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Baby bath bliss
Baby bath bliss

For many families, the evening bath is an important and relaxing routine—one that shouldn’t be spoiled by worries about the safety of the shampoos, conditioners, body washes and creams we use on our children. As we learn more about the quality of ingredients used in baby-care formulations, there is a growing realization that some choices are safer than others.

Clarifying the Clean

A March 2009 report on toxic ingredients in children’s bath products has added to that awareness. The report, called No More Toxic Tub: Getting Contaminants Out of Children’s Bath and Personal Care Products, was commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (, a coalition of women’s, public-health, labor, environmental-health and consumer-rights groups. The findings were eye-opening: many of the most widely used baby-care products contain potentially harmful ingredients.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent laboratory to test 48 different products for 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde. More than 80 percent of the products tested positive for one or both substances. The Consumer Product Safety Commission states that the presence of even trace amounts of these contaminants is cause for concern. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency lists both as probable carcinogens, and formaldehyde can also trigger adverse skin reactions.

Tucked Away

Upon hearing that such chemicals are in so many baby-care products, we naturally wonder how they got there in the first place. The answer has much to do with what else is in the formulations. Over time, certain preservatives in personal-care products can release formaldehyde, a noxious chemical compound that has many industrial uses including the production of resins and explosives, and which is commonly used in embalming. Ingredients that are likely to contaminate products with formaldehyde include synthetic compositions such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea.

Similarly 1,4 dioxane shows up in products via other ingredients. It is a byproduct of a technique in which cosmetic ingredients are chemically processed with ethylene oxide. 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 PEG-100 stearate, sodium laureth sulfate, polyethylene and ceteareth-20.

Astonishingly, in spite of their widespread presence, neither formaldehyde nor 1,4 dioxane is ever listed on the label of a personal-care product. That’s because they are considered contaminants rather than ingredients, and are therefore exempt from labeling laws.

“Because the beauty industry is largely unregulated, it can be very difficult to get accurate information about whether a product is safe to use on children,” says Stacy Malkan, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (2007, New Society). “You have to be your own detective, looking at the label as well as what’s behind the label.”

Even ingredients listed on the label can be concerning, especially for parents of young children. Some of the sudsers, stabilizers, preservatives, artificial fragrances and other chemical ingredients that make baby- and child-care products behave and smell as they do, and which allow them to have such long shelf lives, are known neurotoxins and hormone disrupters. Others have been found to cause allergies as well as cell pathology in the lab.

Reasons to Care

The safety of ingredients is especially important for children because of their high body surface-to-volume ratio and the permeability of the skin. Babies have proportionally more skin for the size of their bodies compared to adults, and therefore they get a higher “dose” of chemicals through skin care products. Their skin is also five times thinner than an adult’s, making them more vulnerable and open to the world—including the body washes, creams and lotions repeatedly applied to their skin.

“The young are especially sensitive to the detrimental effects of chemicals, which burden their life processes,” says Dr. Philip F. Incao, a doctor of Anthroposophic (holistic) medicine in Crestone, Colorado. The younger they are, Incao explains, the greater their vulnerability.

“Babies spend nine months in a strictly protected and controlled environment in the womb, where all the influences they absorb are first filtered for them by their mother’s organism,” says Incao. “After birth, all the chemical and sensory influences of their environment impact babies directly, and can cause significant cumulative stress to the health of the growing, developing child. The task of enlightened parents and caregivers is to be discerning in their choice of personal-care products that their baby will absorb through its very ‘open’ and sensitive skin.”

Skin-care manufacturers often claim that the amount of toxic chemicals in their products is too minute to cause harm. However, the issue of multiple exposures is reason for legitimate concern. “Because we use many of these products on our children every single day, we need to consider the cumulative effects of the toxins they contain, no matter how small the quantities,” says Malkan.

Gentler Ways

Fortunately, as information on toxic ingredients reaches a wider audience, growing numbers of parents are seeking out nontoxic products. Their job is made easier by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which aims to persuade the beauty and personal-care industry to phase out the use of chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems, and replace them with safer alternatives. Weleda has signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Compact for Safe Cosmetics, a pledge to keep products free of the ingredients and chemicals that are linked to serious health consequences like reproductive harm, neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption.

In lieu of synthetics and industrial-grade detergents such as sodi-um lauryl sulfate and sodium lauryth sulfate, gentle, natural options exist. Coco-glucoside, an all-natural and gentle detergent derived from the dried pulp of the coconut fruit and sugar, is biodegradable, nontoxic, residue-free and well tolerated by even the most sensitive skins. Another mild sudsing cleanser, disodium cocoyl glutamate, is a modified amino acid derived from coconut oil and fermented sugar. It is nontoxic, environmentally friendly and tolerated by sensitive and allergic skin types. Both are used by Weleda to produce a cleansing and light sudsing action, delivering the bubbles children enjoy without any toxic load.

Instead of artificial fragrances—which can include pthalates, chemicals that act as solvents but are linked in the lab to endocrine and reproductive disorders — fragrances derived from essential oils are a nontoxic and pleasing alternative. Many essential oils, such as rose oil and lemon oil, also have natural preservation properties. “Products that instead rely on essential oils, herbal extracts and other natural ingredients support the life processes of the user,” says Dr. Incao.

In addition, innovative packaging can help protect products from spoilage. Weleda uses resin-coated aluminum tubes that protect skin creams from oxidation, and dark glass bottles that prevent oils from degrading due to sunlight exposure. Weleda bath products are packaged in food-grade, recyclable PET bottles. This heavy-duty plastic protects products without interacting with the purely natural formula inside.

If you’re a parent, you’re understandably concerned about the safety of your children’s products. Today, we can celebrate the fact that the safest choices are also the most pleasing ones, both for ourselves and for our babies. ks