An article in the current issue of the medical journal Pediatrics claims that baby lotions, powders, and shampoo contain a chemical known as phthalates, which are absorbed by babies through their skin, leaving them at risk of disease and disabilities.
Phthalates are chemicals that have been used for over fifty years in a variety of products -- for example, as chemical stabilizers in personal care products or as plastic softeners in rubber duckies, shower curtains, and medical devices. Phthalates are invisible, unfamiliar (who can pronounce the word, much less spell it correctly?), and totally unknown to almost every parent. So when parents read that phthalates show up in the urine of babies who are exposed to powders, lotions, and shampoos (as the Pediatrics article stated), they understandably panic.
However, given the sophistication of analytic chemistry today, we can find traces of any and all chemicals -- natural and synthetic -- to which we (or our babies) are exposed. Just because you can measure the presence of a chemical in blood or urine is no reason to believe the chemical poses harm. Thus it is no surprise that phthalates can be detected in trace amounts in a baby's urine -- but it is meaningless healthwise.
Second, there is no evidence whatsoever -- not even a hint -- of health problems from phthalates in any consumer products used by children or adults. That is the conclusion of esteemed scientists from the Food and Drug Administration, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and universities around the world -- and a blue ribbon panel on phthalates and health chaired by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The issue has been addressed and studied extensively. There are more than 1,000 articles on phthalates in the scientific literature. The claimed health risk is totally bogus, based exclusively on results of high-dose rodent experiments. If one were to assume that phthalates should be regarded as dangerous because vast quantities can make rodents sick, then we would also have to fear the myriad natural foods (like mushrooms, table pepper, coffee, and nutmeg) that contain chemicals that cause cancer in rodents -- as plenty of all-natural chemicals do, without any corresponding illness in humans. Similarly, the claim that phthalates "disrupt hormones" is pure speculation and without scientific merit.
For more about phthlates and health, please see announcing ACSH's blue ribbon panel on the topic.