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Understanding the Ingredients: Determining Safe Baby Products

Woman buying cosmetics in supermarket.With all of the choices of skin care products out there, parents may wonder which are safe baby products and which are the best to use on their baby’s delicate skin. Think about it. As you walk down the skin care aisle, you’ll see labels saying “natural” while others say “clinically tested” or “clinically proven.” So, is it better to use “natural,” “clinically tested” or “clinically proven” products? The current marketing trend suggests natural is better; however, the truth of the matter is that seeing “natural” on a cosmetic or skin care label is essentially meaningless because there are no regulations on the use of natural on a label. The truth of the matter is that “clinically tested” or “clinically proven” may also be meaningless as well because there is no regulation of the use of these terms on over-the-counter skin care products.

Terms to understand:


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines natural as “existing in nature and not made or caused by people; coming from nature.”  That is the definition many of us expect when we see natural on a cosmetic label.  Many of us also associate “natural” with wholesomeness and goodness. However, the FDA has not defined the term “natural” and has not established a regulatory definition for “natural” in cosmetic labeling. This means that you really don’t know how “natural” the product is that you’re buying.

The other question is, even though one product may be more natural than another, is it really better for you? There is a current misconception that natural products are good and products with synthetic, or man-made, ingredients are bad.  In reality there are are both good and bad natural ingredients, and there are both good and bad synthetic ingredients. For example, there are a variety of plant ingredients that can be irritating and cause allergies in the skin. Take poison ivy, for example. It is natural, but it is a leading cause in allergic contact dermatitis (skin allergies). In addition, natural plant ingredients and oils can even cause damage to the skin’s collagen by irritating the skin and clogging up pores to worsen acne-prone skin. There is no research-based study showing that all natural ingredients are better for your skin than synthetic ingredients.  Natural baby products are not necessarily better.

Here is something you should also keep in mind when looking at ingredients on a label. Long sounding ingredients can still be naturally-derived.  For example, sodium cocoyl isethionate is a mild cleanser that is derived from coconut oil, and zemea propanediol is a moisturizer that is naturally derived from corn sugar. Other ingredients with complicated names that are derived from vegetable or coconut oil include  cocomidopropyl betaine, ethylene glycol monostearate, ethylhexylglycerin, glyceryl stearate, and stearic acid. So, just because the ingredient doesn’t say coconut oil or its other “layman’s term,  doesn’t mean it is not derived from a natural source.

Clinically Proven

“Clinically proven” is another term that is commonly used on labels of skin care products. However, be cautious of associating “clinically proven” with safe. There is no official definition or regulation on the meaning of clinically proven. Clinically proven may mean the product was shown to help or benefit one individual rather than thousands of individuals. Numbers matter as the study of statistics has shown us. Also, many doctors will roll their eyes when they see a product making a clinically proven claim because doctors are taught early in medical school the rigors that a legitimate clinical study has to go through. It is not easy to conduct legitimate studies, have them reviewed by a group of third-party doctors, and get them published in a medical journal. Thank goodness it is not easy. If it were, medical science would be pool of confusion.

Examples of products that claim to be “clinically proven” are products that say they are clinically proven to reduce wrinkles and the signs of aging. A true medical study would need to show that the active ingredient in the product statistically reduces wrinkles when compared to a control group. Keep this in mind, and ask the question “compared to what” when you see a product making the claim to be better at reducing wrinkles.

Clinically Tested

“Clinically tested,” like clinically proven, is commonly used on labels of skin care products but has no real definition or regulation of the term. When seeing “clinically tested,” you should ask “clinically tested to show what?”  Skin care products are commonly clinically tested to show that they are non-irritating, hypoallergenic and non-phototoxic.  Non-irritating means what it says: it means the products do not cause inflammation or irritation of the skin. Irritation can actually lead to skin damage and breakdown of collagen.  Hypoallergenic means a product causes fewer allergic reactions. When certain ingredients interact with ultraviolet rays, they can morph into an ingredient that can cause a phototoxic reaction, which causes a change in the skin.  You should look for products that are non-phototoxic.

