Avoiding harmful chemicals in baby productsAdvice for parents
Having a baby is an exciting time, but you want to make sure you’re not exposing them or yourself to harmful chemicals, including endocrine disruptors. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to reduce your and your baby’s risk of exposure.
As parents-to-be, you are already aware of certain things that should be avoided during pregnancy, but you might not know of the risks that harmful chemicals can pose to yourselves and your baby.
We are exposed to many different chemicals in our daily life, from food and cosmetics, to furniture and clothes. Babies and young children are also exposed to these chemicals and are particularly vulnerable as they are still developing.
Some of these chemicals can be harmful, and can interfere with the body’s hormone system, which is particularly concerning for babies developing in the womb. Endocrine disruptors can also affect the health of the reproductive systems of both men and women.
We’re exposed to chemicals through various routes, including ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin.
But there are things you can do to avoid harmful chemicals such as endocrine disruptors in baby products. This page outlines what infant, children’s and baby products may contain harmful chemicals, and the steps you can take to reduce risks to you and your family.
How endocrine disruptors affect a baby
Babies in the womb are particularly vulnerable to endocrine disruptors. This is because their brain and other vital organs are developing. Any disruption to their development in this period can lead to negative health impacts in the future.
The primary concern with harmful chemicals and babies is the impact on their brain development. The brain is only fully developed in our twenties – and hormones play a vital role in this process. But some chemicals including endocrine disruptors can disrupt its development by mimicking or blocking certain hormones. For example, the thyroid hormone plays an important role, but can be disrupted by EDCs. A child’s brain only gets one chance to develop, so an early impact can cause problems for the rest of someone’s life.
Exposure to certain harmful chemicals in the womb has been linked to the prevalence in children and adolescents of ADHD, developmental, emotional and behavioural problems, and autism.
Some chemicals, such as lead, PCBs and methylmercury, have for a number of years been known to affect brain development and have been restricted in certain uses.
But there are other chemicals that are either known to disrupt, or are suspected of disrupting, brain development in the womb. These include the bisphenols, phthalates, per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) and some pesticides. Some of these chemicals have been restricted, but others are still found in products in widespread use, such as furniture, food packaging, toys, cosmetics and paint.
See our page on the health impacts of endocrine disruptors for more information. Read more about the impact of harmful chemicals on brain development in our report ‘No Brainer: the impact of chemicals on children’s brain development: a cause for concern and a need for action’ and in our factsheet (pdf).
Harmful chemicals and fertility
Certain chemicals including EDCs can also have impacts on the reproductive system and have been linked to a range of related health concerns, including fertility problems, birth defects of the genitals and certain hormone-related cancers.
In several European countries around 1 in 5 young men have impaired fertility. It is thought that exposure to certain chemicals, such as some phthalates that can block the male hormone testosterone, contributes to this.
Other reproductive disorders have increased at a worrying rate: testicular cancer is around twice as common in many industrial countries as it was 30-40 years ago, and sperm counts have dropped in many developed nations. See our page on the health impacts of endocrine disruptors for more information.
Children’s reproductive development can be affected by certain harmful chemicals. For example, bisphenol A (a known endocrine disruptor) has been shown to advance the onset of puberty in adolescents, while certain phthalates have been found to be associated with the disruption of reproductive organ development in boys.
Pregnancy, nesting and avoiding harmful chemicals
Harmful chemicals that affect brain development and the reproductive system can be transmitted from mothers to babies in the womb, and even through breastfeeding. Exposure to these chemicals in the womb can affect the baby’s development. So it is a good idea to try to avoid certain harmful chemicals during your pregnancy.
Many new parents ‘nest’ in the few months before their baby’s arrival – redecorating, preparing the nursery and buying new furniture. This can introduce harmful chemicals to your home, as paints, varnishes, and new fabrics and mattresses can contain harmful chemicals.
But there are steps that you can take to limit your and your baby’s exposure to harmful chemicals, including endocrine disruptors, when preparing your home for your baby:
- Make any renovations at least 3 months before the due date, and ventilate your home well afterwards.
- Pregnant women should let others make the renovations so as to limit their own risk of exposure to harmful chemicals and the subsequent risk to the baby.
- When painting, choose water-based, low-emission, and solvent-free products. Look for paints with ecolabels.
- Carpets can contain hazardous chemicals, so consider an alternative flooring, such as solid wood, tile, cork or natural linoleum.
- Air any new mattresses thoroughly before sleeping on them.
Our page on chemicals in furniture and carpets has more information.
Are harmful chemicals allowed in baby products?
Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to harmful chemicals as they are still developing, and so in the EU there are restrictions on what substances are allowed in products specifically for babies or children.
Toys and endocrine disruptors
Toys are essential for a child’s development and to have fun, but they can contain harmful chemicals including endocrine disruptors. For example, popular slime toys have been found to contain harmful levels of boron, which can harm children’s reproductive systems. Some dolls have been found to contain illegal levels of phthalates (known endocrine-disrupting chemicals).
