Phthalates and Other Toxic Ingredients in Baby Care Products

A recent study published in the February issue of Pediatrics looked for detectable phthalate exposure in the urine of 163 infants born between 2000 and 2005.  Over 80 percent of the infants studied had measureable levels of phthalate metabolites in their urine!  Commonly used products among infants with higher levels of phthalate metabolites included baby lotion, baby shampoo, and baby powder.  No correlation was found between high urine phthalate levels and the use of baby wipes and diaper creams.  While in Europe phthalates are banned from use in personal care products and some toys, in the US manufacturers are not required to even disclose the presence of these widely used chemicals in their products.  That’s right, they aren’t listed on the label, making it extremely difficult to measure levels of exposure and study the effects of phthalates. 

Phthalates are often used in fragrances.  They are also used in manufacturing, to make plastics such as polyvinyl chloride softer and more flexible.  According to Greenpeace, phthalates are suspected as human cancer-causing agents, and could damage the liver and kidneys, interfere with the development of the reproductive organs, and mimic the hormone estrogen in the body.  Some authorities suspect a link between phthalate exposure and early onset of puberty in girls.  In animal studies, rats exposed to certain levels of phthalates experienced adverse health effects, some of which included shortened life spans, weight loss, low level cancerous cell changes, liver enlargement, and even liver tumors.    One study in humans found an association between phthalate exposure and male reproductive problems. 

In the instances that phthalates do happen to be listed on a product label, you won’t find the word “phthalate,” although a few products may be labelled “phthalate-free.”  There are a few abbreviations that you might find on product labels.  As I mentioned before, manufacturers are not required to list these ingredients, so I give the following caution:  These ingredients may still be in the products even if you don’t find them on the label!  Some chemicals that are classified as phthalates include:  DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DMP (dimethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate or Bis-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), and BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate).  The last two ingredients are found primarily in PVC plastics.  DEHP is sometimes found in medical devices.

A few other ingredients of concern which have been found in infant care products include formaldehyde or formaldehyde donor preservatives, mineral oil, parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, and sodium laureth sulfate, to name a few.  Mineral oil, which is basically synonymous with “baby oil,” is made when gasoline and kerosene are removed from crude petroleum by heating.  Then, using sulfuric acid, absorbents,  solvents, and alkalis;  hydrocarbons and other chemicals are removed leaving the final product, mineral oil.    Parabens are an estrogen-like compound, albeit a very weak one.  These are used as preservatives in many types of personal care products and cosmetics.  Sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate, foaming agents,  primarily present a risk as skin and potential eye irritants.  Formaldehyde and formaldehyde donor ingredients are considered potential carcinogens.  The five most common formaldehyde donor preservatives are quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol).  The concern in baby products as well as products for adults, is that toxic ingredients can be rapidly absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream, especially with the formaldehyde donor ingredients .  In some cases this occurs in as little as 90 seconds.  To make matters worse, toxins absorbed through the skin bypass the liver’s first pass metabolism.  Because of this critical difference, many substances are more toxic when absorbed through the skin than when they are ingested.  

Even without the potential for phthalate exposure, the use of baby powder carries several risks in and of itself.  Talc is recognized as a potential carcinogen, especially for lung and ovarian cancers.  These powders can easily be inhaled if they become airborne during use.  If a cornstarch baby powder is used in the presence of a candida-associated diaper rash, especially on broken skin, it can aggravate the condition by providing food for the yeast microorganisms causing the rash.  So powders are probably better to avoid entirely. Coconut oil makes a great natural and safe protectant for the diaper area. It also has natural antimicrobial effects.

There are safe products available that you can use for baby, including baby bath/shampoo and lotion.  You can purchase phthalate-free baby wash/shampoo, and lotion here.   This lotion is also free of formaldehyde-donor preservatives, mineral oil, alcohol, parabens,  sodium laurel sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, and colors/dyes. The combination baby wash and shampoo protects the skin by preserving the natural acid barrier that is normally present, and which is removed by most soap based products.  It is thick and long lasting, we find that we only need 1/3 the amount compared to when we were using Johnson’s baby shampoo.  The products are not tested on animals. Safety is verified by an independent dermatologist.

 If you ever have questions about ingredients in personal care products, visit the website of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review for more information.

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  1. terri said,

    February 25, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    thank you

  2. ChristineMM said,

    March 6, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    The other day I was in my hair salon which is trying to go more green than hair salons typically are.

    They were selling mineral oil based candles and had literature saying that paraffin based candles are toxic and have a petroleum base. It read as if the mineral oil based candles were natural. I already knew that mineral oil was based on petroleum. Things were being said that burning a candle with a base of a petroleum product was bad for the health. Yet I asked myself what is the difference with this mineral oil based gel candle? I am so confused. If you have an opinion on this I’d love to hear it. I find it hard to find information on the negative’s of mineral oil.


  3. jstevens said,

    March 6, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Hi Christine! Here is what I have on mineral oil on my cosmetics page, because these are also common ingredients in cosmetics and some personal care products. I too would be concerned about breathing the vapors of either paraffin or mineral oil candles. It sounds to me like mineral oil and paraffin are basically cut from the same cloth, so to speak. I have heard good things about soy candles, but I have not yet had the time to research these, not being a big candle user myself.

    “Mineral Oil and Waxes disrupt the skin’s ability to breathe. Mineral oil, a derivative of crude oil, is used industrially as a cutting fluid and lubricating oil. It forms an oily film over the skin to lock in moisture, but it also traps in toxins and wastes, and hinders normal skin respiration by keeping oxygen out. (NOTE: Liquidum Paraffinum is an exotic sounding way to say mineral oil. Paraffin wax or oil is mineral oil wax.) Petroleum products coat the skin, clogging pores and creating a build-up of toxins, which in turn accumulate and can lead to more skin problems. Petroleum derivatives slow cellular development, which can cause you to show earlier signs of aging. They are a suspected cause of cancer and are also disruptive of hormonal activity.”

    So if you can translate this into breathing these ingredients rather than applying them to the skin, I think you can make a reasonable conclusion about their safety. I hope this helps.


  4. AntiagingSkinProducts said,

    March 9, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    I agree. This was a very nice read!

    John Mathers
    Anti Aging Skin Products

  5. scentfreesavvy said,

    November 10, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    Don’t forget about phthalates in children’s toys. Please see my post at
    Fragrance can be found in many children’s toys. Many children have Autism, ADD/ADHD, Asthma and cancer. Caution should be used when purchasing toys with fragrance. In our scent free home … no toys with fragrance allowed.

  6. andre said,

    January 3, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Sir/Ms: Thank you very much for your excellent information; I never realized that mineral oil is made from gasoline and kerosine! And yet, it is recommended by physicians for baby use! Sincerely, Andre

  7. November 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Helpful information

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