Baby Skin Care

Become a label sleuth when it comes to the products you put on you and your baby's skin.


Almost nothing is quite as sweet as the scent of a freshly bathed baby. Yet, you may have heard that some ingredients in personal care products may be anything but sweet.

Because no pre-market government approval or testing is required of cosmetics (a broadly defined category including makeup, lotions, some soaps, shampoos and deodorants), virtually anything can be put into them.

And, since manufacturers are not required to disclose the individual contents of every ingredient on product labels, it can be difficult for consumers to make informed choices.

So just how worried should you be?

What we know: Personal care products for infants, children and adults often include phthalates, a class of chemicals that have been shown to cause reproductive and developmental harm in animal studies. Since many of these products are designed to penetrate the skin, their chemical ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream and appear in human urine samples, according to the limited scientific data available.

A 2008 Pediatrics study found several phthalates commonly used in infant care products (lotions, shampoos, soaps and diaper ointments) in the urine samples of 163 babies and toddlers whose mothers reported using the products on them within 24 hours of the testing. Other research even shows phthalates in breast milk; however, breastfeeding is still considered best, as the established benefits far outweigh the risks.

Still unknown: The long-term health effects in humans. While there is no proven cause for panic, if you are going green in other areas of your life and want to extend your efforts to personal care, it's easier than ever to find alternatives to keep your family naturally clean and beautiful.

Become a minimalist. The average adult uses about 10 personal care products a day, which translates to applying roughly 168 unique ingredients to the skin daily. A national survey conducted by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that children are exposed every day to an average of 27 personal care product ingredients that have not been found safe.

Cutting down on how many products you use on yourself and your baby is the fastest path to reducing exposure. Also, check the EWG Parent's Buying Guide; it lists the better and best choices among common brands, such as Johnson & Johnson and Aveeno.

Read labels carefully. Words like "natural" or "hypoallergenic" on the label don't guarantee the product is either. You can trust the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic label. Federal law requires that manufacturers list ingredients in the order of their volume, from highest to lowest. The only ingredients that don't have to be listed individually by name are fragrances. Unfortunately, fragrances can be made up of hundreds of chemicals (most significantly, phthalates), many of which you want to avoid for yourself and your baby. This leads to the next step.

Skip the scents. Synthetic fragrances aren't good for anyone. Avoid products containing "fragrance" or "parfum"; both may pose health hazards. Look instead for those labeled "fragrance free"; "unscented" products could contain a fragrancemasking agent.

Buy better bubbles. Whether it's hand soap or bubble bath, choose plant-based options over petroleumbased ones. Petroleum-derived products not only maintain oil dependence and deplete a nonrenewable resource, some of them contain 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen. A 2004 EWG study found 1,4-dioxane in 57 percent of baby soaps tested, and in most adult personal care products. Antibacterials are unnecessary; regular and castile soap are just as effective in killing germs. Lather up and vigorously rub your hands together while saying the alphabet, and teach your child to do the same. That's how long it takes for the soap to do its job.

MIY: Make it yourself. Find simple replacements or create your own; it's a lot easier and more cost effective than you think. For example, use aloe vera gel to soothe diaper rash and substitute almond or apricot oil for conventional baby oil. Healthy Child, Healthy World contains several easy recipes for effective products.