When it comes to chemicals in the products we use and the food we eat, the internet has given us tons of conflicting information, conspiracy theories, and an overload of baseless opinions, making it really hard for us parents to know what’s true and what’s just hype.

In this post, you will not find another “mommy opinion;” in fact you will not find any of my opinions. Instead, you will find summaries of and links to sound research on controversial personal care ingredients that will educate and empower you to confidently make your own decision.

The ingredients covered include:

  • Fragrance
  • Phthalates
  • Parabens
  • 1,4-dioxane
  • Formaldehyde

The research studies teach us that, unfortunately, there is evidence suggesting that they:

  • interfere with reproductive systems
  • cause respiratory and dermatological issues
  • may cause cancer in high doses

(Make sure to check out the ingredient cheat sheet at the bottom of this post and my post on my Favorite Baby Skincare Products that don’t contain any of these ingredients)

How the FDA Regulates Cosmetic Products

Before I dive into the specific ingredients it is important to discuss how the FDA regulates what they call “cosmetics.” Many baby care products including lotions, shampoos, toothpastes, wipes and more fall into this category. Here is the the FDA’s definition of cosmetics.

And did you know that these “cosmetic products” don’t need FDA approval? The FDA’s website states that, “cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market… However… cosmetics must be safe for consumers when used according to directions on the label.”

So what is considered safe, you ask? This is the FDA’s answer to that: “Although the FD&C Act does not require that cosmetic manufacturers or marketers test their products for safety, the FDA strongly urges cosmetic manufacturers to conduct whatever toxicological or other tests are appropriate to substantiate the safety of their cosmetics.” 

“Cosmetic products and ingredients… do not need FDA approval before they go on the market… and it is not required that cosmetic manufacturers or marketers test their products for safety.”

u.s. Food & drug administration

I have included statements from relevant governmental agencies, which sometimes contradict the other research included. I do this in attempt to give you the most complete picture. However, we must remember that both governmental agencies as well as privately funded research can be funded by or swayed by specific interests. If you’re interested in understanding all the players in this crazy game of chemical safety and regulation, this Washington Post article is an excellent read.

1. Fragrance

What is it and how is it used?

It is used as simply as it sounds, to make something smell nice. What it is, on the other hand, is not so simple. “Fragrance” is a blackhole of nasty undisclosed ingredients. This one word may contain a grouping of 50 – 300 different chemicals that are unregulated by any state, federal or global authority.

Fragrances can be found almost everywhere. You should check the label for this one in all personal care, baby care, or cosmetic products. 

Why should I be concerned?

The problem with fragrance is that it is mostly unregulated, the ingredients are not disclosed, and they can contain “known toxins that are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders and allergies—some of which are cited on the EPA’s hazardous waste list” (Huffington Post).

What does the research say?

This report by the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is an excellent summary of the issue of “Fragrance” ingredients. It found that “fragrance chemicals made up the vast majority of the chemicals linked to harmful chronic health effects in the beauty and personal care products [they] tested.”

This report found that the International Fragrance Association’s (IFRA’s) Transparency List (the master list of “all fragrance ingredients used in consumer goods”) contains over 100 chemicals that “can be found on authoritative lists of toxic chemicals around the world including California Prop 65, International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EU Substances of Very High Concern.” 

What does the FDA say?

The FDA’s website states that “The law does not require FDA approval before [fragrance ingredients] go on the market, but they must be safe for consumers when they are used according to labeled directions.” The companies have a legal responsibility of their own to ensure the safety of the ingredients. It is essentially an honor system.

What to look for on the label:

  • Fragrance
  • Parfum
  • Perfume
  • Scent

Note: “Unscented” does not mean it does not contain fragrance. According to the FDA, the company may have put just enough fragrance in the product to mask the smell of odorous ingredients without giving the product itself a distinct scent. Always check the ingredient label.

Additional Resources


2. Phthalates

What is it and how is it used?

