Parents who use baby powder, lotion or shampoo on their infants may unknowingly expose their children to controversial chemicals with hormone-like effects, a study shows.
Researchers found the chemicals — called phthalates — in the urine of all 163 babies tested, according to the study in today’s Pediatrics. Most of the babies, whose average age was 13 months, had seven or more types of phthalates in their urine. Concentrations of phthalates were higher in infants who were exposed to lotion, powder and shampoo than in other infants, the study shows.
Doctors are concerned about phthalates because many animal tests and a few human studies link the chemicals — a broad class of ingredients found in everything from vinyl toys and hospital tubing to cosmetics — to reproductive abnormalities, allergies and eczema, says Sheela Sathyanarayana, acting assistant professor at the University of Washington. Unborn children and infants are especially vulnerable to chemicals that disrupt their hormonal balances because their reproductive systems are still developing, she says.
“It’s hard to trace where these chemicals are coming from,” Sathyanarayana says. “They could be causing harm, but we don’t know to what extent.”
A 2006 Danish study found that babies exposed to certain phthalates in breast milk had altered levels of reproductive hormones in their blood. Some of the same phthalates were found in the urine of babies in today’s Pediatrics study.
The new study suggests that phthalates are absorbed through the skin, says Ted Schettler, an expert on hormone-disrupting chemicals and science director for an advocacy group called the Science and Environmental Health Network. Schettler says it’s possible that being exposed to a combination of phthalates could be more harmful than being in contact with an individual chemical. Scientists need to test combinations like those found in this study to know for sure, he says.
“The jury is out on whether this level of exposure is potentially associated with health effects,” Schettler says.
John Bailey, chief scientist with the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group, says expert panels in the USA and Europe have found phthalates to be safe. Bailey says the Pediatrics study “makes no sense,” noting that only one of the phthalates found in babies’ urine in this study is used in personal care products. Some of the other phthalates detected in this study aren’t typically used in cosmetics, suggesting that children were exposed another way.
Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician, notes that parents don’t need to use lotions and powders on infants at all, unless they’re prescribed by a doctor. Parents can treat dry skin in babies with petroleum jelly, for example, which provides a protective barrier but isn’t readily absorbed.
“Babies don’t need lotions,” Sathyanarayana says. “It’s the one time in your life that your skin is perfect.”