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Phthalates found in baby care products
The safety of phthalates – one of the most commonly used families of chemicals in the world – is being called into question again. Researchers at the University of Washington's Seattle Children's Hospital and the University of Rochester have found that babies whose moms had recently applied infant care products like baby lotion, shampoo, and powder were more likely to have phthalates in their urine than babies whose moms didn't use these products.
"We found that infant exposure to phthalates is widespread, and that exposure to personal care products applied onto the skin may be an important source," says Sheela Sathyanarayana, an acting assistant professor in the University of Washington's Department of Pediatrics. This is disturbing because the safety of phthalates has been in question, with studies over the years raising more and more red flags. And, as Sathyanarayana points out, "Babies may be more at risk than children or adults because their reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems are still developing."
Phthalates (pronounced "thah-lates") are chemical compounds used to soften plastics (especially polyvinyl chloride, or PVC). You'll find them in some toys, household products, cars, and plastic bottles and containers. They're used in personal care products, too – to help lubricate and soften other substances, to help lotions penetrate and soften the skin, and to help fragrances last longer, for example.
The chemical industry asserts that there are no conclusive studies in humans to suggest that phthalates are dangerous in the amounts to which we're currently exposed. But some consumer advocacy, environmental, and medical experts disagree.
Editor's note August 2018: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents reduce their children's exposure to phthalates due to the potential for endocrine system disruption.
"The animal studies suggest there is a potential for phthalates to impact birth outcomes, including gestational age and birth weight, fertility (lower sperm production), and anatomical abnormalities related to the male genitalia," says Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and director of the Mount Sinai Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit in New York City. "Human studies are now looking at the relationship between phthalates and asthma. There are also studies examining whether phthalates influence the timing of puberty or the risk for childhood obesity." (While phthalates have been shown to cause kidney and liver cancers in animal studies, the mechanism involved isn't likely to be relevant to humans, says Galvez.)
Sathyanarayana and fellow researchers tested urine samples from babies 2 months to 28 months old whose mothers had used infant care products on them in the previous 24 hours. They found that every baby had at least one phthalate in his urine sample, and 81 percent of them had seven or more phthalates in their system. Babies 8 months or younger had the highest levels, along with babies whose moms used more infant personal care products.
The products with the strongest phthalate association were baby powder, lotion, and shampoo. Baby wipes and diaper cream did not have a strong association.
What makes this new study unique is its focus on absorbing these chemicals through the skin via personal care products. Most of the previous concerns raised about phthalates – and another plasticizer, bisphenol A (BPA) – revolved around kids ingesting the chemicals. Ingestion can happen when children are mouthing or teething on plastic toys and nipples, when the chemicals leach from a bottle or storage container into something kids eat or drink, and when they breathe in chemicals "off-gassed" by vinyl products like shower curtains and flooring.
What you can do to protect your baby
While the news is alarming, there are concrete steps parents can take to reduce their baby's exposure to phthalates:
Limit the amount of baby care products you use on your baby, especially if he's 8 months or younger. Sathyanarayana recommends using these products only if "medically indicated" – in the case of diaper rash or eczema, for example. (Researchers found that diaper creams did not cause an increase in phthalates. Santhyanarayana suggests this may be because they're designed to sit on top of the skin and act as a barrier rather than be absorbed, like lotions.)
When you do use baby care products, choose products that are phthalate-free. Unfortunately it's not always easy to tell from the list of ingredients. Manufacturers aren't required to list phthalates separately, so they may be included under the term "fragrance." To find out whether a product contains phthalates or other potentially harmful chemicals, call the manufacturer or visit the company's website, or use the Environmental Working Group's Safety Guide to Cosmetics and Personal Care Products and search by product, ingredient, or company.
Because phthalates are also added to containers to make them more flexible and more durable, and because the chemical can leach from the container into a product, you'll also want to determine whether a product's container is phthalate-free. Many – but not all – "natural" body care manufacturers are conscientious about this, but you'll need to find out specifically from the company.
Sathyanarayana cautions that some products labeled phthalate-free were tested and shown to have phthalates in them, though at much lower concentrations than products not labeled phthalate-free. "I think it's really difficult to know what is in any of these products," she warns. Still, Sathyanarayana says, if you're concerned about phthalate exposure, products labeled "phthalate-free" would certainly be preferable.