Did you know that, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, children are more vulnerable to the effects of carcinogens than adults(1)? It was found that chemicals that cause cancer through genetic mutations were up to 65 times more potent for children than for adults, and that the average carcinogen that damages DNA is 10 times more potent for children.
Shockingly, much of children’s exposure to these toxins comes by way of common baby products and toys. For example, many bath products, diaper creams, sunscreens, diapers, wipes, and clothing are often filled with a variety of ingredients that are best to avoid.
To help you make sense of this potential harm, we’ve compiled a list of the baby product ingredients you want to say no to, and why with an easy list at the bottom to reference next time you’re shopping for your little one.
A widely found preservative, paraben is often used in cosmetics to prevent mold and bacteria growth. A surface concern is that parabens can irritate your baby’s skin, but the bigger issue is that they can disrupt hormone function, as they mimic estrogen. This hormone disruption has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer and fertility challenges. In a baby, parabens could harm the developing endocrine system.
What they could be in: Diaper rash cream, lotion, soap, baby wipes, shampoo, and sunscreen.
What they’re called: Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, heptylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, and benzylparaben
Phthalates are used to make plastics more flexible, as a gelling agent for certain beauty and household products, and to help lotions penetrate the skin. They are a potential hormone disruptor that can end up in the bloodstream and cause developmental and reproductive toxicity. There’s also been some connections between phthalates and asthma. In 2018, health concerns led the United States Congress to ban certain levels of the phthalates BBP, DEHP, and DBP in toys.
What they could be in: Shampoo, baby powder, lotion, plastic toys, clothing, and laundry detergent
What they’re called: DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate), and DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
Many parents are shocked to hear that trace amounts of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is found in many baby products often as a preservative. Short term exposure can lead to watery eyes, coughing, skin irritation, nausea, and burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat. Long term exposure has been linked to cancer.
What it could be in: Some baby formulas, diaper creams, lotions, bubble bath, baby wipes, and shampoos.
What it’s called: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), and glyoxal
This is a group of chemicals that are used on some clothing to repel water and stains. If a piece of clothing boasts that it’s wrinkle-, stain-, or water-resistant, it probably has perfluorochemicals on it. Nonstick pans, furniture, and cosmetics often contain these chemicals as well. PFCs might impact growth and development, reproduction, and liver health.
What it could be in: Clothing, bibs, placemats, and changing pads.
What they’re called: Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), Fluorotelomer, C8, et al, and Polytetrafluoroethylene.
Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)
These sneaky chemicals are a cheap surfactant that’s frequently found in clothes and toys, and find their way into the water supply after washing clothes that contain them. They’ve been found to potentially disrupt hormones, create aquatic toxicity, irritate skin and eyes, cause reproductive harm and birth defects, and accumulate in the body.
What they could be in: Clothing, and toys that use synthetic rubber, plastic, or foam
What they’re called: NPEs, nonylphenols, and nonylphenol ethoxylates
Tip: Wash new clothes before use to avoid exposure to NPEs
Did you know that it typically requires hundreds of chemicals to produce one synthetic fragrance? That’s right. And exposure to all those chemicals can lead to hormone disruption, reproductive and developmental harm (as they often contain phthalates), and allergic reactions. In addition, synthetic fragrances often contain benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and toluene, which are known carcinogens. Fragrance is not regulated by the FDA and is considered a “trade secret” so companies often do not have to disclose the ingredients that make up their unique fragrance. Even if a product smells “natural” this term is best avoided for anything baby related.
What it could be in: Disposable diapers, baby wipes, lotion, body wash, body wash, and shampoos.
What it’s called: Fragrance and parfum
Butylated Hydroxyanisole, BHA
A common preservative, BHA helps prevent oil in certain products from oxidizing and becoming rancid. BHA interferes with hormone function, is a possible carcinogen, and has been linked to asthma and behavioral issues.
What it could be in: Diaper cream
What it’s called: Butylated hydroxyanisole, and butylated hydroxytoluene, BHT.
Made from highly processed petroleum, mineral oil is found in a number of baby care products because it is inexpensive but can cause a host of issues. These issues include clogged skin, digestive issues, potential harm on cell development, and increased risk for yeast infection.
What they could be in: Lotion, oils, diaper cream, and baby wipes
What they’re called: Mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffinum, and paraffinum liquidum
Talc, or talcum powder, is a naturally occurring mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen, and is used to absorb moisture on the skin and reduce friction. Because of this, talcum powder used to be a mainstay at diaper changes, especially when a baby had a rash. However, talc has now been linked to cancer, is sometimes contaminated with asbestos, and can dry out mucous membranes, possibly resulting in respiratory diseases like pneumonia, asthma, pulmonary talcosis, lung fibrosis, and respiratory failure. Arrowroot powder and cornstarch can be effective alternatives to talc.
What it could be in: Baby powder
What it’s called: Talc, talcum, and talcum powder
Chlorine is the cause of that crisp whiteness you see in many diapers. The trouble is, chlorine emits trace amounts of toxic chemicals called dioxins, which can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and cause cancer.
