As parents, we love spending lots of time and money selecting outfits, toys, and other fun stuff to buy for our new baby before she is born to make sure she looks as cute and cuddly as possible. Not long after the cord is cut, however, it’s time to get down and dirty with the real work of early parenting – changing poopie diapers! Since you’re here, you are already on the right track to do yourself and your baby a favor by finding out the common chemicals in baby wipes and how to avoid them. When making the change ourselves, we realized how potentially dangerous and toxic ingredients in baby wipes could be if they include harsh chemicals!
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Our ‘Aha!’ moment
My son was born just a few short months ago, and I can tell you that my wife and I spent way more time thinking about the wipes we bought for him than we ever did for my (now) eight-year-old twin girls. Being young and inexperienced, we picked up whatever was handy and cheapest on the shelf for the girls and, thinking back, we always had to deal with bouts of diaper rash or other irritations with them.
With my son, however, we grabbed an assortment of baby wipes that were free (or mostly free) of chemicals to try out and we eventually settled on some that we think are the best. Guess what, he NEVER has a problem with diaper rash! We are totally convinced that this is a game changer not only for health but also for the quality of life in your little one!
These days there are many great brands on the market that will be both chemical free and affordable to use for your baby. We like to consider every part of the wipe as a whole, so we also prefer biodegradable wipes that we know won’t be clogging our sewers and oceans once we throw them away!
Check out our roundup of the best biodegradable baby wipes here for more details about brands we trust!
Here are the chemicals in baby wipes to avoid
Let’s be real here for a second. There is absolutely no way to avoid all chemicals in baby wipes at all times, everywhere totally. There will always be problems with potential contamination, even among otherwise safe ingredients, but this list is all about avoiding the chemicals in baby wipes that companies add all the time despite their documented dangers. While it is by no means exhaustive, staying on the lookout for these ingredients will go a long way towards reducing the exposure to these common chemicals in baby wipes!
Parabens have been used in personal care products for decades and only recently have consumers started seeing negative reports of chemicals in this family such as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. They are used as a preservative to help these products last longer, and they can easily penetrate the skin.
The problem with parabens is that they act as a weak estrogen in the body and too much estrogen can have disastrous side effects. According to the Breast Cancer Organization, they can turn up the growth on hormone-receptor-positive types of breast cancer and numerous studies have revealed intact paraben molecules inside breast cancers and other tissues.
Many personal care and cosmetics companies have taken notice of parabens and taken steps to reduce their use in their products, but their use has not been eliminated. Unfortunately, avoiding parabens entirely is almost impossible as some studies have shown that as much as 90 percent of typical grocery store products contain measurable parabens which can lead to a cumulative effect in the body over time.
Phthalates are an entire family of chemicals that have a variety of uses and effects on the human body. Typically, they are added to plastics to make them soft and moldable, and humans are usually exposed to them indirectly by eating or handling packaging that has been made with them because they don’t strongly bind to the products. Examples of phthalates are BBP, DBP, MiBP (found in nail polish), MEHP (added to PVC plastics), MEP (found in fragrances), DiNP (found in many children’s’ toys and childcare products), and the list goes on and on.
Because they are found in an insane amount of products, phthalates are very hard to avoid altogether. Even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned, items like fragrances can include many ingredients such as these and still just list as ‘fragrance’ on the bottle.
These chemicals act like weak endocrine disruptors in the body and have also shown the ability to block androgens which can wreak havoc on the hormones of humans, especially males. In males, they have been linked to early onset puberty, reproductive system problems and defects, lower testosterone levels, and lower sperm levels.
Children under the age of 3 are at increased risk of encountering phthalates and suffering from their effects.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, formaldehyde is a highly toxic, flammable gas that is readily absorbed by the lungs, intestines, and skin. Over the years, studies have looked closely at the effects of formaldehyde among those who frequently handle the chemical such as factory workers and embalmers. There has been a link established between it and cancers of the nasopharynx and nasal sinuses as well as leukemia.
When exposed to the skin in high enough concentrations, formaldehyde can irritate and it has been shown to interact with molecules in the cell membranes as well as body tissues and fluids (things like DNA and proteins). Children are at an increased risk of toxicants like this in general because of their higher surface area-to-body weight ratio.
Although many companies have removed formaldehyde from their formulations in recent years, mainly due to the Johnson and Johnson spotlight, many other chemicals release formaldehyde over time.
This chemical can be added to baby wipes as an antibacterial agent meant to kill germs. While this sounds great, there is evidence that triclosan is neither very effective or safe.
