Expert guest post by Betsy of Eco Novice
Like many of you, I started paying attention to the ingredients of common household products after the birth of my first child. When my baby first sucked on our wood floor I wondered, what's in my floor cleaner? When he sucked on my hair I wondered, what's in my leave-in conditioner and is it safe for a baby to ingest? As I changed his diapers I wondered, what are disposable diapers made of? And as I rubbed lotion into his dry skin I wondered, how safe are the unpronounceable ingredients of this baby lotion?
I think anyone who has ever held a newborn baby in his or her arms cannot help but grasp on an instinctual level how truly vulnerable newborns are. Unfortunately, one way in which babies are particularly vulnerable is to the effects of harmful chemicals in their environment.
Unique Susceptibility of Babies to Environmental Chemicals
Babies are especially at risk for harm caused by man-made chemicals in the environment because they are undergoing rapid and dynamic growth and development at the molecular, cellular, organ, and whole-child levels. Newborns in particular are passing through critical periods of susceptibility with respect to organ development. Babies are exposed to toxic environmental chemicals not only through what they eat, drink, breathe, and put in their mouths, but also through their skin. The ratio of the newborn's skin surface area to body weight is about three times greater than that of an adult. In addition, some chemicals more readily penetrate baby skin, especially in the newborn period when the outermost layer of skin is still adapting to life outside the womb and is unusually permeable. (source)
Ingredients of Baby Care Products
Of course, that’s why baby skin products are subject to stricter regulations, right?
Wrong. A manufacturer can put "baby," "for kids," "gentle,"or "hypoallergenic" on a product label regardless of the ingredients inside. “Pure,” “natural,” and “safe” are other terms that have no legal meaning and are not necessarily related to the hazard level of product ingredients. For example, the infographic above shows ingredients contained in baby lotion, including products marketed as gentle, sensitive, and natural, along with health concerns associated with those ingredients.
For more detailed information about the ingredients above as well as lists of products that contain these ingredients, click over to EWG’s Skin Deep Database. For example, click here to see all the health concerns associated with fragrance, and then click on “Products” in the left sidebar followed by “baby lotions - 50 products” to see all the baby lotions that contain fragrance. I personally avoid any product that contains "fragrance" since manufacturers can simply list “fragrance” (considered a trade secret) as an ingredient on product labels without disclosing any of the dozen or more chemical components of their scent. Researchers have discovered more than 3,000 different chemical compounds hiding under the term “fragrance,” including suspected hormone disruptors.
Choosing the Safest Products for Your Family
Unfortunately for babies and everyone else, the FDA has almost no authority to regulate personal products. The cosmetics industry is essentially self-regulated by the Cosmetics Ingredients Review Panel (which was created by the cosmetics industry to avoid government regulation). Out of 10,500 unique chemical ingredients in cosmetics, this Panel has assessed the safety of fewer than 20% of them (leaving over 8,000 untested), and found just 11 ingredients total to be unsafe. Personal care products sold in the United States contain ingredients banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, Japan, and Canada, and contain known carcinogens such as lead and formaldehyde (source).
Once I became aware of the inadequacy of U.S. regulation of personal products, I began researching the safety of my family's personal products and searching for alternatives with safer ingredients. You can help choose safer products for your family just by skipping any product that contains "fragrance" in order to avoid undisclosed chemicals. You can also look up the health concerns of individual ingredients that are unfamiliar or the "Hazard Score" of your favorite personal product in the Skin Deep Database.
I wish I had known about their creamy all-natural baby lotion when my little ones were newborns! It also works wonderfully on children and adults.
Sources/ Additional Recommended Reading
- Principles of Pediatric Environmental Health. The Child as Susceptible Host: A Developmental Approach to Pediatric Environmental Medicine (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2012). Also available as PDF.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: FDA Regulations
- EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database: Myths on cosmetic safety