Who can blame a parent for wanting to avoid introducing their kids to toxins? The anxious parents know there are chemicals that could harm their kids everywhere — in toys, clothing, crib mattresses, pacifiers, diaper cream. Whether it’s formaldehyde, endocrine-disrupting phthalates, or some other scary-sounding substance that could harm your child’s health and development, it’s better to buy products labeled safe, natural, non-toxic, and hypoallergenic, right? Nope.
Claims such as “natural,” “nontoxic,” and “free of [scary-sounding chemical goes here]” don’t guarantee a safe product. Most are merely marketing terms designed to catch your attention. None are regulated. And if you aren’t reading labels with an informed eye, it’s hard not to fall for one of the many marketing traps. Wherever there are anxieties, scammy marketers and snake oil salespeople are never far behind (we’re looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow). And while new and expecting parents carry their anxieties like a badge of honor, it doesn’t mean they need to fall for the traps.
So how can parents know which products are truly safe for babies? By getting wise to meaningless marketing lingo, understanding which types of items and ingredients are most troublesome, and learning which certifications are worthy of trust.
These Terms Mean (Pretty Much) Nothing
According to Don Huber, director of product safety at Consumer Reports, parents should be wary of any claim that is not a recognized third-party certification, such as UL’s GreenGuard. Here are a few common marketing terms to be wary of.
Natural or all-natural. “Natural” is a bigtime buzzword these days, but it doesn’t mean anything. Just because something is natural or naturally derived doesn’t mean it’s safe in the first place. Arsenic is a naturally-occurring heavy metal. So is lead. But you don’t want to expose your kids to them, not by any stretch.
Nontoxic. This one is another meaningless word. Nothing is “nontoxic” — even too much water or oxygen can kill a person. And for those companies that say products have ‘fewer toxic ingredients’ — it can mean less than nothing. “Fewer” compared to what? What ingredients, exactly?
Safe. Another bogus word, “safe” could mean absolutely anything, even if it’s followed by “for babies” or “for sensitive skin.” Whether this claim is slapped on a skincare product, a cleaning solution, or a sippy cup, only by evaluating a product’s ingredients can you know whether it really is safe.
Hypoallergenic. Used for body care products, this term intends to tell you there is nothing inside that’ll trigger an allergic reaction. But the Food and Drug Administration neither defines it nor regulates it, so parents shouldn’t believe it’s true. In fact, according to a 2017 study published in JAMA Dermatology, out of 174 top-selling moisturizers tested, a whopping 83 percent contained at least one of the most common allergens.
Free of/-free. This is a claim that can actually be useful — if read wisely. If a product claims to be “free of phthalates” or is “fragrance-free,” that’s a helpful claim, if you’re looking to avoid pthalates or fragrances alone. It does not give the product a pass, though. Parents should still read all the ingredients.
The Actual Products and Ingredients to Avoid or Limit
Thankfully, toys and other baby products have gotten a lot safer in recent years. “Under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, all toys and most baby products must be tested for heavy metals and other toxins to ensure they are within safe limits,” Huber says. “This includes lead, mercury, antimony, and several phthalates.”(See a full list of regulated products here). Even so, there are still a few product categories and ingredients of concern.
Fragrance, perfume or parfum. These are catch-all terms that can include thousands of mystery ingredients, many of which have never been assessed for safety. But of those that have been, several — phthalates, benzophenone, aldehydes, and the byproduct 1,4-dioxane, for example — have been linked to endocrine disruption, nervous-system damage, respiratory issues, migraines, birth defects, and even cancer. But even natural scents such as essential oils can be problematic for babies, causing skin rashes and other allergies symptoms. This is why fragrance-free is best for baby.
Plastics. You’d be hard-pressed to raise a child with zero exposure to plastic. That said, it’s wise to limit the plastic-containing products your child interacts with. Plastics are cocktails of chemicals, some studied, some not, and even though the federal regulations go a long way toward eliminating or minimizing the dangerous ones, experts remain concerned about the toxins plastics give off.
For example, common plastic ingredient BPA, short for bisphenol-A, came under fire as an endocrine disrupter about a decade ago, prompting government restrictions and manufacturers to swap it out for “safer” chemicals. Trouble is, says Huber, the replacement chemicals, namely BPS (bisphenol-S), are likely no safer; BPS just hasn’t been researched as extensively as BPA.
