When it comes to babies and children, all parents have one thing in common – we all want to give them the best things in life. This, I’m sure, applies to all aspects of care, including skin care. But as babies’ and children’s skin is much more sensitive than ours, it is especially important to make sure their skin care routine is carefully chosen. A general assumption many parents make is that products designed for babies/ children are risk-free but this is not always the case.Unfortunately, as it turns out, many products contain harsh chemicals and ingredients which may cause irritation and lead to allergic reactions (and even worse). I know from my own experience that it is really tricky (not to mention time-consuming and expensive in some cases) to find and commit to buying products without at least one of those nasty ingredients.
If you haven’t given this much thought before or even if you have but have found the idea of deciphering ingredient lists really daunting, and you want to reduce your child’s exposure to those ingredients, I hope you will find the below list of ingredients that should be avoided in products for babies and young children handy. You may also want to check out my other post on how to read labels with more ease.
Also, whilst the following post is aimed at raising awareness among parents in particular, my view is that anyone who wishes to be more conscious of what we put on our skin should read on as well.
And now A BIG WORD OF CAUTION – if you look through your bathroom cupboards and find products with those ingredients, please do NOT panic! It’s highly unlikely that you or your family would have been affected but I can’t deny I had that same feeling of panic myself. Instead, take a practical approach and carefully review each of those products before deciding which ones you want to throw out.
Please note that when doing my research, I have verified many sources available to the public, mainly the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database (both American), as well as UK-based Colin’s Beauty Pages. I continue to keep myself updated on developments within the skin care industry and will amend these pages as and when required.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
These commonly used emulsifiers appear across most cosmetics, such as shampoos, shower gels, bubble bath and liquid soaps, due to their foaming properties but can really damage the protective layer of natural oils on our skin – this then makes the skin more ‘vulnerable’ and more permeable for other ingredients. This can be particularly harmful to babies’ and children’s delicate skin.
- Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs)
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many products, e.g. shampoos, nail products, eyelash glues, hair gels and even some baby shampoos! They are used in cosmetics to prevent bacteria from growing in water-based products – all of these ingredients have different potency levels but when interacting with other ingredients, they can release the toxic formaldehyde, which is considered a known human carcinogen!
It is worth noting that formaldehyde and FRPs are completely banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in Japan and Sweden; whilst in the EU, the use of Quaternium-15 as a preservative is allowed in cosmetic products at a concentration of up to 0.2% . I have come across quite a few baby products that contain Quarternium-15 and my personal view is that I’d rather not use my baby as a guinea pig, regardless of regulations.
Look out for these names on ingredients lists:
- 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol (Bromopol)
- 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane (Bronidox)
- Diazolidinyl Urea
- DMDM Hydantoin
- Imidazolidinyl Urea
- Polyoxymethylene Urea
- Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate
Quite a few tricky names to remember and note but these have been linked to cancer and allergic skin reactions so definitely worth learning how to spot them. Having personally been tested positive for allergic reactions to formaldehyde, these are certainly ingredients I always look out for.
Used as a preservative, exposure to this chemical has been linked to reactions ranging from eczema to severe, life-threatening allergic reactions – mostly due to its ability (unlike many other ingredients) to penetrate through the skin’s protective barrier.
Infant oral exposure to phenoxyethanol is also said to acutely affect nervous system function. Moreover, parabens may enhance the allergic effects of phenoxyethanol so avoid products containing both chemicals. If you are not allergic, phenoxyethanol is considered a relatively safe preservative; however, from my understanding the scientific research on this ingredient isn’t particular conclusive so perhaps it’s better to stick to the ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude for now.
Note: the Cosmetics Regulation of the European Union approved phenoxyethanol in concentrations up to 1%.
Parabens are widely used as preservatives to prevent the growth of microbes and, therefore, to prolong the shelf life of skincare products. Some are more potent than others but overall, they can be absorbed by skin, blood and the digestive system. They are thought to behave like hormones and have been linked to cancer (skin and breast), as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity.
