The consumer market has recently seen an increasing trend toward natural products, from food to personal care to baby products.
In one regard, this is a positive shift because it means consumers are becoming more aware of the health risks associated with the long, unpronounceable ingredient lists on their products, and the respective industries were forced to respond.
On the other hand, the big companies behind the products that were dangerous in the first place have not changed, nor has the model for profit–inexpensive materials with seductive advertising.
How do we know if natural products are really natural? Does it even matter, or is it just another marketing campaign driven by the latest fad?
In this post, you’ll find:
- What we’re learning about the ingredients in our daily products, and why that matters for our families,
- The regulations that control (or don’t control) what substances are allowed in contact with our precious children,
- Some of the most common and serious offenders in the products we use daily;
- Unlisted ingredients which can be just as dangerous as the ones that are listed,
- Tips for ridding your home of harmful substances, and
- A free printable for your purse and computer desk for easy reference when shopping!
Just so you know, I incorporate affiliate links, from which I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, to help showcase products I personally own and love, as well as to illustrate certain points or product features.
Terrible Ingredients in Your Baby Products, and How to Avoid Them
What’s All the Hype About Natural Baby Products?
“Natural” baby products are popping up everywhere to the point that the trend is starting to feel like a fad (and maybe is, in a way).
As if there weren’t enough different baby bubble bath options to choose from, now you have to decide if you’re a good enough mother to spend an extra five dollars for the one that’s scented with essential oils instead of a mysterious “fragrance.”
I’ll admit, Mama, I had become a bit desensitized to the “natural” craze myself.
After all, I and many others have used the “bad” products for years and we’re still alive. In fact, if you’re old enough to be a mama right now, you’re probably old enough to have had your little soft bottom patted with asbestos by your well-meaning and unknowing mother (it was in baby powder).
So is all the hype about “natural” products legitimate, or is it just another mechanism to sell the same liquid in a different bottle? Unfortunately, as we’re going to learn in this post, both.
The truth about baby products is disturbing
Deep in my mommy-gut, I’ve know there’s something to the natural product trend as more and more health risks are brought to light over time, but as it became faddish, I was feeling disillusioned by it all.
My budget was louder than my conscience and I frequently opted for generic, chemical-laden baby products because “they didn’t kill me.” I felt (and still feel) like I can’t afford to be choosy.
However, I set out to discover just what’s in my baby products and what I found is appalling.
One day, I was Amazoning for baby sunscreen, but off the cuff, researched the common ingredients. And I. Was. Mortified. It made me wonder just how bad other products were, products that we trust and use on or around our children every day, and I determined to create a post to share my findings with you.
You can put away your can openers because I’ve already cracked open the massive can of worms for you. Once you learn what you’ve been buying for your baby and start reading the labels on everything, you can never go back.
You can’t unlearn this information, so if you prefer the bliss of ignorance, this is your last chance to close the tab. Here come the worms.
Why Should I Care if My Products are Natural/Plant-Based/Non-Toxic?
If you’re like me, you might wonder why you should shell out the extra money for more natural products when the normal stuff worked just fine for you and even your parents.
According to a summary of findings compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), children two and under are ten times more susceptible to carcinogenic chemicals than are adults, meaning that before your toddler smashes her face in her second birthday cake, she’s already undergone up to 50% of her lifetime cancer risk.
Chew on that worm for a second, then sink your mental teeth into this one. From the same source:
“Many cancers are thought to arise from a single mutant precursor cell, which then divides and multiplies.”(“Children’s Health Policy Review”, 2003); emphasis my own.
That means only one cell in your child’s body has to fall victim to foul play to give cancer a foothold, and still we pump their tiny systems up with scores of potent chemicals on a daily, even hourly basis.
I hope I have your attention now.
The stats certainly captured mine. As mothers, protecting our children from unnecessary exposure to harmful substances is our responsibility. We cannot expect or rely on companies to care more about our children than we do.
If we are lax about what chemicals we bring into our home, why should the companies selling them be any better? Our vigilance and scrutiny of everything is paramount.
Existing Regulations on Personal Care Product Ingredients
We might think that we could at least depend on good ol’ Uncle Sam to have our kids’ backs and help us weed out the most dangerous chemicals, right? Surely, the government prevents companies from putting pictures of cute babies on bottles of poison.
The shocking truth is that the government has not taken an aggressive role in banning dangerous substances from children’s products, or even requiring companies to conduct thorough studies on the short and long term effects of the chemicals they use.
For instance, did you know asbestos is still legal in the United States? It has been banned from use in some materials, and the EPA must approve any new uses of asbestos, but Congress continually shoots down an overall ban on use of the substance.
