In a perfect world, skincare products made for babies would be, you know, safe for babies. Fortunately, the industry has taken a giant step in that direction over the past few years, but there are still plenty of land mines out there—not to mention plenty of confusion. To clear things up a bit, we spoke with two top experts: John Gardiner, CEO of Exederm (which aligns its philosophies with medical professional groups such as the National Eczema Association and American Cancer Society), and Episencial founder Kim Walls, a champion of the all-natural approach.

StrollerTraffic: A lot has changed since the whole “Toxic Tub” fiasco in 2009. Why didn’t we know there was 1,4-dioxane in Johnson & Johnson’s products? What other “hidden” nasties are out there?
Kim Wallis: 1-4, dioxane isn’t listed on labels because it is a byproduct of the manufacturing process. Arsenic and Formaldehyde are other unintentional “ingredients” that can show up. You’d need an advanced Organic Chemistry degree to be able to predict such occurrences by reading a product’s label, but parents can take a step toward reducing exposure to harsh chemicals and known toxins by avoiding products made with petroleum, synthetic fragrances, and synthetic dyes.
JG: One of the principle active ingredients in all J&J Baby Shampoo products is called Cocamidopropyl Betaine (CAPB). It was voted “Allergen of the Year 2004” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society, but seven years later is still a key part of the formulations. It’s perfectly safe for 95 percent of kids, but what if your child is in the other 5 percent . . . .

ST: What’s the difference between brands labeled “Natural” and those branded “Organic?”
KW: Unfortunately, products do not necessarily need to be organic for the word “organic” to be used in the name of the brand. If a product has a very high percentage of organic ingredients then the label can claim “made with organic ingredients,” and if it is nearly 100% organic, it is eligible for the USDA organic mark. As for the term “natural” many of the same issues apply – just because a product is labeled natural doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t contain synthetic chemicals—even harsh ones.
JG: Natural is virtually meaningless, and unfortunately ‘organic’ is in danger of going that way too.

ST: What about minerals vs. chemicals? How do we know the difference when reading labels?
KW: Minerals are still chemicals. That said, the word “mineral” in the skincare world typically refers to the active ingredients used to provide sun protection, namely Zinc and Titanium. Both of these minerals basically “float” on the surface of the skin rather than penetrating the cellular level of the skin as “chemical” sunscreens generally do.

ST: What about Vitamin A? At first it was touted, now it’s shunned.
KW: Retinyl Palmitate contains Vitamin A, an essential building block of skin. According to a review in the “Clinics in Dermatology” journal, Vitamin A plays a crucial role in maintaining and repairing skin tissue. However in excess, Vitamin A can cause photosensitivity as well as thinning of skin through accelerated exfoliation. The bottom line: Vitamin A–in appropriate amounts–is good for the skin.

ST: Is there any situation in which a product with fragrance is okay?
KW: If the label says fragrance, I simply won’t buy it. That said, I love products that smell great, and enjoy formulating with smell-good ingredients, but never synthetic fragrances.
JG: I don’t believe that fragrance is ever necessary in a children’s or baby products—it is only there for the benefit of the parent. We prefer to be tear-free rather than nice-smelling.

ST: We’ve learned to be afraid of parabens and petroleum-based products, but we’re not exactly sure why. Can you explain what’s so harmful about these ubiquitous ingredients?
KW: There is growing evidence that parabens—used in synthetic fragrances and as a preservative—are endocrine disruptors, having a toxic impact on hormones. Petroleum, in and of itself, is inert. It doesn’t react with the body. The problem is that the majority of products formulated with petroleum contain by-products that are potentially very harmful to the skin. It is easiest and probably safest to simply avoid them. Phenoxyethanol, a preservative,  is also on my “bad-stuff” list.
JG: One other ‘nasty’ is called SLS Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. It’s used in liquid soaps, washes, and shampoos, and is really too irritating for baby products.

ST: Okay. So clearly, it seems natural is the way to go. But here’s where things get really tricky. What about babies with reactive skin issues, like eczema? Many pediatricians say it’s the all-natural, plant-derived products that cause flare-ups. They recommend products like Cetaphil, which we know has parabens. The mixed signals are confusing. Now what?
KW: This is one of those questions that come down to personal core values and philosophy about baby and body care.
At Exederm, we are more concerned with whether an ingredient is irritating than whether it is chemical, natural, or organic.

ST: At the end of the day, what should we be looking for when we buy skincare products for our babies?
JG: Unfortunately, for most families it comes down to trial-and-error, as we are all different and one child may react to one ingredient, while the next child may not. There is no perfect product. In general, the less that is in the product the less likely that there will be a problem. Many ‘natural’ products contain a shopping list of plant and botanical ingredients (including nut oils!) that can be very irritating.
KW: Products from a brand you trust that do not list petroleum, mineral oil, petrolatum, fragrance, FDC colorants, or phenoxyethanol on the label.