7 Toxic Chemicals to Avoid in Baby Products
October 3, 2022
There’s a saying that goes like this: “A worried mother does better research than the FBI.” Any parent knows that there’s plenty of truth in that saying. Why? Because being a new parent is equal parts joy and fear. Caring for a newborn isn’t all sunshine and rainbows—although there’s plenty of that, too. When you hold your tiny, sweet baby in your arms, marveling at their newness, it’s impossible not to worry about every single thing that could pose a threat to them. How many of us have stared into the blue light of our phone screens in the late hours of the night, Googling obscure, sometimes even irrational, hypothetical situations that would seem insane to others? We learn that the most innocuous things, like corded blinds and whole grapes, are hazards to small children, and that we are surrounded by hundreds or thousands of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals in our own homes. It’s a frightening truth made even more frightening by the fact that exposure to some of these chemicals are impossible to avoid. They’re in our food, clothing, children’s toys, and everyday products.
It’s overwhelming, we know. With so many dangers around us, how are we supposed to keep our babies safe? Toxic chemicals are just another thing on a long list of anxieties for parents, but with good reason. Many of these chemicals may be carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting, and we may be affected by them in more ways than we’re already aware or. What scientists and researchers are most concerned about are the effects these chemicals have on the developing brains of babies and children. During the first 9 months of life, brain development is rapid. A baby’s brain forges neural pathways and connections at a breathtaking pace, and interference from toxic chemicals might disrupt this complex development. Although it’s impossible to totally eliminate exposure to every potentially toxic chemical in the world, there are steps you can take to at least limit exposure to the following chemicals, which are known to be harmful to human health:
Pesticides are chemical substances used to regulate, prevent, or destroy plants or pests (like insects, rodents, and microorganisms). In agriculture, they are used to control weeds, insect infestation, and diseases. Many of us are familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen, the list used to identify the twelve worst produce on the market for pesticide residue. Shockingly, pesticides are commonly found in baby food, and although the levels are below federal standards, these standards do not specifically incorporate any special protections for babies or children. To protect your little one from these probable carcinogens (substances that may cause cancer), buy organic whenever possible, but especially choose organic when purchasing foods on the Dirty Dozen list.
Aside from color additives, companies aren’t required to share fragrance ingredient details with the FDA. This includes safety information, so if baby products include the term “fragrance” in its list of ingredients, you may not know what ingredients are being used. Synthetic fragrances are cheaper than plant-derived fragrances, and they are often sourced from petroleum by-products and can be harmful to human health. Baby products, like shampoos and detergents, are often fragranced in sweet scents designed to smell clean, but reality is that fragrances are linked to a number of health risks, from allergens and endocrine disruptors, to neurotoxins and carcinogens. They also commonly contain phthalates, another chemical we’ll cover below, which help the scents last longer. Although we’re led to believe that cleanliness has a smell (we may think of lemon, pine, eucalyptus, or lavender), it’s actually far from the truth.
Phthalates are chemical plasticizers used to soften plastics enough to bend them without cracking or breaking. Because they are commonly used in a wide array of products, they are often referred to as “everywhere chemicals.” They are used in food packaging, detergents, clothing, furniture, shower curtains, automotive plastics, stain resistant products, many beauty products because they make fragrances last longer, PVC plumbing, and children’s toys. Studies have connected phthalates to childhood obesity, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular issues, and reproductive problems. They are, quite literally, everywhere, and children are the most vulnerable to exposure because of their developing brains and hand-to-mouth behaviors. Although avoiding them entirely is impossible, choose products that are phthalates-free whenever possible.
BISPHENOL A (BPA)
BPA is an industrial chemical that is used to harden plastics. It is used in many consumer products, such as hard plastic drinking containers, baby bottles, the lining of infant formula cans, and food cans. In animals, BPA is an endocrine disruptor that imitates the effects of human estrogen. These animal studies suggest that even low levels of BPA may be harmful to the development of children under 2 years of age. The possible health effects may include changes to thyroid function, brain growth, behavioral development, and the development of the prostate gland. During pregnancy, babies can be exposed to BPA from their mother. The chemical can also seep into food or beverages from containers made with BPA. Although the majority of Americans have measurable amounts of BPA in their bodies, many baby product manufacturers are moving away from using BPA in their products.
Parabens are a chemical that naturally occur in some foods, but they are often used in baby products because they are effective preservatives that stop mold and bacteria growth. However, studies have shown that parabens can be another endocrine disruptor, mimicking the effects of estrogen in the body. They may cause fertility problems, increase the risk of breast cancer, and disrupt baby growth during fetal gestation and the first few years of life. One study found that baby animals exposed to higher levels of parabens were found to have increased problems with social interactions, learning, and memory. Although there’s still so much that is unknown about parabens and their exact effects on the body, it is known that babies are more likely to absorb chemicals through their skin than adults are.
Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in many chemical sunscreens, but there is concern over its ability to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Out of all sunscreen chemicals, the EWG has declared it the most worrisome. There are concerns that it may act as a hormone disruptor, and some studies have shown that it can cause skin allergies. Although the FDA says that the chemical is safe, and even approves oxybenzone in sunscreen for use on children older than six months, scientists say that the chemical’s potential toxicity needs more research. However, sunscreen is highly effective in preventing skin cancer, so parents who are nervous about oxybenzone should keep their little ones in the shade or choose mineral sunscreens instead.
Flame retardants are chemicals that manufacturers add to consumer products to meet flammability standards. They are commonly found in baby products, like car seats, and can penetrate the skin or accumulate in dust. Studies have linked some flame retardants to various health problems, like cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive issues, and neurodevelopmental problems. Researchers have reported that flame retardants containing bromine have surpassed lead as the biggest contributor to intellectual disability in children. Although some of the most toxic flame retardants have been banned from baby pajamas, they are still found in many other infant products.
About the Author: Alice
Alice Mendoza is a copywriter and blog writer based in Los Angeles. She began writing for a baby brand while on maternity leave, and realized she had found her niche. Today, she writes exclusively within the baby space, using her BFA in Creative Writing and her own experience as a mother to guide her. When she’s not working, you can find her chasing down her toddler, going on walks around the neighborhood, or watching reality TV.