In fact, asbestos was a common contaminant in baby powder until recently. It’s very hard to separate from talc, which was the primary ingredient in baby powder (and still may be in some), but because it wasn’t technically an ingredient, asbestos wasn’t on the label.
Johnson and Johnson, one of the most trusted companies in many households, was held liable for $4.7 billion in damages for ovarian cancer linked to its baby powder. Over 10,000 more lawsuits against the company are currently pending for the same or similar reason.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
The primary regulation in the United States regarding the use of chemical substances in commerce is the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).
TSCA functions to prevent new chemical substances from being introduced into the market without prior approval from the EPA. Perhaps the biggest issue with this act is that the existing 62,000 chemicals already in use were grandfathered in and presumed safe.
Researchers now estimate that of the 80,000 chemicals on and in the market, only twenty percent underwent any testing whatsoever (Hamblin, 2014).
Little Chemicals, Big Impacts
Product labels are starting to advertise with phrases such as “organic,” “all natural,” “no parabens,” “no phthalates,” “no _______,” and we hear warnings about carcinogens and neurotoxins, but what do these words and phrases really mean, and do they matter? In this section, we’re going to break down some of the primary health risks associated with chemical ingredients.
The endocrine system, basically put, is the messenger system in your body that produces hormones to regulate pretty much everything you think, do and feel. Clearly not very important.
As defined by the National Institute for Environmental Health Studies (NEIHS), endocrine disruptors “interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife” (Endocrine Disruptors, 2019).
According to the NIEHS, babies in the early stages of development (including prenatal) are at the greatest risk for damage from endocrine disruption because their organ and neural systems are still forming.
An endocrine disruptor can block or stimulate the natural hormones your body is already using, or can mimic your natural hormones and confuse your body when it receives messages it never sent.
A common example is estrogen. Excess estrogen is not healthy for girls or boys, causing early or delayed puberty, as well as fertility issues. Thus, as you might imagine, flooding your kids’ systems with disruptors masquerading as estrogen isn’t healthy.
Carcinogens are most generally defined as any substance or exposure which has a propensity to cause cells to divide and reproduce at an accelerated rate, thereby causing cancer.
Carcinogens are not cancer themselves, and exposure to carcinogens need not always cause cancer.
They have varying degrees of potential, with some carcinogens needing only limited exposure and others requiring frequent contact and high doses. Carcinogens work by altering cells or directly damaging DNA. These changes are what cause cancer.
Because we can’t ethically test chemicals on humans to see if they get cancer, we don’t know just how many carcinogens there actually are, so researchers have numerous categories to identify carcinogenic substances. Different agencies have different standards, but all are very similar.
The EPA classifies substances this way:
- Group A: Carcinogenic to humans
- Group B: Likely to be carcinogenic to humans
- Group C: Suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential
- Group D: Inadequate information to assess carcinogenic potential
- Group E: Not likely to be carcinogenic to humans (American Cancer Society, 2016).
You might think companies selling baby products would be extremely conscious of these categories and rigorously screen the ingredients they use, but disturbingly, the baby products you buy are chock full of KNOWN carcinogens, not to mention numerous likely and suspected carcinogens.
Neurotoxins are more self-explanatory: they do bad things to your brain. Most notably to the developing fetal brain, which is why pregnant mothers in particular should be especially careful to limit and avoid exposure to neurotoxins.
Researchers estimate that only around a third of brain development disorders stem from genetics. That means the other seventy percent result from external factors, like exposure to neurotoxins (Hamblin, 2014).
As we keep seeing, the earliest stages of a child’s development are the most critical, beginning at conception. By the time your child turns two, his brain is done growing (with the exception of the hippocampus and two other small areas). There’s no reincarnation for departed brain cells; when they die, they are gone.
Most Common Offenders: Top Ingredients You Need to Know About
Obviously, I can’t reasonably cover every chemical that might be found in the baby products you’re buying. However, the list below contains some of the most common offenders and can give you a place to start.
As you scan ingredient labels, begin by looking for the chemicals listed below, or in the case of unlisted ingredients, the key characteristics that might clue you in their presence. If that sounds overwhelming to you, make sure to grab my free reference sheet at the end of this post.
Look for: Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, heptylparaben. Other variations: isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, benzylparaben. Also: benzoic acid, propyl ester
Parabens are very commonly used in personal care products and cosmetics as preservatives. Finding products free of parabens can be a real challenge, although they are beginning to pop up more often.
Parabens are neurotoxins, suspected carcinogens, and act as endocrine disruptors, mimicking estrogen.
