Though things often appear not to improve fast enough, concerned citizens and scientists in the industrialized countries of our planet are gradually compelling governing bodies to take concrete steps to curb the toxic chemicals all around us, be they in our foods, the soil, the air, or the water.
But interestingly, the area of cosmetics (defined as grooming, skincare and make-up products) — and the toxic chemicals in them — have remained, until recently, virtually a “no man’s land.”
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA) estimates that close to 900 of the chemicals used in cosmetics are toxic!
Research by the Environmental Working Group, an alliance of scientists, engineers, policy experts and lawyers, with several offices nationwide, found that, with the exception of products made by small companies in the fast-growing natural products sector, nearly all personal care products contain
potentially dangerous chemicals.
Baby care products are no exception. Whether it’s shampoo, lotion, baby wipes … even diaper rash ointments, these products usually contain some of the same suspected toxic and carcinogenic ingredients found in adults’ products.
Doctors call human skin our “largest organ” — the biggest reactive, forever-changing entrance into our bodies. What goes on it is important. In the case of babies, their skins are believed to be 10 times more sensitive than adult skin — making avoidance of potentially harmful substances in baby care products that much more pressing.
Some of the more prevalent suspected toxic chemicals found in baby grooming products are DMDM hydantoin, known by many other names, including dimethylol. It is an antimicrobial preservative that releases formaldehyde — a gas most often used to embalm corpses. Studies have found a link between higher exposure to formaldehyde and cancer.
Methylparaben, a low-cost preservative, is another common ingredient in baby products. It mimics the female hormone estrogen in the body, adversely affecting reproductive glands. Additionally, a 2006 study found that when methylparaben was applied to skin cells that were later exposed to sunlight, the cells died.
Fragrances can be a problem, because they can be derived from a list of thousands of artificial chemicals, including diethyl phthalate (DEP), a mucous membrane irritant that can also weaken the immune system. In a study, mice developed liver tumors when DEP was applied directly on their skin daily for two months. Artificial fragrances can also cause asthma, skin irritation and sensitivity.
Even health care giant Johnson & Johnson, one of the best-known manufacturers of baby care products, has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years.
At the present time, the Food and Drug Administration does not conduct thorough regulation of personal care products. So, in 2009, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics — a coalition representing more than 175 non-profit groups, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Friends of the Earth, and the Environmental Working Group — wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson, detailing the Campaign’s concerns with the company’s products.
The products listed included Johnson’s iconic No more tears baby shampoo, its baby lotion, bath products, and Desitin diaper rash ointment, as well as adult skin care brands, including Aveeno, Neutrogena and Lubriderm.
The group went so far as to threaten to start a boycott campaign against Johnson & Johnson products; but the company quickly responded that it would begin to reformulate its products, so as to remove chemicals in question.
Of chief concern was the formaldehyde-releasing preservative quaternium-15 and chemical by-product 1,4 dioxane, both of which are believed to be carcinogenic and are found in the No more tears baby shampoo sold in the United States and Canada.
Johnson & Johnson has now removed the formaldehyde-releasing preservative from baby shampoo in several countries. But in the U.S. and in Canada, if you want to buy the company’s baby shampoo without the carcinogenic chemicals, you have to upgrade to the more expensive Johnson’s Natural Baby Shampoo, which has “98% naturally derived ingredients,” according to the company’s website.
However, this mostly natural shampoo still contains three synthetic ingredients, one of which is the preservative sodium benzoate, found by a British researcher at Sheffield University to damage the mitochondrial DNA in yeast cells (and it could be postulated to do the same to human cells). In high concentrations, sodium benzoate is a known carcinogen; additionally, its long-term effects are simply not known at this time.
Johnson & Johnson has promised baby products with safer ingredients in this country by the end of 2013; adult products will be reformulated by the end of 2015. A company spokeswoman explains that the reason for the years’ long delay in making the changes is that when ingredients are replaced, new ingredients must undergo quality-testing and be evaluated by volunteer consumers, in addition to the fact that many ingredients will also have to be registered with government agencies.
The relative scarcity of all-natural baby care products has led some health advocates to call for “chemical reform,” and for tighter chemical regulation on the part of the government.
By Lisa Pecos