A recent study released by the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy concluded that soaps and other products that included the chemical were no more effective than plain soap when it comes to reducing bacterial contamination in ‘real-world’ scenarios, like wiping up baby poop. Sounds like we want our baby wipes to avoid this chemical!
Further, the Food and Drug Administration considers triclosan to be a likely endocrine disruptor, showing decreases in some thyroid hormone levels in animal studies along with the fact that it could be contributing to the rise of so-called super bacteria because of it’s overuse in so many products. In fact, it was recently banned from being included in many antibacterial soaps.
Commonly found in cosmetics as a stabilizer, Phenoxyethanol has generally been deemed safe to use in those products in concentrations of one percent or less to reduce the chance of overexposure. Typically, side effects are relatively mild and include irritation of the skin, rashes, eczema, hives, and other allergic reactions.
In infants, however, it has been shown to cause damage to the central nervous system with enough exposure through something like a baby wipe or breastfeeding mother.
Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-Dioxane
Although these aren’t usually a direct ingredient that you’ll find in baby wipes, ethylene oxide and 1,4-Dioxane are chemicals commonly used in the process of ethoxylation which can make other components that are listed less harsh on the skin. Unfortunately, some of these chemicals often remain in the final product, and the FDA has listed them as a potential human carcinogen as exposure to animals during research produced liver, nasal, peritoneal gland, and mammary gland tumors along with other liver and kidney damage.
As they are just a ‘contaminate,’ companies do not have to disclose the presence of this chemical and EWG’s database contains over 200 baby products that could include the chemicals. Your best chance to avoid ethylene oxide and 1,4-Dioxane will come through avoiding potentially contaminated ingredients such as SLES, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxynolethylene, and other chemicals that end in -eth or -oxynol.
You will need to take care and perform extra research on any baby wipes you are considering to avoid these chemicals in their ingredients list.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
If you pick up a bottle of something in the bathroom, especially shampoos or soaps that foam, you are likely to find either SLS or SLES included in the list of ingredients. They are useful as a surfactant in these products which means they help break up oil and grime so that it can be washed away from your hair or body. As anyone that has gotten shampoo in their eyes will tell you, these chemicals can definitely irritate the eyes and over time can irritate the skin of certain individuals.
The problem with SLS and, especially, SLES, is that they can be contaminated during the ethoxylation process we just talked about and could be contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane. In fact, EWG found this contaminate in 57 percent of all baby soaps tested, of which SLES is a common ingredient.
This chemical is a biocide used as a preservative in many cosmetic and personal care products to limit the growth of bacteria. It has also been found in many baby-specific products such as lotions, shampoos, and baby wipes and exposure can be higher with the creams and wipes because they aren’t normally rinsed off after application. MIT can cause skin irritation in these areas ranging from mild to severe depending on the individual’s sensitivity to the chemical.
Animal studies with MIT have shown that higher concentrations and/or lengthened exposure caused reddened lungs, swollen intestines, and eventual death due to its irritating properties and in-vitro tests on brain cells have shown it to be neurotoxic although it is unlikely to actually cause these issues with the concentrations allowed in consumer products.
Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate (IPBC)
IPBC is another preservative, this time classified as a fungicide, that is used in many personal care products to help give them longer shelf life. According to the International Journal of Toxicology, it is a known skin irritant that can easily penetrate the skin and has triggered allergic responses in many users.
It is especially toxic when inhaled so aerosol products and sprays with this chemical should be avoided. In New Zealand, IPBC has been banned for use in products intended to be used by children under three years old
Bronopol and DMDM Hydantoin
Yet another pair of preservatives, Bronopol and DMDM Hydantoin are bactericides found in a lot of personal care products, and they are potent skin, eye, and respiratory irritants. At this time, there is no strong evidence that it is a carcinogen for humans or that there is any organ system toxicity, but it is highly toxic to aquatic life when released into rivers and oceans as waste.
The biggest problem with these chemicals is that they have been found to release formaldehyde over time which is another nasty chemical that we all want to avoid!
My chemical free baby wipe recommendation
Hopefully reading about these common chemicals in baby wipes has been eye-opening – I know it was for my wife and me! Although it is unlikely that there will be huge amounts of these chemicals inside a wipe we feel strongly that we should avoid these types of chemicals where we can and in many cases, it is just unnecessary exposure that makes no sense. Our babies tiny body is more sensitive to chemicals in baby wipes as it is and they will have many other opportunities to be exposed later on!
If you are interested in what wipes I recommend, check out my resource on the top 5 best biodegradable and chemical-free baby wipes. This post has a mini-review of all five wipes including why I like them and other useful info!