Reading Labels & Understanding Ingredients

We all love snuggling up with a freshly bathed baby. Breathing in that sweet smell and feeling that soft skin is heavenly. You might be surprised to learn that many common baby products which claim to be safe, gentle, hypoallergenic, or even natural are anything but. Understanding the ingredients in what we are putting on and in our children has become ever more important to make sure that nice clean smell isn’t actually a potentially harmful toxic chemical. Keep in mind that newborns, babies, small children can not metabolize these chemicals as easily as an adult might, and really should they have to?

Some chemicals to avoid on ingredient lists:

1,4-Dioxane is a foaming agent used in bath products to create suds.

Found in: Shampoo, bubble bath, and soap.

Health concerns: Increased risk of cancer, known eye and respiratory tract irritant, and can cause damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys.

What to look for: The tricky part is that you will not find 1, 4-Dioxane on any ingredient list. In general you can watch out for compound ingredients that end with “eth” like sodium laureth sulfate, steareth-20, and ceteareth-20, or PEGs (Polyethylene glycol).

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is primarily used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins.

Found in: Plastic wrap, polycarbonate (plastics with the #7 recycling code and hard plastic containers including some baby bottles), canned foods, baby formula containers, soda cans, and even thermal paper receipts.

Health concerns: BPA can cause a whole host of health problems including increased risk of reproductive cancers like breast and prostate cancer, genital defects in baby boys, infertility, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

What to look for: The above mentioned plastics and cans that are not labeled BPA-free. Recycling codes 2, 4 & 5 are generally safe from BPA.

Benzyl Alcohol is an aromatic alcohol used as a preservative. It is made by the hydrolysis of benzyl chloride (which has been used as war gas due to its ability to cause the tearing, pain, and blindness in the eye) using sodium hydroxide (lye) or by combining phenylmagnesium bromide with formaldehyde.

Found in: Hair color, shampoo, lotion, baby wipes, sunscreen, facial cleansers and creams, lip gloss, and some essential oils.

Health concerns: Alone it is a known neurotoxin and a skin irritant causing itching, burning, hives, and blistering.

What to look for: benzyl alcohol

Cocamidopropyl betaine is a is a synthetic surfactant derived from coconut oil combined with petroleum products. It is an ingredient that makes products thicker, foamier, and is often used in place of SLS.

Found in: Shampoo, body wash, bubble bath, and toothpaste.

Health concerns: It is a known skin, lung, and eye irritant and is one of the most frequent causes of contact dermatitis. It is also a known human immune system toxicant. May also be contaminated with nitrosamines.

What to look for: Cocoamidopropyl betaine; N-(Coco alkyl) amido propyl dimethyl betaine; Coconut oil amidopropyl betaine; Quaternary ammonium compounds, (carboxymethyl)3-cocoamidopropyl)dimethyl, hydroxides, inner salts; 1-Propanaminium, 3-amino-N-(carboxymethyl)-N,N-dimethyl-, N-coco acyl derivs., inner salts

Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, DMDM hydantoin, and Quaternium-15 are the most commonly used preservatives after parabens.

Found in: Shampoos, lotions, and sunscreen.

Health concerns: Frequent cause of contact dermatitis. The formaldehyde released by these chemicals is a known carcinogen.

Nitrosamines are a potential impurity formed when nitrates and amino acids are able to combine.

Found in: Personal care products, potentially any of them.

Health Concerns: Increased risk of cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, and systemic toxicity

What to look for: diethanolamine (DEA) or triethanolamine (TEA), 2-BROMO-2-NITROPROPANE-1,3-DIOL (or Bronopol), parabens, Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, DMDM hydantoin, or Quaternium-15.

Oxybenzone is a common active chemical ingredient in sunscreen. It is easily absorbed in the skin, which is why so many people like it-no white noses!

Found in: Sunscreen.

Health concerns: Oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor and increases the risk of cancer. It also creates free-radicals and is a photoallergen, both of which mean it can cause harm when exposed to the sun. Not such a good thing for a product designed to be used in the sun.