 What To Look For

Now that you have just learned that seeing “natural,” “clinically proven,” and “clinically tested” on skin care product labels mean almost nothing, what should you look for? How do you find quality baby products?  Because there is a lack of regulation by the FDA on labels of over-the-counter skin care products, certain organizations have tried to help the public on filtering through products to find the right one. One such organization is the National Eczema Association (NEA). The NEA is an informational and patient advocacy association composed of patients, patient advocates, doctors and dermatologists specializing in eczema. The NEA has a Seal of Acceptance on skin care products that have gone through the rigors of meeting its criteria. In general, products carrying the Seal of Acceptance by the NEA mean the products are safe for individuals with eczema or sensitive skin. The Seal of Acceptance panel considers testing data for irritancy, allergy risk and phototoxicity. It also considers the products ingredients, content and formulation data to determine safety. Look out for the Seal of Acceptance by the NEA as one way to search for safe skin care products for you and your baby.

As you read through a product’s ingredients, here is a list of ingredients you want to be sure your products are free of: parabens, phthalates, sulfates, formaldehyde-releasers, sodium lauryl sulfate, and fragrance.

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a cleansing agent that is particularly scrutinized for its irritating effects. This has been shown and proven through multiple medical journals. Many people can tolerate SLS’s cleansing effects but individuals with sensitive skin or eczema should avoid SLS products. SLS is a known irritant and not a known carcinogen. There are myths out there that try to link SLS with cancer but the American Cancer Society dispels that myth.
  • Parabens are some of the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetic products. Preservatives are agents placed in products to prevent bacterial and mold/fungal growth. This allows for longer shelf life. The most common parabens used are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. The hype regarding parabens came about in a 2004 published paper in the Journal of Applied Toxicology. It was reported that parabens were detected in breast tumors. The paper also discussed how parabens have estrogen-like properties and could possibly influence breast tumors. It is important to note that the study did not prove that parabens cause breast cancer or are harmful in any way. Other studies have shown that parabens do not exhibit enough true estrogen influences and suggest that we should not link breast tumors with parabens found in cosmetic products. Currenty, the FDA does not believe there is enough evidence to show harmful effects from parabens. 
  • Phthalates are used to soften plastics, however, they are also found in non-plastic products such as fragrances, personal care products, and nail polish. In 2009, certain phthalates were banned from children’s toys. Phthalates’ possible affects range from endocrine disruption to attention deficit disorder. DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate) are the most common phthalates found in personal care products. Be wary of fragrances because the phthalate chemicals can be in fragrances but not be listed out separately.  In 2008, before any pronounced concern of phthalates, the American Academy of Pediatrics published an article in Pediatrics that stated infants exposed to infant personal care products such as baby shampoos and lotions showed an increased level of phthalate in their urine. The study could not conclude that there was any association between these findings and any resulting significant health effect.
  • Formaldehyde releasers are commonly used in personal care products as preservatives to prevent bacterial and mold/fungal growth. They have received attention because they have been found to be a common allergen. There is also a concern for cancer even though it cannot be absorbed through the skin. Here is a list of formaldehyde releasers to avoid: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, bronopol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane hydryoxymethylglycinate.
  • In 2007, the medical journal, Dermatitis, declared fragrance as the allergen of the year. There are more than 2500 fragrance ingredients and more than 100 are known allergens.  It may take hundreds of different chemicals to produce one fragrance.  Remember, fragrance is there for adults’ pleasure and not our baby’s pleasure.

So, in summary, know that many terms such as natural, clinically proven and clinically tested can essentially be meaningless on a skin care product label. Rather, look for fragrance free skin care products that carry a meaningful Seal of Acceptance by the National Eczema Association. For your baby’s delicate skin, these products can prove to be some of the safer skin care products to use.

For more information on choosing safe products read the following:

How To Choose The Best Baby Skin Care Products

National Eczema Seal of Acceptance – The Real Stamp Of Approval For Baby Skin Care

Small Businesses & Homemade Cosmetics Fact Sheet

Scientific Committee On Consumer Safety – Opinion On Allergens In Cosmetic Products

Fragrance Contact Allergy – A Clinical Review

Baby Care Products:  Possible Sources of Infant Phthalate Exposure