Phthalates are used to soften plastics, and are used in personal-care products as a solvent in fragrances as well as a lubricant. Phthalates are also found in items such as children’s toys, plastic containers, medical devices, food products, and many other consumer goods.  In baby care products they are most commonly in lotion, baby powder and shampoo. 

There are several chemicals that fall within the “phthalate” category, and they differ in level of toxicity, how they are used, and how we are exposed to them (ingestion, through the skin, inhalation, or intravenously). While phthalates are most dangerous and toxic when ingested, they can be dangerous when absorbed through the skin as well.

Why should I be concerned?

Certain phthalates are endocrine disruptors, can cause cancer, and may affect human reproduction or development (U.S National Library of Medicine).

As reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is especially important to limit children’s exposure to phthalates, as they are “at a higher risk of adverse effects of phthalates because of anticipated higher exposures during a time of developmental and physiologic immaturity.”

What does the research say? 

This University of Illinois study concluded that “infant exposure to lotion, powder, and shampoo were significantly associated with increased urinary concentrations of [various phthalates]… This association was strongest in young infants, who may be more vulnerable to developmental and reproductive toxicity of phthalates given their immature metabolic system…” 

In this study, scientists from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health reported “motor skills problems in children exposed during pregnancy to plasticizer chemicals known as phthalates that are widely used in personal care products like moisturizers and lipstick, as well as plastic containers and children’s toys.”

What does the FDA say?

The FDA states that, “It’s not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health.” They claim that many studies which have found increased levels of phthalate metabolites in urine (including the AAP study mentioned above) did not establish an association with any health risks.

What to look for on the label:

  • phthalate
  • DEP (most common according to the FDA)
  • DBP
  • DMP
  • DEHP
  • fragrance (phthalates are often disguised under this word)

Additional Resources


3. Parabens

What is it and how is it used? 

Parabens are widely used in baby care and personal care products as preservatives, which prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. They are commonly found  in shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and makeup. Parabens are not necessary ingredients as “products that don’t contain water won’t need preservatives like parabens, and those that do can be preserved in other ways” (Reviews.com).

Why should I be concerned?

Propylparaben and methylparaben are the two most common parabens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has rated them as a 7 (high hazard) and a 4 (moderate hazard), respectively. According to the EWG, “The concern with these chemicals is that scientific studies suggest that parabens can disrupt hormones in the body and harm fertility and reproductive organs, affect birth outcomes, and increase the risk of cancer.

What does the research say?

It seems as though many scientists agree that there needs to be more research done before making many definitive claims regarding the health effects of parabens as well as their compounding effects. That said, here are some studies I found:

“A recent University of California-Berkeley study found that low doses of butylparaben, previously not considered harmful, worked in conjunction with other cell receptors to switch on cancer genes and increased the growth of breast cancer cells.” This quote is from the EWG’s article linked above. I found several articles referencing this 2017 study, but I was not able to find the study itself publicly published online.

This UC-Berkley study found that “girls exposed to chemicals commonly found in toothpaste, makeup, soap and other personal care products [specifically phthalates, parabens and phenols] before birth may hit puberty earlier.” Full study found here.

This Harvard study abstract states that “[Propylparaben] may be associated with diminished ovarian reserve…” (ovarian reserve refers to the number and quality of eggs left in a woman’s ovaries)… “However, our results require confirmation in further studies.”

What does the FDA say?

Similar to fragrances, this is an honor system. The FDA’s website states that, “cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market… However… cosmetics must be safe for consumers when used according to directions on the label.”

They state that they are continuing to review research and have yet to answer the question, ‘What do published studies say about the possible health hazards of parabens?’

What to look for on the label: 

  • Propylparaben
  • Benzylparaben
  • Methylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Isobutylparaben

4. 1,4-dioxane

What is it and how is it used?

1,4-dioxane is not intentionally added to products; it is a contaminant and chemical byproduct of other common ingredients in personal care products. It is commonly found in “products that create suds (such as shampoo, liquid soap, bubble bath), hair relaxers and other products” (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics).

