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Baby wipes causing itchy, scaly rashes in some babies

Baby wipes may cause some kids to develop itchy, scaly, red rashes, a new study shows.
Baby wipes may cause some kids to develop itchy rashes like the one shown here.Photo courtesy of Dr. Mary Wu Chang

Baby wipes may cause some kids to develop itchy, scaly, red rashes, a new study shows.

Until now, there haven’t been any reports of allergic reactions to moist wipes in kids in the United States, researchers noted in the study published Monday in Pediatrics. But that may be because reactions have been mistaken for other conditions, such as eczema, impetigo, and psoriasis.

“I think it may be more common than people realize,” said study coauthor Dr. Mary Wu Chang, an associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

Chang reported on six children who had developed mysterious rashes and came to the UConn Health Center for help.

The first, an 8-year-old girl, showed up with an angry red rash around her mouth and on her buttocks. She had initially been treated with antibiotics and steroids. Each time she was treated she improved somewhat, but the rash always came back.

When Chang looked at the child’s medical history she started to wonder if the girl might be having an allergic reaction. “What made me think of the wipes was that the rash was on her face and on her buttocks,” Chang said. “So I asked the mother what she was using to clean her.”

The mother told Chang she used baby wipes and then the researcher remembered a report she’d recently read about a Belgian man who had had a reaction to a chemical preservative known as methylisothiazolinone (MI) that’s found in baby wipes and other products.

Chang tested the girl for an allergy to MI and sure enough, the test came back positive. When the mom stopped using the wipes, the rashes cleared up.

Over the next 22 months five other children showed up at the UConn center with the same types of rashes, all of whom cleared up as soon as parents stopped using the baby wipes.

Chang isn’t ready to tell parents to eschew wipes entirely. “They’re so convenient,” she said. “I have three kids, so I know how hard it is to do the changes, especially when you’re traveling. But maybe when you’re at home, it would be better to use a gentle cleanser and water. That way you minimize exposure.”

Dr. Robin Gehris said she has been seeing more and more kids with reactions to the wipes. It’s possible, she said, that this is because manufacturers have bumped up the amount of MI used in wipes 25-fold.

“I think this is a really important issue,” said Gehris, a clinical associate professor of dermatology and chief of pediatric dermatologic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But when you tell a patient they shouldn’t use moist wipes they act like you have two heads. It’s hard for people to imagine when something called hypoallergenic [could contain] things that could cause a problem.”

Gehris is also concerned that with the frequent use of wipes in babies, we might be sensitizing a whole generation to MI, which is rather ubiquitous, popping up in such items as household products, make-up, lotions and shampoos.

Gehris said it would be best when parents aren’t traveling to avoid wipes altogether. “At home you can get a big role of white paper towels. Run the paper towel under water when you’re ready to use it and then throw it away. These chemicals are added to products that are stored moist. If you pick something that is not moist when it’s stored that might circumvent the problem.”