They can be easily found on the ingredients list – simply check the list for anything ending in paraben:
- PEGs, Propylene Glycol and Butylene Glycol
Polyethylene Glycols (also known by their acronyms PEGs), Propylene Glycol and Butylene Glycol are compounds used in many skin care products as humectants (i.e. preventing the loss of moisture). They are products of the petrochemical industry and due to their low prices, they are cheaper alternatives to natural humectants (such as glycerin). There are many names for PEGs but they are typically followed by a number, e.g. PEG-4 or PEG-100.
All of these comopunds have been found to cause allergic reactions and contact dermatitis. They are also linked to cancer because in order to produce them, a toxic gas ethylene oxide is used and that gas is a known carcinogen. Some research also suggests that they enhance penetration of other ingredients, both bad and good, more deeply into the skin, making this another critical concern about using them.
Polyacrylamide is used as a stabiliser and binder in many products, including face moisturisers, anti-ageing products and body lotions. Though it is not a concern in itself, it is made up of repeating molecules of acrylamide, which is a strongly suspected carcinogen and has been linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity.
Triethanolamine (TEA) TEA is used as fragrance, pH adjuster and emulsifying agent, and has been linked to liver tumors. It is found in products ranging from soaps, shampoos, but also household cleaning products.
UPDATE 02/10/2016 – extended to include a group of compounds:
7. Ethanolamine compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA and others)
Ethanolamines are present in many products, not only skin care and make up (including shaving creams, shampoos, dyes and mascara) but also household cleaning products.
Ethanolamines can react with certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, and then form nitrosamines (a class of different chemicals) which are possible and known carcinogens. Some studies also suggest that DEA affects human male reproductive health.
The European Commission prohibits diethanolamine (DEA) in cosmetic products in order to reduce contamination from carcinogenic nitrosamines.
Search for these names within ingredient lists:
- Triethanolamine/ TEA
- Diethanolamine/ DEA
- Cocamide DEA
- Cocamide MEA
UPDATE 02/10/2016 – added:
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT)
These common preservatives are quite a mouthful to pronounce to say the least but they are found in many liquid products (such as body washes, shampoos and make up removers), and have been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions and possible neurotoxicity. They are said to be two of the most predominant contact allergens found in cosmetic products.
Search for these names within ingredient lists:
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
- Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT)
9. Some UV filters
Unlike what some may think, UV filters are used not only in sunscreen products but also in everyday skin care and make-up products. Unfortunately, though, some filters have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and organ system toxicity. For instance, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate has been detected in human urine, blood and breast milk, which indicates that we are systemically exposed to this compound. It is also considered an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function.
Search for these names within ingredient lists:
- 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor
- Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate also known as Octyl Methoxycinnamate (OMC)
- Ingredients containing the word benzophenone (e.g. Benzophenone-3, Benzophenone-4)
- PABA/ OD-PABA/ Padimate O
10. Mineral oil
Mineral oil, which is a by-product of the petroleum industry and therefore not a natural product, is widely used across the cosmetics industry (including in products to treat eczema and baby oil which is 100% mineral oil). The reasons for this are that mineral oil is a cheaper alternative to plant oils (such as coconut oil) but also because it is very unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. When applied to the skin, it acts as a ‘barrier’ for foreign particles, which means it prevents external contamination, however it also stops the skin from ‘breathing’ and can clog pores.
Those based in the US or purchasing products from the US may want to note that mineral oil used in skin care products may not be properly refined and therefore potentially contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are possible carcinogens. In the EU on the other hand, the full refining history of mineral oil must be known and proven to be non-carcinogenic, however the US doesn’t set such a requirement.
What to look out for on the ingredients list:
- (Liquid) petrolatum
- Petroleum jelly
- Paraffin oil
- Mineral oil
- Paraffinum liquidum
- White petrolatum
- Liquid paraffin
- White mineral oil