Why should I be concerned?

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), “Research shows that 1,4-dioxane readily penetrates the skin. 1,4-dioxane is considered a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is listed as an animal carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program. It is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects.”

What does the research say?

According to the EPA’s Technical Fact Sheet, “Short-term exposure may cause eye, nose and throat irritation; long-term exposure may cause kidney and liver damage.” It also states that “reproductive effects in humans are unknown; however, a developmental study on rats indicated that 1,4- dioxane may be slightly toxic to the developing fetus.”

What do the CDC and FDA say?

According to a Public Health Statement made by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR, an agency affiliated with the CDC), they admit that “the EPA has established that 1,4-dioxane is likely to be carcinogenic to humans;” however, they claim that “the levels of 1,4-dioxane to which the general public might be exposed through contact or use of consumer products (including food), or that are normally found in environmental media, are generally significantly lower than those used in studies with experimental animals.”

The FDA states that while data from actual human studies are “not adequate” to evaluate the correlation between human cancer and exposure to 1,4-dioxane, the data we have from animal studies is sufficient enough to find that 1,4-dioxane is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen…”

What to look for on the label:

1,4 dioxane will not be present on the label and according to the CSC, “there is no way to know for certain whether a product contains 1,4,-dioxane, making it difficult for consumers to avoid it… 1,4-dioxane is generated through a process called ethoxylation… [and] Organic standards do not allow ethoxylation at all… therefore a good way to avoid exposure to this chemical is to buy products that have been certified under [the USDA National Organic] program.” All that to say, if it has the USDA Organic seal, it’s unlikely to contain 1,4-dioxane.

Additionally, the CSC recommends avoiding products that contain the following ingredients which can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane:

  • Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS)
  • PEG compounds (usually listed as “PEG” followed by a number. I.e. PEG-2, PEG-80)
  • Chemicals that include the clauses: xynol, ceteareth, oleth

Additional Resources


Honorable Mention: Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative; and though you will probably not find pure formaldehyde in your cosmetics, it is more likely for companies to use formaldehyde-releasing chemicals to preserve the product.

It was more of a concern many years ago, but yet has remained in the forefront of the “yucky ingredient” dialog, probably because it’s such a scary buzzword. Who wants formaldehyde around their baby??

The EPA has classified formaldehyde as a “probable carcinogen;” however, it is most dangerous and has been linked to some types of cancer when it is inhaled in high concentrations (typically by people who are frequently exposed to high levels of the chemical on a regular basis such as embalmers and industrial workers… not babies).  According to the American Cancer Society, the effect of exposure to small amounts (such as the very low levels sometimes present in cosmetic products) is less clear and as of now, is not considered to be hazardous (American Cancer Society).

Though less serious than cancer, the levels of formaldehyde sometimes found in cosmetic products can still be a skin-irritant or allergen leading to dermatitis. Further, the the compounding effects of using cosmetic or food products containing or releasing formaldehyde as well as exposure via inhalation of the substance from other non-cosmetic sources is unknown. Formaldehyde is not necessary in cosmetic and personal care products products, and if you prefer to avoid it, here’s a list of what to look for on the ingredient label:

What to look for on the label:

The following information is from the American Cancer Society: Formaldehyde can be listed on a product label by other names, such as:

  • Formalin
  • Formic aldehyde
  • Methanedio
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene glycol
  • Methylene oxide

Additionally, some chemicals that are used as preservatives can release formaldehyde, such as

  • Benzylhemiformal
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)
  • 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • 1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin (or DMDM hydantoin)
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

I know this article was heavy, but I hope it was helpful for you to gather facts rather than opinions regarding a very important topic. Here is a quick “cheat sheet” of ingredients to look out for:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing! You can also like my Facebook page to keep up with new posts and other helpful 3rd party news I share.

Posted by:Lauren P

Wife and mama dedicated to ...

One thought on “4 Ingredients to Avoid in Baby Care Products – What does the Research Say?

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