How to Avoid 5 Harmful Chemicals in Baby and Kids Products

By Cassidy Randall

Have you heard that saying that a worried parent does better research than the FBI? Unfortunately, parents almost have to be professional sleuths to figure out what’s safe to use for their children. Scant regulation of chemicals, confusing labeling, and rampant "greenwashing" can make the simple act of going shopping for a family feel like you’re navigating a minefield.

Below are five common chemicals found in baby and children’s products and how you can avoid them. Lists like this can be overwhelming at first glance—so think of this as a menu of options, and choose a few to focus on. Remember that each and every step you take to create a better environment for your children (or yourself!), no matter how small, makes a difference in setting them up for a healthier life.

1. Flame Retardants

Where: Bedding, car seats, and foam baby products like nursing pillows and nap mats.

Health Concerns: Flame retardants appear immediately in the bloodstream and urine, and are linked to long-term impacts like endocrine disruption, lower IQ, ADD, fertility issues, impact thyroid levels and cancer. What’s worse, studies show that these chemicals can’t prevent fires and aren’t necessary.

Safer Options:

  • Switch to 100% cotton or wool bedding.

  • Place an organic cotton or wool topper on top of a regular mattress to minimize exposure.

  • Avoid foam baby products where possible.

  • Consider purchasing an organic mattress.

2. Phthalates

Where: Fragrance in cleaning and personal care products, and plastics, as it’s a plastic softener.

Health Concern: Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that are linked to reproductive malformations in baby boys, reduced fertility, developmental disorders, asthma, and increased allergic reactions. They’ve also been identified by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks) as "a prime example of chemicals of emerging concern to brain development."

Safer Options:

  • Go for fragrance-free cleaners and personal care products.

  • Look for non-vinyl bibs and crib mattresses without vinyl covering.

  • If you do purchase vinyl products like a shower curtain, let it off-gas overnight before bringing inside.

  • Choose plastic-free teethers and toys where possible.

3. High-Risk Pesticides

Where: Bug repellent, disinfectant cleaners and hand soaps, and residues in non-organic produce.

Health Concerns: Cancer rates in children are up 25 percent since 1975 according to the Pesticide Action Network, which has taken a very clear stand relating this to the increase in use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. The American Academy of Pediatrics points to pesticide residue in food as the most critical route of exposure, which luckily, is one we have some control over.

Safer options:

  • Buy organic food where possible, and check Pesticide Action Network to find produce grown with less pesticides.

  • Reduce use of disinfectant cleaners

  • Avoid hand and dish soaps labeled "antibacterial."

4. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasers

Where: Baby personal care products like shampoo and liquid soaps.

The Problem: Formaldehyde is linked to cancer and considered a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Formaldehyde can be added directly to personal care products or it can be released over time in small amounts from certain preservatives in the product.

Safer options:

  • Read ingredient lists to avoid formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.

  • Use safer products for baby personal care.

5. BPA & BPS

Where: Plastic containers like baby bottles, sippy cups, and other feeding containers, plastic food packaging, and canned food liners.

Health Concerns: The good news is that the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and children’s sippy cups in 2012. The bad news is that research is emerging that its replacements (BPS, BPE, BPF and numerous others) are also toxic. Some studies suggest that almost all plastics have estrogenic activity and therefore could leech endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Safer options:

  • Breastfeed your baby if possible.

  • Look for baby bottles with nipples made from hospital-grade silicone.

  • Switch to glass and stainless steel containers and bottles where possible.

  • Never microwave plastic, as heat causes chemicals to leach.

Why Babies and Children Are Uniquely Vulnerable to Toxic Chemicals

These are just a few of the reasons why it’s important to do what we can to lessen exposure to toxic chemicals:

·      Children have faster metabolisms, which speeds up their rate of absorption of contaminants. For example, children absorb 4–5 times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source.  

·      Babies aren’t just little adults. Their systems actually work differently. For example, infants don’t excrete contaminants or store them in fat the same way that adults do. That makes the toxicants more “bioavailable” for their bodies – and that means more harm can be done.

·      Children live closer to the ground where heavy polymers, often synthetic chemical molecules, tend to settle, and are thus exposed to higher concentrations of many pollutants.

Often, disease that is a result of environmental triggers shows up later in life. For example, exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals early in childhood while the immune system is in development are suspected to cause breast cancer, prostate cancer and infertility later in life.

Look for MADE SAFE certified products that are made without these harmful ingredients here.

MADE SAFE (Made With Safe Ingredients) is the first nontoxic certification in the country that ensures products we use every day are made with ingredients not known to harm human health, animals, or ecosystems. It was founded by a mom on a mission to protect her children, and aims to change the way products are made, ultimately eliminating toxic chemicals altogether. 

Get started Living Plastic Free.

See also Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Plastic-Free Diapers.