Phthalates, Parabens and Baby Lotion...Oh My!

Sunday, May 1, 2011 at Sunday, May 01, 2011
Since Conner was born, I have gradually been switching to more natural, homemade cleaners for my house and laundry.  I never thought I would make my own all purpose cleaner, fabric softner, etc. but, alas, I do.  The impetus was from two issues that kept bugging me.  First, have you looked at the back of most of  your cleaning products?  There are some pretty scary chemicals in there.  It seems like everyday more and more research comes out revealing how these chemicals aren't as benign as we once thought.  They are getting into our water systems and our environment.  The same can be said for a lot of cosmetic products like lotion, face soap, make-up, and (gasp!) baby products!  So, I am going to focus on the baby products and what the research says about some of the common ingredients found in most baby care products.

So, let me start by saying that the scientist in me trusts that enough research has been on these different chemicals and additives to say that they are relatively safe.  I mean, when I was a baby, baby powder and lotion, baby bath products, wipes, and disposable diapers were used with no thought to whether they were "chlorine free", paraben free, SLS free...But are they as safe as we consumers assume?  Are these preservatives and additives, used as anti-microbials and to lengthen shelf life, actually not good for our babies and kids?

Here is what I found using a website that is an excellent database for scientific articles and research (pubmed). I have provided a link to it at the end of this posting in case you want to check out any research.

Phthalates are mainly used in plastics to increase flexibility and resilience. Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics and medicines. The first thing I noticed when I searched "phthalates and paraben exposure" was 11 articles.  I am sure if I would have been more specific I would have found a plethora of articles.  I decided to focus on 2 different review papers.  For the non-scientist folks, a review paper simply means the author (s) have compiled the latest and most comprehensive research/studies to write an overall assessment of the actual literature.  In other words...they didn't actually conduct any, some, or all of the studies.  Instead, they are providing a nice overview of the research findings. The first review is by Crinnon, 2010, titled "Toxic effects of the easily avoidable phthalates and parabens".  The second review is by Witorsch and Thomas, 2010, titled "Personal care products and endocrine disruption: A critical review of the literature".

So here goes...

The review by Crinnon finds concludes that there is concern over the use of phthalates and parabens.  Here is a breakdown of his review:

18 billion pounds are produced every year and are found in detergent, shampoo (including BABY), cosmetics, lotion (including BABY), plastic bags, household furniture, food packaging, cleaning supplies, CHILDREN'S TOYS (the list goes on).

1) Animal studies
          -prenatal exposure to males results in testicular abnormalities
2) Human studies
          -in utero exposure has been found to increase mood disorders, inattention and aggression in males
           and females
          -exposure in young females linked to earlier onset of sexual development and breast development
          -exposure in young males linked to testicular dysfunction and formation, infertility
          -exposure in adults linked to obesity, asthma, allergies, breast cancer (controversial), tumors, etc.

They can be found in shampoos, commercial moisturizers, shaving gels, personal lubricants, topical/parenteral pharmaceuticals, spray tanning solution, makeup, and toothpaste. They are also used as food additives. (Wikipedia). Parabens mimic estrogen activity and can interfere with mitochondrial function.

1) Animal studies
          -weak estrogen activity
          -2 studies by Burdock Group Consultants found parabens to be absolutely non-toxic (more on this
2)Human studies
          - (possibly) linked to breast cancer in females
          -linked to infertility in males

Here is what Witorsch and Thomas say in their review:
"In conclusion, although select constituents exhibit interactions with the endocrine system in the laboratory, the evidence linking personal care products to endocrine disruptive effects in humans is for the most part lacking".

1) Animal studies
          -in utero exposure causes demasculinizing characteristics in male rats, similar to testicular dysgenesis
          syndrome in humans
          - however, this effect was not found in mice or primates
1) Animal studies
         -studies have not linked parabens and endocrine disruption
2) Human studies
         -studies have not linked parabens and endocrine disruption

So here are my thoughts:
The review by Crinnon lists research articles to back up his conclusions.  However, I did notice he published his review in the journal Alternative Medicine Review, whose main purpose is "for sharing information on the practical use of alternative and complementary therapies".  Therefore, I think his conclusions might be a bit biased.

