Use of Baby Personal Care Products Associated with Higher Levels of Phthalates in Children

Babies recently treated with infant personal care products such as lotion, shampoo and powder were more likely to have man-made chemicals called phthalates in their urine than other babies, according to a Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and University of Washington study appearing in the February 2008 issue of the journal Pediatrics.


Babies recently treated with infant personal care products such as lotion, shampoo and powder were more likely to have man-made chemicals called phthalates in their urine than other babies, according to a Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and University of Washington study appearing in the February 2008 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Phthalates (pronounced “THAH-lates”) are added to many personal care and cosmetic products, as well many common household plastic and vinyl products. Some studies suggest phthalates may affect reproductive development in humans.

Animal-based studies of phthalates have found that these synthetic chemicals can harm reproductive system development, and studies in humans have found that prenatal exposure or exposure through breast milk can alter hormone concentrations. Early-childhood exposure has not been extensively studied, so additional research is needed to determine if phthalate exposure can indeed cause reproductive development problems or other adverse effects in infants.

Phthalates are commonly found in many plastic products like children’s toys, lubricants, infant care products, cosmetics, and personal care products. Since phthalates are not chemically bound to these products, they can be released into the air or into liquids, possibly leading to exposure through breathing, ingestion, and skin contact. Product labels in the United States are not currently required to list phthalate content.

In this study, researchers set out to see if using baby personal care products was associated with urine phthalate concentrations. To accomplish this, they collected urine samples from 163 infants aged 2 months to 28 months, and measured the levels of nine different phthalates in those urine samples. They also had the babies’ mothers fill out questionnaires on their use of infant personal care products in the past 24 hours.

When they cross-referenced the data, they found that the use of baby powder, lotion, and shampoo were each strongly associated with higher phthalate levels in the urine. The scientists also found that every baby had detectable levels of at least one phthalate in their urine, and about 81% of the infants had detectable levels of seven or more phthalates. Younger babies from birth up through 8 months of age showed the strongest associations between product use and phthalate concentrations, as did babies whose mothers used more infant personal care products.

“We found that infant exposure to phthalates is widespread, and that exposure to personal care products applied onto the skin may be an important source,” said the study’s lead author, Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, MPH, a researcher with Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “This is troubling, because phthalate exposure in early childhood has been associated with altered hormone concentrations as well as increased allergies, runny nose and eczema. Babies may be more at risk than children or adults because their reproductive, endocrine and immune systems are still developing.”

Parents who want to decrease their baby’s exposure to phthalates should limit the amount of baby care products used on infants and young children, and apply lotions or powders only if medically indicated. Since phthalates are also found in many household plastic products including plastic food containers, parents can also stop heating plastics in the microwave oven and use glass alternatives for food storage whenever possible. Phthalate-free cosmetics and personal care products are also available.

This research project was supported by grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. With Sathyanarayana, the research team included Catherine J. Karr, MD, PhD, Paula Lozano, MD, MPH, and Elizabeth Brown, PhD, from the University of Washington; Antonia M. Calafat, PhD, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Fan Liu, MS, and Shanna H. Swan, PhD, from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

About Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Located in downtown Seattle’s biotech corridor, Seattle Children’s Research Institute is pushing the boundaries of medical research to find cures for pediatric diseases and improve outcomes for children all over the world. Internationally recognized investigators and staff at the research institute are advancing new discoveries in cancer, genetics, immunology, pathology, infectious disease, injury prevention and bioethics, among others. As part of Seattle Children’s Hospital, the research institute brings together leading minds in pediatric research to provide patients with the best care possible. Seattle Children’s serves as the primary teaching, clinical and research site for the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, which consistently ranks as one of the best pediatric departments in the country. For more information, visit http://www.seattlechildrens.org/research.