Toxic Kiddie Toiletries: Study Finds Possible Carcinogens in Popular Products

By Christine Cupaiuolo — March 19, 2009

More than half of the 48 baby shampoos, bubble baths and baby lotions analyzed in a recent laboratory test were found to contain formaldehyde and/or 1,4-dioxane, chemicals that have been linked to allergies and skin cancer.

The study was sponsored by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of nonprofit organizations focused on health and the environment. The full report, “No More Toxic Tub” (pdf), is available online. Among the findings:

  • 17 out of 28 products tested – 61 percent – contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.
  • 23 out of 28 products – 82 percent – contained formaldehyde at levels ranging from 54 to 610 parts per million (ppm).
  • 32 out of 48 products – 67 percent – contained 1,4-dioxane at levels ranging from 0.27 to 35 ppm.

Though the levels found were relatively low, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes in this release “that babies may be exposed to several products at bath time, several times a week, in addition to other chemical exposures in the home and environment. Those small exposures add up and may contribute to later-life disease.”

Product labels do not disclose the chemicals because they’re contaminants (byproducts of the manufacturing process), not ingredients, and therefore are exempt from labeling laws.

Many of the products on the study list are  manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. The company released a statement, published in the Washington Post, noting that their “products meet or exceed the regulatory requirements in every country where they are sold.”

The European Union has banned 1,4-dioxane in personal care products, but the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has determined that trace amounts found in personal care products do not pose a threat. Health advocates are pushing for increased FDA regulation.

“The fact that we are bathing our kids in products contaminated with carcinogens shows how woefully out of date our cosmetics laws are and how urgently they need to be updated,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) told the Post. “The science has moved forward; now the FDA needs to catch up and be given the authority to protect the health of Americans.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said she will introduce legislation requiring stronger oversight of the cosmetics industry.

In an online discussion about safety limits on commercial products, Stacy Malkan, the study’s co-author and author of ” Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” stressed that the purpose of the study was not to cause alarm but to point out that products advertised as “gentle” and “pure” may still contain contaminants.

Many companies are already reformulating products for markets with stricter regulation outside the United States. Our own safety standards need to be updated, said Malkan.

Current cosmetics laws in the U.S. were created in 1938 — they’re a bit outdated, to say the least! Scientists have learned a lot over the past few decades about the health risks of low dose chemical exposures, and the special vulnerabilities of children. Companies have also learned a lot about how to make high performance products without carcinogenic chemicals. I believe that shifting to cleaner product formulations will benefit the beauty industry in the long run, making them more competitive globally.

To get there, we need a smarter regulatory system that requires companies to remove chemicals that are known or highly suspected of causing cancer, reproductive harm or other health problems, and also requires them to fully disclose the ingredients in their products. In other words, we need a regulatory system that keeps companies honest and rewards the companies that are doing the best job of making the safest products. This will take an act of Congress. FDA currently does not have the authority to properly regulate cosmetics.

Plus: If you want to look up the products you use, the Environmental Working Group maintains a Skin Deep database with toxicity information on more than 42,000 products.

One response to “Toxic Kiddie Toiletries: Study Finds Possible Carcinogens in Popular Products”

  1. My son’s pediatrician is a big fan of using plain water for bathing (we use cloth diapers and flannel wipes wetted with tap water) and organic castile soap if they’re really grimey. The Skin Deep database is a great one!

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