While we don’t know for certain that parabens cause cancer, parabens have been easily detected in samples of breast cancer tissue. Additionally, studies have show that parabens are quickly and effortlessly absorbed through the skin (Best Health, n.d.).
While parabens come by many different names, they are readily identifiable, as almost all variations end in “-paraben.”
Bisphenol A (BPA) and BPA Substitutes
Bisphenol A is a synthetic chemical frequently used in plastic.
You might remember several years ago when BPA became a hot topic and subject of serious scrutiny. You will see that a lot of sippy-cups and baby bottles are promoted with “BPA Free!” labels. That’s because the FDA banned the use of BPA in all children’s sippy cups and baby bottles, not necessarily because the company is particularly interested in the well-being of your child.
Unfortunately, emerging research suggests that BPA’s alternatives are just as bad, if not worse. A study published by Environmental Health Perspectives tested a range of commercially available plastics, both containing and free of BPA, for estrogenic activity (EA) and found that:
“Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled […] leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more [estrogenic activity] than did BPA-containing products.”(Yang, et. al., 2011) (bold emphasis my own)
This study also noted that juvenile mammals show heightened sensitivity to even very low doses of chemicals causing estrogenic activity, and that this response should be expected of human juveniles as well.
That’s no bueno, Mama. Avoid plastic whenever possible, especially for items your child will be mouthing or using frequently. Think dishes, toys, sippy cups, bottles, and oh Mama, pacifiers!
Triclosan (and Triclocarban)
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent, so as you might expect, it used to be found in soaps and body washes.
However, the health risks are serious enough that the FDA has stepped in and banned it from soaps and body washes.
Still, you will want to give anything labeled “antibacterial” a closer look. Some toothpastes, like Colgate, contain the chemical as well, and it is used in textiles, toys, cookware, and other objects.
Triclosan is an endocrine disrupting carcinogen (impacting the thyroid and reproductive systems), is linked to allergies, asthma, and eczema, and also has the potential to upset the gut’s microbiome, which can be difficult to repair.
Even the Mayo Clinic suggests you try and avoid the chemical. They note that products which include triclosan are not even necessarily more effective than good ol’ fashioned soap and water (Steckelberg, 2017).
Look for: Petrolatum
This one might surprise you, especially since it’s the primary ingredient in baby oil. However, it’s a cheap material derived from petroleum, and the most notable harm is that it acts like plastic wrap on your child’s skin, temporarily sealing off the pores and preventing toxins from escaping.
As if scanning through dozens, even scores, of unpronounceable chemical compounds on our product labels wasn’t tedious and overwhelming enough, we also have to worry about possible “contaminants” that don’t make it onto the ingredient list. Disturbingly, the impacts of these sneaky buggers can be just as serious, if not more so than the ingredients which are disclosed.
1,4-Dioxane and Ethylene Oxide
Look for: Sodium laureth sulfate, polyethelene glycol (PEG) compounds, chemicals that include the clauses -xynol, -ceteareth and -oleth
You know that really satisfying sudsy lather you get as you work shampoo into your hair? Turns out, that’s statistically a pretty good indicator the product you’re using contains ingredients contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.
Since 1,4-dioxane is a contaminant and not an ingredient, you won’t find it on product labels. This chemical is a probable carcinogen caused by known breast carcinogen ethylene oxide, which is added to products make other chemicals less harsh. 1,4-dioxane is also suspected as a kidney toxicant, neurotoxin, and respiratory toxin.
Watch out for ingredients that end in -eth, as this denotes ethoxylation, the cheap manufacturing process which utilizes ethylene oxide and generates 1,4-dioxane.
Look for: MEA (monoethanolamine), DEA (cocamide diethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine); watch for ingredients ending in -amine.
Nitrosamines are known carcinogens that appear as impurities alongside other ingredients such as MEA, DEA, and TEA. When packaged with certain preservatives, these compounds break down into nitrates, which, over time, can recombine into nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines are pretty strongly linked to cancer though both animal testing and human studies. They are also believed to cause endocrine disruption, as well as create toxic build up in the liver, bladder, and other organs.
I noticed MEA, DEA, and TEA in my own shampoo, which was supposed to be a safer, more natural product, so watch out. Just because it’s “paraben and phthalate free” doesn’t mean it’s free of everything else.
Look for: Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
Because formaldehyde is a contaminant and not an intentional “ingredient,” companies aren’t required to tell you if you’re rubbing the substance all over your child during bathtime.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, yet trusted companies are selling it to you with the labels, “gentle,” “tear-free,” and “pure.” (Most notable was Johnson and Johnson’s admission a few years ago to knowingly selling formaldehyde contaminated products).
