions6.
Phthalates are banned in teething rings and toys with a suckable/chewable component intended for children up to 36 months, but are still used in disposable nappies7 and PVC/vinyl products8.
What parents can do: Avoid products with fragrance, perfurme or parfum. Look for non-vinyl products made of natural fibres and consider using modern cloth nappies rather than disposable.
Further steps to avoid harmful chemicals
- Each chemical has numerous synonyms by which it may be listed on a label. To learn more, see the Safe Cosmetics Australia website.
- Review your current products and ideally throw out anything containing toxic chemicals.
- Replace any harmful products with products that are toxin free and from a trusted brand.
- “Key issues & Chemicals that form the Toxic-Free Campaign”, Safe Cosmetics Australia; https://www.safecosmeticsaustralia.com.au/key-issues
- “How to avoid 5 harmful chemicals in baby and kids products”, The Plastic Pollution Coalition; 25 January 2017; https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2017/1/25/how-to-avoid-5-harmful-chemicals-in-baby-and-kids-products
- “7 chemicals and toxins to avoid when buying baby products”, Treehugger; 25 September 2014; https://www.treehugger.com/health/7-chemicals-and-toxins-avoid-when-buying-baby-products.html
- “5 toxic chemicals you should avoid in baby care products”, Fox News; 7 February 2016; https://www.foxnews.com/health/5-toxic-chemicals-you-should-avoid-in-baby-care-products
- “The Dirty Dozen”, David Suzuki Foundation; https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/dirty-dozen-parabens/
- “A parent’s guide to avoiding potentially toxic chemicals”, The Guardian, 25 June 2019; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/25/toxic-chemicals-risks-infants-what-to-know
- “What’s really in your nappies?”, Real Nappies, 2 April 2019.
- “Phthalate free is the choice for me”, The Non-Toxic Tribe; http://mynontoxictribe.com.au/phthalate-free-is-the-choice-for-me/