Published December 12, 2007
For all those parents concerned over another wave of toy recalls, here's another worry to add to your list: toys from China aren't the only children's products to pose a threat to kids. According to a new investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), children are routinely exposed to chemicals that have never been tested for their effects on kids. Where are these chemicals hiding? In common shampoos, toothpastes, and lotions used by children every day.
The EWG surveyed thousands of parents to find out which personal care products kids used most, then cross-referenced the results with their database of widely used cosmetics ingredients and their associative health risks. Using data from various government agencies, as well as international databases, the EWG made a startling find: not only do most skin care, oral hygiene products, and hair care products contain potentially unsafe ingredients, but the FDA does not require studies or testing to ensure the safety of these products before they hit the market.
Although this is true of all personal care products, the report points out that children are more sensitive to toxins and harsh chemicals than adults. “Children's bodies are still growing and developing,” says EWG staff scientist Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D. “They're going to be more sensitive to chemical assault.” And according to the report, things like BHA, Oxybenzone, DMDM Hydantoin, and Triclosan are on the offensive, making the list for links to hormone disruption, brain damage, and cancer.
But according to Mary Williams, a leading pediatric dermatologist, these chemicals can sound a lot scarier than they really are. “I think what you have to recognize is that many of these things when they're present in skin products they're present in tiny quantities,” she says, pointing out that although it's easy to imagine harmful chemicals being absorbed through the skin, “the skin is bioengineered to keep things out.” Her advice? “The simpler the product is, the less you need to be concerned about this.”
So what does “simple” mean? Some parents may think that products marketed specifically as “for kids,” “gentle” or “all natural” don't contain harmful chemicals, but according to Scot Case, Vice President of the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice, companies routinely make claims that are vague, misleading, unverified, or all of the above. “Lots of people are making claims about their products, but very few are providing actual evidence to back those claims up,” he says. TerraChoice recently conducted a study of over 1,000 common consumer products, and found that 99% were guilty of what they're calling “greenwashing,” or making false or misleading claims about their environmentally-friendly nature. Sutton says that terms like “hypoallergenic” and “for kids” can be just as misleading: “We were surprised to see just how unregulated any of these claims are.”
Parents shouldn't feel like they need a chemistry degree just to shop for their children, but they should know just what's in the products they're buying. “Because we don't have regulations that protect us, parents need to really get educated and shop carefully to protect their children,” says Sutton. She recommends consulting the EWG Parent's Buying Guide to find safer alternatives. Case agrees, urging parents “not to make a purchasing decision based on a claim until they know exactly what it means,” and recommending that parents look for the Green Seal or EcoLogo mark if they want eco-friendly alternatives.
Short of scanning ingredient lists and product labels, there is one simple thing parents can do to reduce the risk: buy less, and think more. “My guess is that children probably use a lot more of these products than they really need,” says Williams, who recommends that parents ask themselves why exactly they are using each product. For instance, she says that unless your young child has visibly dry skin or is itchy, moisturizers shouldn't be necessary. Case agrees: “One question every consumer should ask is 'Do I really need this product?' because there's a lot of products we use that we don't really need.”
So next time you're browsing the shelves of you local supermarket, consider the simple bar of soap instead of that bright pink shower gel, or the product whose ingredients you can recognize over the one that sounds like CHEM Lab 401. Until government regulations are put in place to protect consumers from questionable products ranging all the way from toys to toothpaste, parents will need to be the ones policing the aisles.