Since formaldehyde most likely won’t show up on an ingredient list, watch for formaldehyde-releasing chemicals like quaternium-15.
Look for: “fragrance”
Phthalates are typically used as a binding agent or plastic softener. Based on animal studies, phthalates damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system.
According to an article in The Guardian, “researchers have linked phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues” (Westervelt, 2015).
The bad news is that phthalates are almost impossible to avoid as companies are not required to disclose them in the ingredients list, but they are used in or have had contact with nearly everything, from milk to flooring to baby toys.
The best chance you have at limiting your family’s exposure to phthalates is to stop buying products with the mysterious “fragrance” in the ingredients and plastics with the recycling codes 3 and 7.
Try to think outside of the box, and you’ll be surprised just how many household items you use daily probably contain phthalates. What’s scented? Your laundry detergent, diaper cream, baby lotion, bubble bath, even many diapers and wipes.
Assume that soft, squeezable plastic contains phthalates. When it comes to your kids’ toys, think vinyl-ish things like rubber duckies. Heartbreaking, I know.
Watch out for crib mattresses made with vinyl, too, and you’re better off not accepting hand-me-down crib mattresses. You won’t be able to eradicate phthalates in your life, but you can substantially reduce your family’s exposure to them.
While these chemicals aren’t always the best at retarding flames, they could retard your child.
Flame retardants are widely recognized as highly toxic, and according to the Global Healing Center, “have been associated with reproductive disorders, cancer, immune dysfunction, hormone disruption, suppressed thyroid function, and serious damage to fetal and child brain development” (Group, 2016).
While certain types of flame retardants are no longer allowed in children’s clothing, anything with foam is likely jacked up.
If you live in California, be especially vigilant when screening items for your children. Back in the 1970s, California went a little crazy with the flame retardants, even requiring higher minimum thresholds to meet safety standards, but have since realized that was a pea-brained idea. Because literally, it made their children pea-brained.
Flame retardants are immediately absorbed into the blood stream and have lasting impacts such as endocrine disruption, lowered IQ, attention deficit disorders, reproductive and fertility problems, and thyroid disease/cancer.
California eventually realized after some testing that their children have the highest levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood anywhere in the US–twice as much as the average child, in fact (Group, 2016). Unfortunately, it took until 2013 for their legislators to catch on before flame retardant chemicals were made optional.
These are more tricky chemicals to completely avoid since we don’t know for sure when they’re used, but there’s no doubt that we should be trying. Watch out for furniture and foam with “TB117” on the label, opt for clothing and bedding that are wool or cotton, and though this might seem odd, vacuum and dust your home regularly. As these chemicals break down in your furniture, they become very concentrated in the dust that then settles in your children’s play areas where they sit and crawl, and on the toys that come in contact with their hands and mouths.
Great, So I’m Killing My Kid; What Do I Do Now?
With all of the disturbing information in this post, we’ve only scratched the surface. It feels like we need a fully functional laboratory to test every substance with which our baby could possibly come in contact, and I don’t know about you, Mama, but that’s just not in my budget yet.
To help you cope, here are my tips for making your home a safer environment for your family.
First of all, don’t freak out. I know it seems now like you kid is playing in a cancer factory wearing a cancer uniform and snacking on cancer chips, but our bodies are pretty remarkable things.
If the situation were as dire as it feels after reading the post thus far, we’d all already be dead. Yes, serious health risks are involved, but you don’t have to convert your house into a glass bubble by 6 a.m. tomorrow.
If you’re feeling the pressure, you’re not alone; I’m completely overwhelmed with this knowledge, too. For a moment, I almost regretted beginning this research at all.
As tab after tab opened in my browser, I got to the point that I just wanted to cry with frustration at how unsafe the world suddenly felt for my baby.
Cut out all the baby snatchers and bad drivers and sharp objects and we’re still left with vile chemicals in everything our babies touch, chew on, sleep in, wear, ingest…it feels like too much!
How do we protect them? I can’t afford to dump all of the stuff I just bought and replace it with “safer” items that are several times more expensive. Do I try to give away and sell the items I’ve deemed too dangerous for my own baby…to some other unknowing parents to give their baby?
Tossing three dollars of bubble bath is one thing, but what about the fifty dollar crib mattress that’s leeching dangerous phthalates into my baby’s body as she sleeps for 12-17 hours a day? But wait! She co-sleeps, so now I have to replace my mattress too, and my bank account just can’t handle that.
Start small and set goals
Like I said, you don’t have to purge your house of every substance that’s suspected to definitely possibly maybe be an endocrine disrupting carcinogenic neurotoxin within the hour. It simply isn’t realistic.