The review by Witorsch and Thomas was very science based, and I didn't go into great detail of every finding because it was very lengthy.  What struck me about their review was that most of the studies in humans sang the same tune..."exposure to phthalates is within the regulatory amounts".  So it is not that we aren't actually getting exposed, but that our exposure falls within "safe limits".  Most of the animal and human studies concluded the same thing...yes, we are exposed to parabens and phthalates, but the amount needed to actually cause deleterious effects to humans is way higher than any amount we are actually exposed to.

Um, yeah, not so much.

Here is my main problem with Witorsch and Thomas' very exhaustive review of the scientific literature.  Saying something is "within safe exposure limits" or that we would have to consume astronomical amounts to see effects is misleading.  Phthalates and parabens are in EVERYTHING!  We are not talking about just baby shampoo, or medicine, or lotion.  It is everything plastic.  Look around your house right now...plastic, plastic, plastic.  Plus, I understand the argument that with shampoo, we aren't absorbing much because it gets washed off.  Um, ok, well how about the fact that all of those chemical are going down the drain, and into the water supply?  You know, dental fillings used to contain mercury.  I guess the idea was that it was "within the safe exposure limit" of mercury.  Now they are removing those fillings because, guess what, mercury in any amount is bad.

Also, if you do a wikipedia search, you find that the evidence that parabens are non-toxic comes from a consulting group.  I don't know anything about them, and I am sure they are great scientists.  But from what I gathered from their website, industries go to them and they "offer customized solutions for your FDA compliance needs"...just sounds iffy to me...However, they do mention that phthalates are being removed from products because of health concerns.

Now I don't want to come across high-handed here.  I am a practical gal.  I realize that we have regulatory agencies that test the effectiveness and safety of all things to ensure they are ok to use.  But there are also countless examples when we find out that these chemicals/products aren't actually good for us.

So I guess my question is...why use these products?  Why take the chance?  I would love to hear from some moms out there that disagree with me.  Maybe I am viewing this too singularly?

I would like to provide a link to a recent blog I was fortunate enough to come across.  Not only is this blog a great tool for homemade, eco-friendly, and frugal living, the author seems so warm and genuine (and pretty!). Here is her article on the very topic of what we put on our bodies and our babies.  The list of ingredients on Johnson's Baby lotion is eye-opening.

Well...what do you think?  Are we making too much of this?  Have they found these chemicals/ingredients to be safe?  Or are we sacrificing our health for the sake of a longer shelf life?

Works Cited:

Crinnion WJ. Toxic effects of the easily avoidable phthalates and parabens.Altern Med Rev. 2010 Sep;15(3):190-6. Review

Witorsch RJ, Thomas JA.Personal care products and endocrine disruption: A critical review of the literature. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2010 Nov;40 Suppl 3:1-30. Review.


  1. Margaux Says:

    As someone who would like to have children at some point - I think this is very important especially considering I grew up with asthma and had been exposed to harsh chemicals as a toddler due to my parent's house flooding with sewage and the clean-up involved in it. Did all sorts of lovely things to my immune system and nervous system.

  2. Wow, this is a tough one. On the one hand, I am definitely inclined to take the road that's known to be safe if it's simple to do so. Why take a risk that's easily avoidable?

    On the other hand, I have Johnson's baby lotion in my diaper caddy right now! (I like aquaphor way better. I wonder what Witorsch would say about that?)

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I just wonder how they know what the “expectable” levels are. I think about the saccharine experiments where the researchers pumped huge unrealistic amounts of the stuff into rats to get their result so they could sell NutraSweet. Did Witorsch and Thomas detail "exposure to phthalates is within the regulatory amounts" what those regulatory amounts were and what they were based off of? Does the MSDS for Parabens and Phthalates go into the continual exposure effects?

    Funny how the search for answers always leads to more questions!?!?!?

  4. NeuronMommy Says:

    I am totally with you. Sometimes I just can't believe that Johnson's baby lotion could be harmful. And the natural and organic products can be soooo expensive. I have found some that are more affordable, and I have found that I just try to use fewer products on myself.

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