Baby Shampoo Ingredients: What to Avoid
Babies in their earliest months are very gentle beings, and so is their skin. In fact, it’s estimated that a baby’s skin is around 30% thinner than an adult’s, which makes it more prone to irritations, less resistant, as well as more absorbent to various chemicals.
As a parent, you’ll surely want what’s best for your little one, and that, of course, means that you’ll want to toss and turn every stone until you find the best and most appropriate product for them available. This also means that you’ll want to make sure what to avoid in baby shampoos and body washes, and what not to purchase.
Even if you think that these are products that can easily be washed away, still there are a lot of chemicals present in shampoos out there that can affect the delicate baby’s skin when they’re in direct contact with it, or there may be chemical residues remaining on the baby’s skin well after taking a bath.
So you’ll definitely want to avoid combining harmful and potentially toxic chemicals with your little one’s skin as much as possible.
Types of Baby Shampoo
There are two basic types of baby shampoo: soap-based and soap-free. The soap based shampoo is the one that doesn't have the 'tear-free' label on it, which means that it can irritate the eyes. The good thing about this kind of shampoo is that it doesn't contain toxic chemicals like the 1,4 dioxane (we'll get into more detail about this in the next section), and is usually considered a better choice.
The other shampoo is the one that's soap-free – this shampoo contains the so-called 'synthetic surfactants', which means that it has synthetic chemical agents that reduce the surface tension of liquids, making the liquid spread our rather than manifesting its usual behavior of collecting in droplets. This shampoo is often marketed as tear-free, but the bad thing with these kinds of shampoos is that they often contain a chemical that releases formaldehyde, the one we mentioned earlier, the notorious 1,4-dioxane.
So, basically tear-free shampoos are not all that good for your baby; in fact, most of the organic baby shampoos never have this label on them.
Toxic Chemicals and Substances to Avoid When Choosing a Baby Shampoo
This is not a proper ingredient, but an organic compound that can be a byproduct of the ethoxylation process, a process where ethylene oxide is added to other chemicals to lessen their effect on the human skin (in their raw form they can be quite harsh).
The problem with the ethylene oxide, as well as the 1,4-dioxane is that they’re carcinogenic and one should be quite wary when encountering them in products such as toothpaste, shampoos, cosmetics, deodorants, and mouthwashes, but most commonly this organic compound (or contaminant) is found in products that create soapsuds, such as shampoos, liquid soaps, and bubble baths.
When reading the ingredient list always look out for:
- sodium laureth sulfate (SLS),
- the PEGs compounds (aka the polyethylene glycols),
- other chemicals that contain the words myreth, oleth, laureth, xynol and ceteareth – all of them can be contaminated by the 1,4-dioxane.
This is a compound which should be strongly avoided – it can act as a respiratory toxicant, other organs toxicant, and is considered carcinogenic.
Parabens are probably the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics – their primary function is to stop the growth of bacteria and fungus, but they are also used as fragrance ingredients, although consumers usually won’t find that listed on the label. This is because fragrance recipes fall into the domain of trade secrets - so, manufacturers don’t have to disclose or specify the fragrance inducing chemicals in their product’s ingredient list.
Parabens are easily absorbed through the skin, and a lot of the trouble with them comes from the fact that they can mimic the hormone estrogen and thus disrupt hormone function. They’ve also been detected in breast cancer tissue, which might connect them with breast cancer as well. When looking for parabens in an ingredient list, the following are most likely to be listed:
Note: Parabens occur naturally in certain foods, although at low levels – foods such as strawberries, carrots, barley, onions, currants, and vanilla may contain low levels of parabens. There’s one important difference though - in food, parabens are metabolized by the stomach, significantly reducing their estrogen-mimicking function.
In cosmetics, on the other hand, they don’t go through metabolic processes and are absorbed directly through the skin, entering the bloodstream and thus having free access to other body organs.