In the EU toys are regulated under the Toy Safety Directive. Some chemicals are known to cause cancer, affect the reproductive system or damage genes; and these chemicals are not allowed in amounts beyond limits set in EU law in parts of toys that are accessible to children – for example, a surface that they might touch or put in their mouth. Certain fragrances known to be allergenic have also been banned in children’s toys. The regulations apply to all toys sold in the EU, even if they have been manufactured outside the EU.
Baby mattresses and harmful chemicals
The EU has regulations on mattresses and mattress toppers used in cots and children’s beds. Manufacturers must attempt to avoid the use of flame retardant chemicals, and comply with migration restrictions of heavy metals.
Specific chemicals and uses
There are specific restrictions for some chemicals in particular uses. For example, certain phthalates that are known endocrine disruptors are restricted in toys and other children’s products. Bisphenol A has been banned from baby bottles and all food-contact materials intended for baby foods and formulas – this is because of its endocrine-disrupting properties and impact on the reproductive system.
But despite these regulations, harmful chemicals may still be present in products meant for children.
Of the 559 alerts sent to the EU’s product safety alert system (named Safety Gate) in 2019 to inform member states of products containing illegal levels of harmful chemicals, 296 were for childcare items, children’s equipment and toys.
It is the responsibility of local and national authorities to ensure that manufacturers and retailers comply with chemical legislation, but you can protect your children by making sure you buy toys from reputable shops and online traders. This leaflet from the European Commission has more tips on toy safety (available in a number of languages).
We also know that babies and children don’t only use products specifically made for children. They may be exposed to harmful chemicals in other products, such as the sofa in your sitting room or the packaging your food comes in. Here are some steps you can take to limit your child’s risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.
Advice for parents: how to choose products for babies and children without harmful chemicals
It can be difficult to avoid harmful ingredients in all of the cosmetics and toiletries you and your children use each day, but here are a few rules of thumb to give you a good chance of reducing your risk of exposure.
Non-toxic baby soaps, shampoos, creams and other personal care products
Cosmetics used by babies and children, such as soaps, shampoos, moisturisers and creams, may contain harmful chemicals including endocrine disruptors.
Some cosmetics brands intended for babies and children avoid certain substances, such as fragrances, which can cause allergic reactions. But many cosmetics may still contain harmful chemicals including endocrine disruptors.
Here are the main ways to avoid endocrine disruptors in cosmetics:
- Choose products that have been awarded an ecolabel, such as the EU Ecolabel.
- Read the label. In the EU all cosmetics must display a list of ingredients. Avoid parabens, triclosan and chemicals with ‘fluoro’ in the name or ‘PTFE’. Look for paraben-free baby shampoo and soap.
- If you live outside the EU, choose products that are sold in the EU. The EU has the strictest chemical regulations in the world, and so these cosmetics may have fewer harmful chemicals in them.
Our page Toiletries, cosmetics and menstrual products has more information.
Some nappies can contain harmful chemicals. Tests carried out by France’s national health agency Anses found harmful chemicals in babies’ nappies at levels that exceeded safe limits. The chemicals included fragrances (which can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions), and glyphosate, a pesticide suspected of causing cancer.
Fortunately, there are options to choose nappies that do not contain harmful chemicals:
- Opt for organic cotton and reusable nappies.
- If you choose conventional nappies, pick those with an ecolabel, as these will have further restrictions on what chemicals are permitted to be used in the nappies. For example, nappies with the EU Ecolabel are not allowed to contain fragrances, any cotton used must be organic, the use of formaldehyde and some phthalates are restricted, and dyes and inks (which can contain harmful chemicals) cannot be used in parts of the nappy that are in direct contact with the baby’s skin.
- If you can’t find nappies with an ecolabel, choose fragrance-free nappies.
Non-toxic children’s clothing
Babies and children can be exposed to harmful chemicals in clothes. Some clothes, such as waterproof jackets and school uniforms, are treated with harmful chemicals called PFAS to make them waterproof or stain resistant. This means some baby clothes contain endocrine disruptors.
A recent study found that the best non-fluorinated waterproofs are as good at repelling water as their fluorinated counterparts. So PFAS are not necessary to make clothes waterproof.
To avoid exposure to endocrine disruptors in children’s clothes, buy garments labelled PFAS-free or PFC-free (PFC is an old name which some companies are still using for PFAS). You can also buy wash-in and spray-on waterproofing for shoes and clothes that don’t contain PFAS.
Homemade baby clothes are a popular present for expectant parents, but some yarns contain plastic as they are mixed with acrylic or nylon fibres to make them washable or more durable. There are natural alternatives that do not contain plastics, such as wool. Untreated wool is naturally water repellent and flame retardant.