Engineered wood products. Wood seems safe and natural, right? It isn’t always. Furniture and other items made of plywood, particleboard, composite wood, laminated wood, or wood pulp can emit dangerous chemicals. Formaldehyde is the big one, Huber says, but also toluene, found in the glue that holds the wooden layers or wood derivatives together; it can cause nausea, eye irritation, headaches, fatigue, and even liver or kidney damage.
To avoid these and other toxin exposures from engineered wood, choose solid wood furniture not finished with a petroleum-based stain. If solid wood isn’t an option, look for products holding one of a handful of third-party certifications that ensure low formaldehyde emissions.
Flame retardants. For decades, mattresses, upholstered furniture, kids’ pajamas — anything flammable — were doused in flame retardants, including a family of toxins called PBDEs, linked to neurological and thyroid damage. The tide is only starting to turn on these chemicals, which have not only been found to be damaging, but don’t actually retard flames. Unfortuantely, government bodies have only banned PBDEs, not flame retardants generally, so you’ll still have to do your homework to make sure you buy flannel pajamas or even a car seat that aren’t sprayed with the chemical.
“Certain PBDEs have been banned in California and some have been phased out nationally,” says Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D., director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco. “In California, new children’s products, mattresses, and upholstered furniture cannot have any flame retardants above a certain concentration.” Since California is the country’s largest market, many more manufacturers follow its laws when developing products sold nationwide.
While there are increasingly less flame retardants in new products, used products older than a few years will likely contain them as well as PDBEs. Be especially careful with mattresses and other padded products, which can circulate as hand-me-downs for years. “Flame retardants are put into polyurethane foam and can weigh up to one-third of that foam,” Woodruff says. “When this stuff degrades, it doesn’t just fluff off at once; it takes time. Also, PBDEs bioaccumulate and so there can still be ongoing exposure.” Purchasing a new mattress for your baby is the safest way to go.
Personal care products. Soaps, lotions, shampoos — babies probably use more products that come in touch with their skin every day than you do. That’s why it’s important to look out for phthalates, parabens, oxybenzone (found in sunscreen) and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals; 1,4-dioxane-emitting PEGs; and petroleum-derived ingredients.
With body care, it’s a bit easier to bypass concerning ingredients than it is with many other product types because, by law, all ingredients must be listed on the label. The only caveat is fragrance, which is protected as a company’s “trade secret.” But nowadays, there are responsible, transparent personal care brands that use only safe scent ingredients and list them out voluntarily.
Chemical cleaning solutions. Most household cleaning products are teeming with toxic chemicals, and unlike body care, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the ingredients. “Because kids can be exposed to toxins from crawling around on the floor, switch up your cleaning products to go less toxic,” Woodruff says. “Vinegar and baking soda do a lot.”
Counterfeit products. While baby products sold in the U.S. are required to undergo toxin testing, “there are lots of counterfeit products out there that copy the packaging, instructions, everything but were never tested for toxins,” Huber says. “For example, a counterfeit car seat may not have been crash-tested and could contain fabric that has dangerous fire retardants in it. This is a big area of concern that many parents don’t realize.”
Any product sold at a reputable retailer should be legit, Huber adds, but be careful with those found on Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Alibaba, and other unmonitored websites on which anybody can put items up for sale.
Third-Party Certifications You Can Trust
These seals come from independent health- and safety-monitoring organizations that have rigorous standards for approval.
GreenGuard/GreenGuard Gold. These two certifications from UL, a 126-year-old independent safety certifier, show that household products and home-improvement materials—which babies are exposed to daily—have low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a class of 13,000 toxic chemicals. Look for GreenGuard or GreenGuard Gold certification on furniture, paint, countertops, drywall, mattresses, bedding, window treatments, and much more.
ECOLOGO. Also administered by UL, this certification covers cleaning products, paper goods, office equipment, and construction materials, showing they have low VOC emissions and were produced sustainably.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Look for this certification when shopping for mattresses, mattress pads, and other textile-based baby items. The GOTS seal shows that a product does not contain toxin-emitting polyurethane foam or other hazardous chemicals.
Green Seal. This independent certification has both a health and an environmental component, ensuring products are safe for kiddos and the planet. Find it on a broad range of items, including sanitary paper products, household cleaning solutions, laundry care, body care, and food packaging.