What it could be in: Disposable diapers
What it’s called: Chlorine bleach
This is a preservative that prevents certain products from developing fungi, yeast, and bacteria. It also releases formaldehyde as it breaks down. As a result, this chemical can cause an allergic reaction and immunotoxicity.
What it could be in: Baby wipes, diaper cream, and shampoo
What it’s called: Dimethyloldimethyl hydantoin, 1,3 dimethylol-5,5-dimethyl hydantoin, and Dantoin DMDMH
Another preservative that releases formaldehyde, bronopol is a known irritant and potential carcinogen. It’s used in baby wipes, as it’s an effective antimicrobial ingredient.
What it could be in: Baby wipes
What it’s called: 2-Bromo-2-nitro-1,3-propanediol
This chemical is commonly found in sunscreen because it absorbs UV-A ultraviolet rays and can disrupt hormones, something that could lead to early puberty. It might also cause cell damage that could result in skin cancer.
What it could be in: Sunscreen
What it’s called: Benzophenone-3, BP-3, Milestab 9, Eusolex 4360, Escalol 567, and KAHSCREEN BZ-3
TBT is an antifungal agent sometimes used in the fluff pulp in disposable diapers. TBT is incredibly harmful for aquatic life and does not degrade, instead remaining in the environment. Regarding human health, TBT can trigger genes that promote the growth of fat cells, which can lead to obesity. It can also cause hormonal issues in humans and animals.
What they could be in: Disposable diapers
What they’re called: Tributyl-tin, TBT, tributyltin oxide, Alumacoat, Bioclean, FloTin, Fungitrol, TinSan, Ultrafresh, and Vikol
Flame retardants, which are often composed of synthetic combinations of bromine and chlorine, are sometimes applied to material to prevent the start, or growth, of fire. These chemicals are commonly used on baby clothes, changing table pads, crib mattresses, nursing pillows, strollers, and car seats. Compounds in some flame retardants are carcinogenic and can potentially lead to lower IQ, increased hyperactivity, and hormone and immune disorders.
What they could be in: Baby clothes, changing table pads, crib mattresses, nursing pillows, strollers, and car seats
What they’re called: Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDE, organohalogen flame retardants, Organophosphorous flame retardants, PentaBDE, OctaBDE, DecaBDE, HBCD, and TBBPA
Early research has found that this sunscreen ingredient could be linked to skin cancer. It’s added to some sunscreens not because it offers sun protection, but because it has potential anti-aging effects.
What it could be in: Sunscreen
What it’s called: Retinyl palmitate, vitamin A palmitate, palmitic acid, and retinol
Polyethylene Glycol, PEG
PEG is part of the ethylene glycol polymers family which are used for thickening, softening, moisturizing, penetration promotion (makes it easier for toxic ingredients to enter the body,) and as a surfactant. The major issue with PEG is that ethylene oxide is used in its production- ethylene oxide is a toxic gas that has been linked to cancer. PEGs can also irritate a baby's skin.
What it could be in: Baby wipes
What it’s called: PEG - followed by a number
Volatile Organic Compounds, VOCs
VOCs, which consist of chemicals like ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, and dipentene, can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. They have also been linked to neurodevelopmental issues, hormone disruption, childhood obesity, asthma, and even cancer.
What they could be in: Crib mattresses, car seats, and disposable diapers
What they’re called: Benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene
A common preservative, phenoxyethanol has been linked to eczema, allergic reactions like hives, other skin irritations, and negative impacts on the nervous system.
What they could be in: Baby wipes, lotion, soap, and sunscreen
What it’s called: Phenoxyethanol, ethylene glycol monophenyl ether, 2-Phenoxyethanol, PhE, dowanol, arosol, phenoxetol, rose ether, phenoxyethyl alcohol, and beta-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
The chemical that enhances foaming and sudsing in common bath products, sodium lauryl sulfate is easily absorbed by the body and can irritate eyes and skin.
What they could be in: Baby wipes, shampoo, bubble bath, body wash
What they’re called: SLS, SLES, sodium dodecyl sulfate, and sodium PEG lauryl sulfate
While this list may seem overwhelming, take heart that there are numerous brands providing baby products free of any ingredients that could harm your little one. These brands take care to select ingredients that are not only safe for your child, but also beneficial. To support you in the process of discovering those go-to brands, here’s our guide on how to avoid harmful ingredients in baby products. Empowered with this knowledge, you’ll be well set up to make healthy choices for the newest member of your family.
20 Ingredients to avoid in baby products
- Perfluorochemicals, PFCs
- Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs)
- Butylated Hydroxyanisole, BHA
- Mineral Oil
- DMDM Hydantoin
- Tributyl-tin, TBT
- Flame Retardants
- Retinyl Palmitate
- Polyethylene Glycol, PEG
- Volatile Organic Compounds, VOCs
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate