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Probable Carcinogens Found in Baby Toiletries

Stacy Malkan
Stacy Malkan (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics )
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Stacy Malkan
Co-Author, No More Toxic Tub: Getting Contaminants Out of Children's Bath Products
Friday, March 13, 2009; 2:00 PM

More than half the baby shampoo, lotion and other infant care products analyzed by a health advocacy group were found to contain trace amounts of two chemicals that are believed to cause cancer, the organization said yesterday.

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Probable Carcinogens Found in Baby Toiletries (Post, March 13)

Some of the biggest names on the market, including Johnson and Johnson Baby Shampoo and Baby Magic lotion, tested positive for 1, 4-dioxane or formaldehyde, or both, the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported.

Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and co-author of the report No More Toxic Tub: Getting Contaminants out of Children's Bath Products, will be online Friday, March 13, at Noon ET to discuss the findings and to answer questions about safety limits on commercial products. Malkan is also the author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.

A transcript follows.

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Stacy Malkan: hi, Stacy Malkan here from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and co-author of the report No More Toxic Tub. I'm here today to answer your questions about our study. I look forward to chatting...

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Washington, D.C.: Stacy,

Thanks for the wonderful information.

Why don't Johnson and Johnson and the other companies simply reformulate their products to take this bad stuff out? Don't other manufacturers show it can be done at reasonable cost?

And, how do the products in the U.S. compare to products in Europe, where different regulatory rules apply?

Stacy Malkan: I think they should reformulate, and I believe they will. The good news is that companies already know how to make great products without formaldehyde releasing preservatives and without chemicals that are contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. The solutions already exist in the marketplace, and many companies have already begun reformulating. To get all companies to reformulate is going to take market pressure, as well as new laws to better regulate these products.

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Denver: I'm the proud mommy of a 4-month-old, and I'll admit I can be prone to worrying about her a little more than might be rational. But, is this really such a big deal? It sounds like this is just a tiny amount, much less than has been shown to be harmful and in a product that children will only ingest incidentally. Maybe I'm just under reacting because the only product we use on our baby per our pediatrician's instructions is shampoo and a little body wash and our kid is bald as a queue ball.

Stacy Malkan: It is a good idea to use fewer products on babies overall, as you suggest. It is true that the levels of chemicals found in our study are small -- it's just a little bit of carcinogen, as we say. The problem is that the same toxic chemicals are found in many products, and these small exposures can add up. It's also important to point out that the levels of formaldehyde found in many of the products we tested can cause contact dermatitis in chidren (and adults) who are sensitive to formaldehyde. That applies to a subset of the population -- kids who are not sensitive to the chemical may have no problems.

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Hyattsville, Md.: So what should I do when choosing products for my son? I'd love to know that you are pretty safe if you stay away from one brand, or consistently use another, but the risks seem to vary so much even between different variations on the same product by the same company. And sometimes the cheapee store brand is better than the expensive organic one, sometimes not. Any general guidelines short of starting to carry notes about what is safe and what isn't?

Stacy Malkan: A great resource for finding safer products is the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database. This free database has toxicity information about 30,000 products, and you can search for all the baby products in the database to find the safest brands. In general, the best advice for choosing products is that simpler is better -- choose products with fewer chemicals, no synthetic fragrance, and use fewer products overall (especially on babies.) The risks do vary quite a lot within companies. This is an important point. It is also true that many of the big companies have a "green" brand that has fewer problematic chemicals. My question to the companies is: if you've already figured out how to make less-toxic products, why not do that for all your brands and products? It is going to take a change in federal legislation to get companies to consistently make the safest products.

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New Orleans, La.: What kind of legislation is needed to ensure that products are safe?

Stacy Malkan: Great question. Current cosmetics laws in the U.S. were created in 1938 -- they're a bit outdated, to say the least! Scientists have learned a lot over the past few decades about the health risks of low dose chemical exposures, and the special vulnerabilities of children. Companies have also learned a lot about how to make high performance products without carcinogenic chemicals. I believe that shifting to cleaner product formulations will benefit the beauty industry in the long run, making them more competitive globally. To get there, we need a smarter regulatory system that requires companies to remove chemicals that are known or highly suspected of causing cancer, reproductive harm or other health problems, and also requires them to fully disclose the ingredients in their products. In other words, we need a regulatory system that keeps companies honest and rewards the companies that are doing the best job of making the safest products. This will take an act of Congress. FDA currently does not have the authority to properly regulate cosmetics.

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washingtonpost.com: Environmental Work Group

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San Anselmo, Calif.: Have any physicians been seeing any problems with kids form these bath products?

Stacy Malkan: The types of problems that may show up in the short term from formaldehyde exposure include skin rashes or other contact dermatitis symptoms. If your child has these symptoms, you should try switching to different products and see if that helps. Not all doctors are testing patients with these types of problems for chemcial sensitivies, so again, it's important for parents to do their own research and get informed.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Stacy: Thanks for taking questions today. Such reports as these can cause parental scares rather than simply be informative. Did you guys discuss how parents should and probably would approach your report? Isn't everything we touch and do ultimately cause for concern? Where's the balance?

Stacy Malkan: Is everything we touch case for concern? Well we are certainly hearing more all the time about the toxicity concerns of all types of consumer products. We are all exposed to carcinogens and other pollutants from many differet sources in our modern lives. In my opinion, we don't also need to be exposed to carcinogens through the baby shampoo. That's one place where we should be able to expect to find the cleanest and safest ingredients that companies can find or create.

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Kensington, Md.: In the future, it would be more responsible for you to quantify the potential injury damages to exposure to these chemicals rather than trying to start a panic. You can rely on established research to do so -- this is an incredibly rich field of research that doctors, biologists, statisticians and economists all contribute to.

The question you are supposed to be answering is not "does a risk exist?", but "does it matter?".

Stacy Malkan: We are not trying to start a panic, but rather to inform parents about the fact that products advertised as "gentle" and "pure" contain carcinogenic contaminants. Unfortunately, there is no way to quantify potential injury or damages, because there are no safety assessments required for personal care products or the chemicals used in them. So there is not enough information about the repeated, multiple exposures to low levels of these chemials, or about the way chemicals impact developing children. In the absence of full information about chemical risks, the only prudent course is to take a precautionary approach and avoid these chemicals. There is absolutely no reason for baby shampoo to contain known carcinogens.

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Oakland, Calif.: Hi Stacy, Why is this legal!? What can we do to change this situation and ensure that I can walk into the store and buy any cosmetic and know it doesn't have toxic chemicals in it?

Stacy Malkan: Why is this legal? Good question -- because it's not legal in other countries. Both formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane are restricted or banned in some other countries. So again, companies are already figuring out how to reformulate products for other markets, but not for the U.S. market. New regulations that require companies to raise the bar and make the best products will benefit consumers, as well as industry. There is a myth that regulations hold back innovation, but the reality is that the lack of regulation is actually holding back innovations in America -- companies are using the same old outdated toxic formulations because... well, why not?

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Would you please print a link to the searchable comparable product data base?

Stacy Malkan: Some website resources:

To find the report No More Toxic Tub: www.SafeCosmetics.org

To find The Skin Deep database (for product comparisons): www.CosmeticDatabase.org

Check out my book: www.NotJustaPrettyFace.org.

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Washington, D.C.: Jeez, so for years I risked my daughter's health by using baby bottles that may have had BPA in them, now I'm killing her by using Johnson and Johnson products, of all things. I'm getting mighty frustrated with all of this.

Stacy Malkan: It is frustrating. However, this information is meant to inform, not alarm. We are continually learning new things, and then we can make better choices -- and the onus should be on companies to fix this problem, because they already know how to fix it. In the meantime, we can reduce chemical hazards in our home by choosing safer products. But we can't just shop our way out of this problem, we also need to change the laws so parents can stop worrying about this stuff.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Is there anything that can be done by state legislation and state governments? Or is this stricly a federal isse?

Stacy Malkan: States are passing laws, municipalities are passing laws, and there are major market shifts occuring too. For example, the health care industry is coming together to buy safer products as a block, to force manufacturers to make changes -- check out Health Care Without Harm at www.NoHarm.org for more information about this exciting work. All of this, and the changes we all make as individuals, is making a huge difference. The market is already shifting, the smart companies are already paying attention to this stuff and getting rid of hazardous chemicals.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Most of the stuff I see for my son comes from China. I've also read in a variety of places that officials say they can't regulate what comes from China, and if they do, then it's "bad for business" and "prices will go up."

Has this been shown to be the case? A prime example is the lead paint on toys.

Stacy Malkan: Unfortunately there is also lead in lipstick, but it didn't come from China. Many products manufactured right here in the United States contain toxic ingredients because of weak federal laws. In fact, in some cases, China has stricter laws than the U.S. about chemicals. For example, formaldehyde is banned from kitchen cabinets sold in China, but legal to put into cabines sold in the U.S. In that case there are actually two manufacturing streams in China -- the formaldehyde products come to the US, the formaldehyde-free products go to China and Europe. I write about this in more detail in my book, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry"

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washingtonpost.com: Health Care Without Harm

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Cosmetics Ingredients Dictionary: I would encourage all parents to acquire such a book. I don't have kids but I have super sensitive skin and have found such a book to be so helpful. Naturally, my top concern is inflammation and irritation but a parent should be worried about their baby's skin and health. I looked and looked for a super gentle baby wash to wash my hands with and I could not find one. The worst offenders had so many irritants. Sad.

Stacy Malkan: A few other recommendations about finding safer products. The Cosmetics Ingredients Dictionary is great. Also check out the Safe Shoppers Bible. Another tip is the Whole Foods Premium Seal -- products sold at Whole Foods that have this seal will not have any formaldehyde releasing preservatives and will not contain any chemicals associated with 1,4 dioxane contamination -- they also won't contain fragrance, parabens and a long list of other problematic chemicals. It is a very strong standard, and more companies in the natural products industry are reformulating in order to be able to meet the standard.

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Odenton, Md.: After reading the article on this today in the Post, I went online and bought some different baby shampoo and lotion. The free from bad chemical stuff isn't exactly the cheapest stuff out there on the market. Since you say that these products have very low amounts of carcinogens but the exposure can add up when using lots of products with them, is there a way to determine which products you should absolutely get free of bad chemicals? For example, would it be better to get a good shampoo but maybe not worry about the baby wipe brand?

In a perfect world, nothing that touched my baby would have unnatural chemicals but unfortunately that is not very realistic.

Stacy Malkan: The safer products can be more expensive, which is another reason why regulatory reform is so important -- so that the green brands aren't available to only some people in some locations. To your question, yes it is a good idea to figure out which products are most important to switch first. Definitely take a close look at the bubble bath -- sitting in a warm tub full of chemicals for an extended time can obviously lead to more exposures. Body lotion and other products used over the whole body are also important, and baby shampoos are often used daily and can get into the eyes. Also think about using fewer products overall on babies (which saves money as well as reduces chemical exposurers).

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Ok, silly question, but: would you mind suggesting how often a baby generally should be washed? My five-month-old niece gets daily complete baths, with soap and shampoo, and has very dry skin and gets many rashes, particularly compared with my seven-month-old niece on the other side. I know all babies are different, but this seems a bit excessive. My sister-in-law swears she had daily baths growing up and that it helped any of the rashes or dry skin she had as a child, and isn't concerned about the unnecessary chemical exposure because it's getting the baby "clean." I don't have any kids (just lots of babysitting experience), so anything I say has to be backed up before she'll listen. Thanks.

Stacy Malkan: The companies want us to believe we have to put a bunch of products on our bodies and spray the house with cleaning chemicals in order to be "clean" and "fresh" so it is very ironic that many of these products contain hazardous substances. If a child is getting rashes, I would definitely try switching the products and reducing their use, and see if that helps. Just because the mother didn't get rashes, doesn't mean the child is free from chemical sensitivies.

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Stacy Malkan: Thank you for your great questions today and for joining me to chat about toxic chemicals in baby care products. Have a great day! Stacy Malkan

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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