By Health writer
updated 2/4/2008 7:24:26 PM ET 2008-02-05T00:24:26

Could baby lotion be harming your little one? A new study suggests that baby shampoos, lotions and powders may expose infants to chemicals that have been linked with possible reproductive problems.

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But because so little research has been done in this area, many parents are more confused than ever. Should they chuck the baby shampoo they’ve always used? Switch to phthalate-free products? What are phthalate-free products? readers e-mailed us their questions and concerns, and we turned to leading pediatricians for answers.

How concerned should parents be?

Dr. Catherine Karr, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington specializing in environmental health issues, says:

We don’t really know the answer to the health impact of childhood exposure to phthalates. But if parents want to decrease their children’s exposure, they can limit the amount of baby products they use on their child, and only use products that a doctor prescribes or recommends.

Dr. Lev Linkner, who practices family medicine in Ann Arbor, Mich., and specializes in holistic primary care, warns:

These are chemicals that are really unknown to nature, and there are no good studies on what a lot of these chemicals do to our babies and pregnant mothers. The article that came out on phthalates is very important because it’s usually not put on labels, so we don’t even know what chemicals we’re slopping on our babies.

Dr. Benjamin Danielson, a pediatrician and clinic chief of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle, agrees:

Sometimes you need to be able to get a little more information before deciding which way to jump. I think that this is an important issue, but it’s also a stay-tuned issue. It’s a good sign when issues are brought to light and people have a chance to address them, but I also worry about getting too panicked, too quickly.

Should parents stop using these baby shampoos, lotions and powders altogether?

It’s kind of a very personal decision on a parent’s part. Some parents will decide to be precautionary. Other parents are going to feel like they want to see more clear evidence that it’s hurting their baby. It’s kind of a personal decision. But it’s easy enough to reduce exposure until we know more. Most parents who use lotions or powders on their babies, it’s done for a cosmetic reason, not for a health reason. So it’s easy enough to take that away, without any risk to the baby.

Linkner: Most of the time, we don’t have to put any of these chemicals on our babies. We don’t need them! Babies smell so nice, anyway.

Danielson: It’s a challenge to try to navigate our modern world without exposing our children to any toxins at all. If parents do have major concerns, it seems reasonable to look for products that don’t contain the phthalates.

What’s the alternative to using these baby products?

In terms of bathing your baby, plain water is all that you need. Special soaps and shampoos marketed for your baby are really just a cosmetic choice, so parents can save money and save worry just by using plain water. With the exception of maybe excessively dry skin, most babies don’t need lotions or creams at all.

Linkner: Parents should go to health food stores, and read labels the best they can. Buy organic as much as possible. If they’re concerned about diaper rashes, they can look for a non-petroleum, natural product. But natural soap and water is what you can use most of the time. Let’s face it – do babies really care what they smell like?

Danielson: You don’t really need to bathe your baby every day — a couple times a week is enough. Let the natural oils that your baby produces stay on the skin and keep them moisturized.

When reading labels, what should parents be looking for?

Seek out phthalate-free cosmetics products. Use glass, instead of plastic bottles and containers. Look for the recycling codes that are on plastic products — the number 3 on a plastic container or toy means it’s vinyl or PVC and likely contains phthalates. So that’s something to avoid.

Linkner: If there is a word on the packaging that you can’t pronounce, don’t use it. Doesn’t that make it nice and simple?

Danielson: It’s tough because many manufacturers don’t have to disclose phthalates in their products. But things with fragrances might be more likely to contain the phthalates. Less is more, sometimes. Stay away from the products that seem to have so many extra chemicals added to them.

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