When buying toys, there are a few rules of thumb you can follow to reduce the risk of the toys containing harmful chemicals:
- Always buy toys from reputable shops and online stores.
- Avoid toys that smell strongly of chemicals or are heavily scented.
- Avoid soft plastic toys, as these can contain endocrine disruptors like phthalates.
- If a toy is painted or treated with varnish or other coatings, make sure it is non-toxic, free from lead, and meant for children.
This leaflet (pdf) from WECF has more information.
Non-toxic mattresses and cribs
Babies and young children spend a lot of time in their cots and beds, so it is important that their mattresses are safe.
Many mattresses are treated with harmful chemical flame retardants, so that in the event of a fire, they will burn more slowly. But some of these flame-retardant chemicals have been associated with cancers and developmental challenges in children. Some are also known to interfere with the endocrine system and damage the liver and thyroid function.
Fortunately, manufacturers don’t have to use harmful chemicals to ensure mattresses meet fire safety regulations. Some companies offer mattresses for cots and beds that are not treated with chemical flame retardants. Look for mattresses with the EU Ecolabel, as these are not allowed to be treated with the most toxic flame retardants. Remember to air a mattress thoroughly before you or your child sleep on it.
Our page on chemicals in furniture and furnishings has more information.
Non-toxic baby bottles and other food packaging
Some baby bottles can contain a group of chemicals called bisphenols, some of which are known endocrine disruptors. In the EU bisphenol A (BPA) is banned from baby bottles, but even bottles labelled BPA-free can contain other bisphenols. Look for baby bottles that are free from all bisphenols.
A lot of food packaging can contain chemicals that are harmful to human health. This includes plastic tubs and bottles, cardboard containers and greaseproof linings. Chemicals in these items can contaminate food and drink.
To limit your child’s exposure to harmful chemicals in food packaging, avoid:
- Plastic bottles;
- Plastic food wrap;
- Take-away and fast-food containers;
- Packaging with greaseproof lining;
- Canned foods;
- Packaging labelled with recycling codes 3 and 7.
- Buy fruit and vegetables loose.
- Store food in glass jars.
- Choose stainless steel water bottles and food containers (for example for children’s school lunches).
- Cut down on take-aways.
Our page on food and food packaging has more information.
Avoiding harmful chemicals in food and cooking
Food consumption is the most common way that we are exposed to harmful chemicals. Children and adults can come into contact with endocrine disrupting chemicals through the food we eat.
You can reduce your and your child’s risk of exposure to EDCs in foods and when cooking – for example by reducing your consumption of meat and dairy products, opting for organic food, and avoiding fast food. See our page on food and endocrine disruptors for more.
Fish, particularly oily fish, can help brain development. But fish can also contain harmful chemicals that have built up and been stored in the fish tissues. This process is called bioaccumulation. Larger fish higher up the food chain eat smaller fish. They are therefore more likely to contain harmful chemicals. So you can reduce your exposure by choosing fish lower down the food chain, such as sardines or anchovies.
Mercury contamination is common in fish in the form of methylmercury. It is particularly harmful. Exposure to mercury in children’s early development has been linked to impaired IQ and brain development.
Pregnant and nursing women and young children are advised to limit their intake of certain species of fish. These tend to be species that are long-lived and higher up the food chain – such as shark, swordfish, pike, tuna, hake, tilefish and king mackerel. If you’re buying tuna, for example, light tuna and line- and pole-caught fish are likely to have lower mercury content.
We can also be exposed to harmful chemicals when cooking food. Here are some tips to limit your and your child’s risk of exposure:
- Don’t microwave food in plastic packaging.
- Avoid non-stick pans.
- Avoid black plastic cooking utensils.
- Choose a stainless steel or glass reusable cup.
Till receipts and harmful chemicals
Till receipts from cash tills, credit card readers, travel ticket machines and adding machines use thermal paper treated with chemicals that can be harmful to human health.
Bisphenol A (BPA) was used until research showed recently that it can be absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream. BPA has been linked to a range of health effects including certain cancers, reproductive disorders and negative impacts on children’s brain development. Companies are replacing BPA with other bisphenols, such as BPS, that have similar endocrine-disrupting properties.
Here are some tips to limit your child’s exposure to bisphenols in till receipts:
- Don’t let children play with receipts or put them in their mouths.
- If you’re pregnant and handle receipts regularly at work, wash your hands regularly and particularly before eating. Ask your employer to be moved to another role if possible.
See our page on till receipts and endocrine disruptors for more information.
- Project Nesting, a project by Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), has information for expectant parents on harmful chemicals, available in several languages.
- ‘I am pregnant’ (pdf) leaflet from WECF and Project Nesting.
- The Green Baby project by the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN).
- ‘The rules for chemicals in toys in brief’ (pdf), leaflet from KEMI (the Swedish Chemicals Agency)
- 10 tips to avoid toxic chemicals during and after pregnancy, by the Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).