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Baby bathtime? Keep it simple, keep it non-toxic

16 July, 2013

Baby bath, baby oil, baby lotion, baby wipes…

A quick skim of supermarket or pharmacy shelves and you could be forgiven for thinking that having a baby was more of an opportunity for a bit more niche shopping than a responsibility towards the future.

With an impending royal birth in the UK (and more than a few lovely new arrivals here at Neal’s Yard!) it’s a good time to think about our children and our hopes and aspirations for their future health and happiness.

We all want the best for our babies. We want to ensure they are healthy and protected from harm. That protection can start before birth, even before conception, with what a mother eats and how well she takes care of herself. In many ways that’s the easy part, because once a baby is born parents have seemingly endless choices to make about food, nappies, clothes, nursery furnishings and, of course, baby toiletries

In a perfect world baby toiletries would be cleaner-than-clean and safer-than-safe but the truth is baby toiletries are not significantly different from adults ones.

They are largely made from petrochemically-derived and synthetic ingredients. Parents looking to keep their babies safe from toxic chemicals might be shocked at just how many individual chemicals they expose their children to each day just by bathing them and applying moisturisers.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) every day, children are exposed to an average of 27 personal care product ingredients each day that have not been found safe for developing bodies. Overall, the EWG review found that 77% of ingredients in 1,700 children’s products have not been assessed for safety; and children are uniquely vulnerable to these chemical assaults.

First things first

Newborn babies are not “dirty”. The amount of vernix (the white waxy substance that protect babies’ skin whilst in the watery environment of the womb) and/or blood, which covers a newborn baby varies enormously. It is probably fair to say that it is not babies, but midwives, doctors and parents who prefer the smell of talcum powder and cream. Today the view is that vernix acts to protect the newborn’s sensitive skin during the first days of life and should be left to come off naturally over a period of time.

There is ample reason to consider the bigger picture of our use baby toiletries and question whether all those three-for-twos that parents stock up on are really the bargains they appear to be.

Skin reactions on the rise

In the developed world, the rate of eczema and allergies among children is on the rise. The early introduction of harsh toiletries onto sensitive skin may be a contributing factor. Unfortunately parents whose children have skin rashes often approach the problem by piling on more synthetic goop, when cutting out baby toiletries entirely would be a more rational and effective solution.

Of all the available bath products bubble baths, which are highly fragranced, have the greatest potential to cause skin irritation, allergic skin reactions and headaches.

However, a bigger problem with using bubble baths is that they can irritate more than just your skin.  Regular bubble bath use is associated with a high rate of urinary tract infections. The harsh detergents in these products can strip away protective oils from sensitive areas of skin as well as stripping away the mucous which lines the urogenital tract. Removing this natural protection allows bacteria to take hold.  Children are particularly vulnerable and bubble baths are a major cause of urogenital infections in babies.

Many toiletries are also full of hormone disrupting chemicals – this fact doesn’t changer just because they are baby products.

The eco impact of wipes

As an alternative to a ‘proper wash’, the convenience of wipes is such that in the last decade there has been an unprecedented boom in the use of disposable cloths of all kinds. Today in any supermarket, along with the ubiquitous baby wipes, you can buy hand wipes, self tan and deodorant wipes, make-up- and nail polish-removing, blackhead-clearing, car washing, multi-surface, disinfecting, furniture, floor, fridge and hob wipes.

Wipes are generally made from a mixture of plastic, cellulose and polyester fibres pressed together and soaked in a cleaning fluid. They are convenient which is why even people who don’t have babies can often be seen buying packets of baby wipes to use as instant clean-ups anywhere.

Globally we spend billions of dollars on wipes each year. We use them and then throw them or flush them without paying much attention to where they go after that.

Unless specifically stated that they biodegrade easily, wipes can be slow to break down in the environment. As is the case with disposable nappies, it is likely that most the wipes we’ve ever used are still somewhere under the ground. Amazingly given their popularity, the environmental impact of this has never been studied.

In addition to this, packs of wipes are the perfect breeding grounds for germs. To counteract this, wipes manufacturers add large amounts of preservatives and antibacterials such as parabens or methyisothiazolinone (MI). Most recently concern over MI and its link with dermatitis and eczema has been highlighted, and it’s not just baby that can suffer. Parents using wet wipes containing MI can also get dermatitis on their hands.

Try this instead

New parents, give yourself a break. Let common sense prevail when it comes to keeping your baby clean.

Not all babies enjoy early baths and not all parents find bathing their newborn the relaxing scene it is often made out to be. If you want to wash your baby, consider the ‘top and tail’ approach, rinsing the bottom area and face only, with plain water for the first few weeks or more.  Remember these golden rules:

Use less. A newborn baby is many times more likely to absorb toxic substances from a toiletry product that an adult, so use them sparingly if at all.

Look past the hype. Even those conventional baby bath products that are extra mild will be too harsh for most babies. Many paediatricians have expressed concern for babies who are exposed to detergents, creams and oils at a time when their skin is so thin and permeable. Skin reactions to liquid and bar soaps are common, and bubble baths, which strip the skin and mucous membranes of protective oils, can provoke urogenital infections in newborns and infants.

Go organic. Certified organic baby products will by their very nature avoid harmful ingredients and some of the worst preservatives like parabens. They will not have synthetic perfumes in them and will include actively beneficial plant oils and plant extracts that support your baby’s delicate skin.

Safe soaps. Always opt for vegetable and glycerine based soaps and washes over harsher petrochemical-based varieties. Look for bar soaps made from at least 70% vegetable oil. Many health food shops stock such soaps or you can order them from specialist suppliers. Liquid castile soaps foam well and are made from enriching oils such as coconut, hemp and olive. They make a good substitute for conventional body washes.

Go fragrance-free. Fragrances, used soaps, deodorants, baby wipes and lotions, cleaning agents all contain highly volatile fragrance compounds which have been shown to be carcinogenic, and allergenic as well as altering central nervous system function and depressing immune system function. Using fragrance-free products goes part of the way towards reducing your child’s risk of exposure. Avoid silly products like baby perfumes and don’t use air fresheners or long lasting fabric fresheners, detergents or fabric softeners on things that come into contact with your baby’s skin. The famous Children of the 90′s study in the UK found that children exposed to synthetic fragrances via air fresheners had more diarrhoea, vomiting and earache than those who weren’t.

Baby wipes can contain alcohol, fragrance and preservatives that can irritate your baby’s skin. Plain water is generally all that is necessary to clean your baby during nappy changes. Use cotton wool for smaller babies and tissue followed by  a wash cloth for older babies. Wipes can be useful if you are travelling or in situations where you are otherwise pressed for time.  But because they are slow to biodegrade keep their use to a minimum, and opt for organic brands that are free from alcohol and fragrances and which pay attention to biodegradeability issues.

Go talc-free. Talcum powder and cream can actually make your baby dirtier. It can become sticky and unpleasant if your baby becomes overheated, hot and sweaty. Inhaling talcum powder, which can be contaminated with asbestos, is a cause respiratory problems in babies. Natural cornstarch based products which work well to absorb moisture but carry none of the risk factors of talc are a better choice.

To avoid nappy rash and dry cracked skin let your baby go without a nappy as often as possible. Getting air on baby’s skin is the best way to keep it healthy. If you are a breastfeeding mum a little breast milk applied to a nappy rash can help clear it up.

If your baby has very red or sensitive skin try making your own herbal wash bag. Cut the foot off of an old pair of tights, about 6 inches from the end. Fill the pouch with a handful of oatmeal, some soothing herbs such as camomile or lavender and 2 tbl of finely ground almonds. Tie a knot in the open end of the pouch. You can now use this in the bath or shower. One wash bag will last one day maximum – keep it in the fridge in a plastic bag if you intend to use it morning and night, but don’t try to store it longer than this as it can accumulate bacteria.  When wet it will produce a lovely creamy liquid that will clean and nourish your skin without drying it. This is great for babies, children as well as for adults with very dry skin.