Scan the list again and pick a couple of the things that concern you the most, or maybe your family use most frequently. You can circle or highlight them on my printable (available at the end of the post).
Perhaps your family has an extravagant collection of plastic-ware and you decide you want to replace it all with glass and stainless steel. That might not be financially feasible all in one go.
Recognize the potential hazard, set a goal to phase it out, and work toward that goal as you are able. As much as you might feel like burning your house down right now, don’t…that would only release all of the evil chemicals at once, and I’d rather you didn’t share, thanks.
I have not thrown out every baby care product and plastic toy and foam padded surface in our apartment. Some things I decided we were better off without, and others just won’t be replaced when they’ve fulfilled their use. I certainly won’t be bringing new items into our home that are heavy on toxins.
Balance with your budget
If we had unlimited budgets, we could build a sterile factory and hire experts to create our own super-safe all-natural evil-free children’s products just for our own kids. Sadly, I can’t start thinking about that until we finish paying my husband’s law school loans.
Our budgets will be the most restrictive factor as we purify our homes. The natural ingredients are out there; it’s a matter of affording them. Sometimes, we may need to chose products that are improvements, but not perfect, and that’s okay. Remember, the greater the demand for non-toxic products, the more affordable and accessible they will become!
Right now, the focus is reducing exposure to harmful chemicals as much as we reasonably can. We may still have to use some of the “bad” products, but if we’re conscientious moving forward, our families’ exposure will still be far less than it was.
Don’t buy what you don’t need
Be conscious when you shop. No matter how busy the store is or how rushed you feel, take the time to read the ingredient list if it’s an item you urgently need, or check the ingredient list online before shopping. You can compare it against the reference sheet I made for you.
Consider what items you’re buying out of convenience that you could either do without, make yourself, or substitute for items you already have. You’ll save money this way, too!
Where before, I used to greatly enjoy perusing the baby aisles at Walmart and Target, I now breeze right by them (unless I want to kill some time by gawking at ridiculous ingredient labels).
When I do need specific items, I research ahead of time and either order the product online, or know exactly what I’m looking for in the store.
Final Thoughts on Non-Toxic Children’s Products: Free Reference Guide!
The reason it’s so critically important for us mamas to be educated on the products we bring into our home is that we are the last line of defense between dangerous chemicals and our babies’ vulnerable, developing systems. We can’t entrust this job to anyone else.
Companies have a vested interest in your money, not your child’s well-being. Make your child’s well-being profitable by refusing to buy products which put them at risk. In a free market, our wallets speak far louder than our mouths.
Whether you skimmed, or had time to read the whole post, I hope I’ve opened your eyes to some of hidden dangers in your children’s products. Before I started researching, I knew baby and kids’ products had some less savory ingredients, but I had no idea just how pervasive and far reaching the issue is.
“A Mama’s Guide to Chemicals in Baby Products” Printable
Keeping track of so many chemicals and the various ways they’re listed just isn’t practical for a maxed-out mama brain! I’ve created this easy-to-read printable to help you quickly scan for some of the top offenders discussed in this post.
It’s certainly not all-inclusive, but it will help you get on your way to analyzing ingredients and protecting your family from unnecessary exposures. Print off a few copies–I recommend one for your purse, one for your computer desk, and one for your husband.
Will you be making any changes in your home or to your shopping list after reading this post? What surprised you the most? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Children’s Health Policy Review. (2003, March 3). Environmental Working Group. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/news/testimony-official-correspondence/ childrens-health-policy-review
Endocrine Disruptors. (2019, January 11). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/ endocrine/index.cfm
Group, E. (2016, February 1). 10 Shocking Facts About Flame Retardants. Global Healing Center. Retrieved from https://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/10-shocking-facts- flame-retardants/
Hamblin, J. The Toxins that Threaten our Brains. (2014, March 18). The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-toxins-that-threaten-our-brains/284466/
Known and Probable Human Carcinogens. (2016, November 3). American Cancer Society. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/known-and-probable- human-carcinogens.html
Steckelberg, J. (2017). Should I Avoid Products That Contain Triclosan? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/triclosan/faq- 20057861
Westervelt, A. (2015, 10 February). Phthalates Are Everywhere and the Health Risks are Worrying. How Bad Are They Really? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian. com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/10/phthalates-plastics-chemicals-research-analysis
What are Parabens? And are They Really That Bad? (n.d.). Best Health. Retrieved from https://www.besthealthmag.ca/best-looks/beauty/parabens/
Yang, C., Yaniger, S. Jordan, V. C., Klein, D. J., and Bittner, G. D. (2011). Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved. Environmental Health Perspectives. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222987/