What the heck are phthalates and why are they in baby care products? Phthalates are added to a wide variety of consumer products, from polyvinyl chloride plastics to personal care products. Phthalates are plasticizers. They are added to polyvinyl chloride products to make them more flexible. They are also added to lotions to make them more spreadable. They are also used to sustain fragrance in personal care products.
Why do we care about phthalate exposure? Some phthalates are endocrine disruptors. An endocrine disruptor is a synthetic chemical that when absorbed into the body either mimics or blocks hormones and disrupts the body’s normal functions. Research has associated exposure to phthalates with asthma and other respiratory problems, rhinitis and eczema in children; premature breast development in girls; and deteriorated semen quality, low sperm counts, and poor sperm morphology in men.
What did the study do? The researchers collected urine from wet diapers and information regarding infant care product use during the last 24 hours. The collected urine samples were analyzed for 9 different phthalate metabolites (the metabolites are indicative of phthalate exposure). The researchers found that all babies had detectable levels of at least one phthalate metabolite. Over 80% of the babies had at least 7 metabolites. Four metabolites (MEP, MBP, MBzP and MEOHP) occured in over 90% of the babies sampled.
How were the phthalate metabolites linked to baby care products? Ninety-four percent of mothers reported they had used infant wipes within the last 24 hours, and 54% had used infant shampoo. Reported use of baby lotion, desitin/diaper cream and baby powder were 36%, 33% and 14%, respectively. The researchers found the following statistically significant associations: Levels of MEP and MMP were higher if the mother reported using baby lotion; MMP was higher following use of baby shampoo; and MiBP was higher following baby powder use.
But what is interesting is that when the researchers looked at the mixtures of phthalate metabolites and exposure the associations between use of products and exposure were higher. Baby lotion, baby powder and baby shampoo showed statistically strong associates with higher mixture scores, whereas diaper cream and baby wipes did not. Also, mixture scores were higher for babies whose mothers reported using more products in the last 24 hours.
What can you do? Limit exposure to baby care products containing phthalates. This is hard, because phthalates don’t have to be listed (except certain ones in California under Proposition 65) and are frequently present in “fragrance.” Which is what you can do – stay away from products with fragrance. MEP, a metabolite of DEP, had the highest average concentrations in urine, and DEP is the phthalate commonly added to fragrance.