What to look for: oxybenzone

Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl) are a group of chemicals used as preservatives to prevent microbial growth.

Found in: Shampoo, lotion, shaving gels, cleansing gels, foundation, eye shadow, anti-aging products, and toothpaste. They can also be found used as food additives and some pharmaceuticals.

Health concerns: Parabens have been linked to hormone disruption, increased risk of breast cancer, and reproductive toxicity. Methylparaben specifically, has also recently been shown to interfere with breast cancer treatment.

What to look for: Any ingredient ending with -paraben or -ester, fragrance, benzoic acid, or potassium salt. Methylparaben may also be an impurity found in grapefruit seed extract. Not all parabens are equal, so use your best judgment when finding that on an ingredient list.

PEGs (Polyethylene Glycol) are synthetic chemicals used as cleaning agents, thickeners, and skin conditioners.

Found in: Shampoos, soaps, lotions, sunscreens, and toothpaste.

Health concerns: Increased risk of breast, uterine, and brain cancers, leukemia, and are commonly contaminated with 1, 4-Dioxane.

What to look for: Anything that starts with PEG or polyethylene glycol.

Petroleum Byproducts are considered (unnecessarily) the workhorses of the cosmetics and bath product industry.

Found in: Cosmetics, lotion, and diaper cream.

Health concerns: Increased risk of cancer, usually due to impurities (1, 4-Dioxane and coal tar) in the manufacturing process.

What to look for: petrolatum, petroleum distallates, 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine, petroleum wax, petroleum naphtha, PVP/VA copolymer.

Phthalates are used to bind fragrance to many bath products and allow it to be absorbed more easily into the skin.

Found in: Shampoo, lotion, soaps, oils, and sunscreen. Anything that could have an added fragrance, even unscented products.

Health concerns: Hormone disruption leading to early puberty for girls and genital defects in boys, also infertility, sperm damage, and increased risk of testicular cancer to name a few.

What to look for: Any ingredient listed as fragrance or phthalate, as well as DEP, DEHP, dibutyl, or diethylhexyl.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a very commonly used plastic made when ethylene and chlorine are combined.

Found in: PVC makes up products like shower curtains, toys, and packaging.

Health concerns: PVC breaks down and releases numerous toxins including phthalates and lead. Production of PVC is harmful for both the workers and the environment.

What to look for: Plastics with the #3 recycling code, ask about any plastic not labeled PVC-free.

Propylene Glycol is used as a thickening agent and to dissolve oil and grease.

Found in: Shampoos and lotions.

Health concerns: Increases risk of cancer and is a reproductive toxin, known allergen, and eye irritant.

What to look for: propylene glycol

Sodium Laureth/Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) are used as foaming and thickening agents.

Found in: Shampoos, body wash, hand soap, dish soap, other soaps, detergents, and toothpaste.

Health concerns: SLSes alter the skin’s structure allowing other chemicals to penetrate the skin’s barriers increasing the amount of those chemicals that reach the bloodstream. SLSes often contain 1,4-Dioxane and are frequent causes of contact dermatitis.

What to look for: sodium laureth, sodium laurel sulfate,sodium lauryl sulfate, and sometimes, “derived from coconut.”

Triclosan is an antibacterial pesticide.

Found in: Dishwashing liquid, liquid hand soaps, hand sanitizers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, toys, and diaper changing pads to name just a few. Suspect products are any that claim to be antibacterial. Manufacturers claim that triclosan helps prevent infectious diseases (particularly in hand soaps), but a study from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health showed it was no more effective than plain soap and water. But triclosan does negatively impact long-term health.

Health concerns: When mixed with chlorine (like in tap water) it will create dioxins which are known carcinogens. It is also an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, which can lead to serious reproductive issues and various reproductive cancers. There is further evidence that it may affect thyroid function. It is also linked to bacterial and antibiotic resistance.

What to look for: Triclosan, Microban, or Biofresh.

If you want to know more about any other specific ingredients or products, use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database as a starting point. Just remember that it is only a starting point!