Troubling Bubbles: Baby Bath Products Contain Unlisted Toxins

Recent testing found potential carcinogens, banned in Europe, in the majority of U.S. baby shampoos tested.

March 17, 2009

Watch it, baby. Your bath could be contaminated with toxins.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Common baby shampoos and bath products contain chemicals that have been linked to cancer and skin allergies, but they aren’t listed on ingredient labels, according to a recent report published by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national group of women’s, environmental, health, faith, consumer, and worker organizations.


THE DETAILS: Of the 48 children’s personal care products tested for 1,4-dioxane, 32 contained levels between .27 and 35 parts per million. While that may seem low, many researchers are worried that repeated exposure could pose health risks. In fact, the European Union does not allow any amount, no matter how minute, of 1,4-dioxane in personal care products. In this batch of testing, researchers found that American Girl shower products showed the highest levels of the chemical contaminant, followed by several Johnson & Johnson products, including Aveeno, Johnson’s, and Huggies baby wash formulas. Formaldehyde, which is used as an antimicrobial and a preservative, showed up in 82 percent (23 of 28) of products tested, with the highest amount found in Baby Magic Baby Lotion made by Ascendia Brands Inc. More than 60% of products tested contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

The EPA lists both chemicals as probable carcinogens. Neither is directly added to the product; they’re by-products of chemical processing or of the preservatives added to increase shelf life. “Using a contaminated product once is unlikely to cause harm,” wrote the authors of the report. “But these products often contain other harmful chemicals that, when used repeatedly and in combination with numerous other products, can add up to harm.” Tested products that contained both contaminants included CVS Baby Shampoo, CVS Kids Body Wash (Blueberry Blast), Dora the Explorer Bubble Bath, Hot Wheels Berry Blast Bubble Bath, Sesame Street Bubble Bath (Orange Mango Tango), Tinker Bell Scented Bubble Bath, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, and L’Oreal Kids Extra Gentle 2-in-1 Fast Dry Shampoo (Burst of Cool Melon), among others. See The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' complete results for tested products.

WHAT IT MEANS: The FDA is not doing all it could to protect our children (or us) from unnecessary chemical exposure. The agency doesn’t require contaminants to be listed on labels, and it doesn’t require companies to test products for safety before they go on the market. Even if Margaret Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner and President Barack Obama’s pick as commissioner of the FDA, does decide to take on this mammoth problem, it’s likely going to take some time to clean up the system. Parents, plan on taking this matter into your own hands, at least for the time being.

Here’s how to avoid bringing these contaminants into your baby’s bathtub.

• Don’t always trust the label. “All natural” doesn’t mean much of anything. Instead of focusing on claims on a label, turn the bottle around and investigate the ingredients.

• Know the usual suspects. To avoid chemical contamination, look for products that don’t contain problematic ingredients linked to 1,4-dioxane, such as PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, polyethoxyethylene, or polyoxynolethylene. Stay away from formaldehyde by avoiding products that list formalin and methyl aldehyde as ingredients, too. Another no-no? Parabens, which are preservatives linked to health problems. In the near future, a new organic standard for personal care products will make it easier to ID bath products free of health-threatening chemicals.

• Flip it over. It’s great to scrutinize ingredients, but remember to eyeball the actual container, too. Look for the plastic's number, found in a little triangle that's usually on the bottom of the container. Products packaged in No. 3 plastic, known as PVC (or the “poison plastic” to some), can leach phthalates, a family of plasticizers that can interfere with a child’s physical development. Some phthalates are considered so risky for kids they were recently banned from being used in children’s toys.

• Tell Congress to clean up chemical contamination in personal care products. There’s growing recognition that what we put on our skin—not just what we eat—can affect our health. Tell your senators or representative to crack down on harmful chemicals in personal care products.

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