A US campaign group found that most of the children’s bath products they tested were contaminated with two chemicals linked to cancer and skin allergies and they were not listed on the product label because they are byproducts of manufacturing and not ingredients as such.

In a report released on 12 March, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) describe how they commissioned lab tests that found that 61 per cent of the children’s shampoos, lotions, soaps and other personal care products they tested contained the chemicals formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

According to the CSC report, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers these two chemicals to be “probable carcinogens”.

“This report is the first to document the widespread contamination of children’s products with formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane,” said the CSC.

CSC is a coalition of non profit groups concerned about health and environment and its members include public health, religious, women’s and consumer organizations. The CSC wants the personal care products industry to stop using chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health concerns and replace them with safe alternatives.

The CSC and the Environmental Working Group sent samples of popular children’s bath products to an independent laboratory in Petaluma, California, called Analytical Sciences.

The CSC said they chose products containing ingredients that are commonly associated with 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde contamination.

The lab tests found that the products they tested were commonly contaminated with one or the other chemical, and sometimes both.

Of the 48 baby and child personal care products tested for 1,4-dioxane, which ironically is a byproduct of ethoxylation, a chemical process for making petroleum-based ingredients gentler on the skin, 32 (67 per cent) were found to contain the chemical.

28 products were tested for 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde. Of these, 17 (61 per cent) contained both chemicals and 23 (82 per cent) contained formaldehyde. Formaldehyde builds up in product containers as the preservatives break down.

Formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are not regulated, said the CSC, who reported that while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the safety of personal care products in the US it does not have the authority to “ensure they are actually safe”.

“The FDA cannot require companies to test products for safety before they are sold, does not systematically review the safety of ingredients and does not set limits for common, harmful contaminants in products,” said the executive summary.

Manufacturers are also not required by law to list contaminants on product labels, so consumers have no way of knowing if they are buying products containing toxic contaminants, said the CSC.

According to the EPA, 1,4-dioxane is a probable carcinogen, report the authors, who also cite the Consumer Product Safety commission’s view of the chemical’s safety:

“The presence of 1,4-dioxane, even as a trace contaminant, is cause for concern.”

1,4-dioxane is not intended as an ingredient of the care products, it is a byproduct of the ethoxylation process that uses ethylene oxide to make the ingredients.

According to the CSC report:

“Manufacturers can easily remove the toxic byproduct, but are not required by law to do so.”

Although listed as a probable carcinogen by the EPA, the risk of formaldehyde causing cancer by being absorbed through the skin is not well understood, said the CSC report, although it is known to trigger skin reactions in adults and children who are sensitive to the chemical.

Dermatologists recommend that children don’t come into contact with products containing formaldehyde, which contaminates personal care products because certain preservatives, such as Quaternium-15, release it gradually and it accumulates in the product container.

“No More Toxic Tub: Getting Contaminants Out of Children’s Bath and Personal Care Products.”
Heather Sarantis, Stacy Malkan and Lisa Archer, on behalf of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Published online 12 March 2009.

Click here for the full report (PDF).

Sources: Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD