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Is Your Child's Toothpaste Toxic?

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Updated on Dec 18, 2008

For all those parents concerned over another wave of toy recalls, here's another worry to add to your list: toys from China aren't the only children's products to pose a threat to kids. According to a new investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), children are routinely exposed to chemicals that have never been tested for their effects on kids. Where are these chemicals hiding? In common shampoos, toothpastes, and lotions used by children every day.

The EWG surveyed thousands of parents to find out which personal care products kids used most, then cross-referenced the results with their database of widely used cosmetics ingredients and their associative health risks. Using data from various government agencies, as well as international databases, the EWG made a startling find: not only do most skin care, oral hygiene products, and hair care products contain potentially unsafe ingredients, but the FDA does not require studies or testing to ensure the safety of these products before they hit the market.

Although this is true of all personal care products, the report points out that children are more sensitive to toxins and harsh chemicals than adults. “Children's bodies are still growing and developing,” says EWG staff scientist Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D. “They're going to be more sensitive to chemical assault.” And according to the report, things like BHA, Oxybenzone, DMDM Hydantoin, and Triclosan are on the offensive, making the list for links to hormone disruption, brain damage, and cancer.

But according to Mary Williams, a leading pediatric dermatologist, these chemicals can sound a lot scarier than they really are. “I think what you have to recognize is that many of these things when they're present in skin products they're present in tiny quantities,” she says, pointing out that although it's easy to imagine harmful chemicals being absorbed through the skin, “the skin is bioengineered to keep things out.” Her advice? “The simpler the product is, the less you need to be concerned about this.”

So what does “simple” mean? Some parents may think that products marketed specifically as “for kids,” “gentle” or “all natural” don't contain harmful chemicals, but according to Scot Case, Vice President of the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice, companies routinely make claims that are vague, misleading, unverified, or all of the above. “Lots of people are making claims about their products, but very few are providing actual evidence to back those claims up,” he says. TerraChoice recently conducted a study of over 1,000 common consumer products, and found that 99% were guilty of what they're calling “greenwashing,” or making false or misleading claims about their environmentally-friendly nature. Sutton says that terms like “hypoallergenic” and “for kids” can be just as misleading: “We were surprised to see just how unregulated any of these claims are.”

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