Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Common Baby Products

Looking out for carcinogens formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane

Baby getting a bath
Images By Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

A study from the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has discovered that many popular baby products like shampoo and baby wash contain contaminants that could potentially cause cancer later in life. Baby product moguls Johnson & Johnson and Baby Magic were among the list of several manufacturers whose select products tested positive for formaldehyde and/or 1,4-dioxane—two things that are considered to be probable carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.

What Are Formaldehyde and 1,4-Dioxane?

These probable carcinogens found in some baby products are not actual ingredients, but instead are results of the manufacturing process. When these products sit on the shelves, formaldehyde and/or 1,4 dioxane form. It is not as if manufacturers are adding these substances purposefully. While the levels of these contaminants are only in trace amounts, the concern many health advocates are raising is the accumulation of these contaminants in the body over time. Consider how often a parent bathes their child—frequent use of products with such contaminants may later prove to be harmful.

How to Tell If Your Product Contains Formaldehyde or 1,4-Dioxine

Both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are not actual ingredients of baby products, but byproducts of the manufacturing process, so they do not have to be listed on the product label. They can form during the manufacturing process or over time.

Product expiration dates provide little help because there is no "set time" when these chemical reactions occur.

Products that are likely to be contaminated with formaldehyde include:

  • Quaternium-15
  • DMDM hydantoid
  • Imidazolindinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea

Products likely to be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane include:

  • PEG-100
  • Stearate
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • polyethylene
  • Cetereath-20

Companies which sell products containing these byproducts include:

  • Aveeno
  • Huggies
  • American Girl
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Baby Magic
  • Barbie
  • Dora the Explorer
  • L'Oreal
  • Suave
  • and more

Thankfully, the Safe Cosmetics has a website in which you can read about these and many more personal care products that you commonly use. Products are given a rating, and in addition to naming possible carcinogens, they are evaluated for other toxicities and even the risk of allergic reactions they pose.

Keep in mind that not all baby products contain these contaminants. More than half of the products tested, however, contained one or both contaminants.

What to Do If You Are a Parent

Should you toss all of your baby products and shop for more natural toiletries for your baby? That is certainly a personal decision you will have to make. The FDA is not removing these products from the shelves because the levels of the contaminants are so low. The FDA regulates and maintains that use of these products is safe.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the manufacturers on the list, has now eliminated products that can break down into dioxane and formaldehyde, although there may still be some small amounts in its adult products.

How Much is Too Much?

A common question is, "How much is too much?" What if I use a product only once a week. With most carcinogens we don't know what a safe level would be, or even if there is a safe level. Reading labels and talking about amounts is also fairly moot. For example, 26 pounds of one substance may be less dangerous than half an ounce of another.

Practice Moderation and Mindfulness

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics wants parents to know that these results are not meant to cause panic, but to raise parental awareness about the contents of children's products. Again, one-time use probably will not cause any severe adverse health effects. Rather, the concern is about the frequent use of products containing these contaminants and how they may accumulate in the body long term.

Baby products aren't the only concerns when it comes to carcinogens in our children's lives. For example, grilled food may contribute to cancer risk by creating heterocyclic amines. There are some simple things you can do to reduce cancer risk before you put the meat on the grill. Styrofoam containers heated in the microwave aren't a good idea. The point is that you can reduce cancer risk for your family with a few small steps.

Usually, a mindful stance is the best bet. You don't need to be neurotic—only aware. There are probably enough simple choices and changes you could make just by learning about this topic, without going overboard trying to change your life completely.


Review of the Formaldehyde Assessment in the National Toxicology Program 12th Report on Carcinogens. Committee to Review the Formaldehyde Assessment in the National Toxicology Program 12th Report on Carcinogens; Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology; Division on Earth and Life Sciences; National Research Council. Washington DC: National Academies Press. 2014.

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