Sometimes also going by the name of ‘perfume’ or ‘parfum’, fragrance is ubiquitous to cosmetic products - shampoos, deodorants as well as baby disposable diapers.
The label ‘fragrance’ on a particular product such as a shampoo, for example, is a tricky one because companies often use it as an umbrella term (as we also mentioned in the Parabens section) for other secret ingredients they want to add to their products, but don’t necessarily want to disclose – and these ingredients usually are or contain petroleum- and coal-derived synthetic chemicals.
Fragrance mixtures also often contain phthalates, known endocrine disruptors, which means that they interfere with the endocrine system, resulting in lowered fertility, increased chance of endometriosis, and certain types of cancers. The phthalate that is commonly used in perfumed products is diethyl phthalate.
So the best way to protect your baby from these kinds of covert, hidden chemicals is simply to look for fragrance-free shampoos and body washes. The effects of the fragrance mixtures can be long lasting and can stay on the skin for hours, while also possibly causing respiratory and neurological problems, as well as skin and eye damage. There are also some indications that early exposure to fragranced products may lead to asthma.
However, you should also be careful when searching for products labeled ‘fragrance-free’, because they mainly contain fruit/flower distillate waters or essential oils, meaning they can be scented with other additives, which are not dangerous as the phthalates, but they can sometimes cause allergies. You should look out more for the label ‘unscented’, which can be a mask for other fragrance agents to cover other smells, and they can definitely contain phthalates. So when confronted with the ‘fragrance-free’ label and the ‘unscented’ one, it’s recommended that you go with the ‘fragrance-free’ one.
SLS or SLES (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate)
This is a foaming agent and detergent, used in products like toothpaste, shower gels, and shampoos. I know that we usually think that shampoos should lather well, but it’s actually not that safe when you notice it in a hair care product. It’s also known as an insecticide and has been connected with several very harmful effects on the body, springing from allergies and rashes to liver damage and cancer, and in another organs-, neuro-, and reproductive-toxicity effects.
Look out for SLS in baby shampoos hidden in these common names, which could be any of the following:
- aquarex me or aquarex methyl,
- monododecyl ester,
- sodium salt,
- monododecyl ester sodium salt sulfuric acid,
- sodium dodecyl sulfate,
- sodium salt sulfuric acid,
- sulfuric acid.
SLS, along with PEG, is often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which means you should be extra careful about it.
PEG (Polyethylene Glycol)
This is also a petroleum-based compound used as a thickener, softener, and a moisture-carrier in a lot of products for personal care, among them shampoos as well.
The manufacturing process of the PEGs makes them prone to be contaminated by 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, both known carcinogenic compounds. PEG can be particularly toxic to people whose skin is damaged in some way. You can usually recognize it in an ingredients list as a PEG and then followed by a number.
Formaldehyde-releasers are a bunch of toxic chemical compounds that gradually release formaldehyde as they decompose. They’re usually used in cosmetics, hair care products, and hygiene products as antimicrobial and antifungal preservatives.
Formaldehyde, the main guy in this bunch, is itself a toxic chemical, linked to cancer and damages in the central nervous system, as well as the reproductive organs. It can be absorbed by the body through inhalation or ingestion, or by the skin itself.
Some products don’t contain directly formaldehyde but contain formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, that serve as preservatives.
Some of the formaldehyde-releasing preservatives you should be on the lookout for are:
- DMDM Hydantoin
- Polyoxymethylene Urea
- 1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin (or DMDM hydantoin)
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin
- Diazolidinyl urea
Of course, we’re not anywhere near to concluding our list of harmful and toxic chemicals in baby shampoos and body washes, but then again we can’t list them all, and these are the ones we think are most important to be on the lookout for.
One trick is that if the product has at least a couple of the chemicals mentioned here, there’s a great chance that there are a lot more unwanted ones in the ingredients list. So next time you go shopping for your little one, have this handy guide in mind and look for more natural and organic based baby hygiene products. If you need recommendations, our Best Baby Shampoos Guide
is here to help.