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How to Choose Safer Personal Care Products: Tips for Families

How to Choose Safer Personal Care Products: Tips for Families How to Choose Safer Personal Care Products: Tips for Families

By: Lauren Zajac, MD, MPH, FAAP

Every day, we all use many personal care products such as soaps, lotion, hair products, and toothpaste. Some of these products contain chemicals such as phthalates. These are often added to bind a fragrance or color to the product, for example. However, they may also have unintended health effects, such as interfering with the hormone system.

Safer options are becoming more available to families. Still, stronger policies are needed on the federal level to ensure all children's products on the store shelves are safe. In the meantime, here are some tips for choosing safer personal care products:

Hand soap and body wash

  • Avoid "antibacterial soaps" such as those with triclosan. Plain soap and water works well to prevent the spread of germs.

  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to kill germs. Be sure to read the directions and store them out of the reach of your children.

  • Choose fragrance-free body washes or bar soaps with a few simple ingredients.

Lotion and body care

  • Choose fragrance-free lotions, since phthalates are often a component of "fragrance" or "parfum" in these products. If your child has eczema or sensitive skin, here are some additional tips for skin care and moisturizing.

  • Products labeled as "antiperspirant" typically contain aluminum and work by blocking sweat glands. Deodorants do not prevent sweating like antiperspirants do, but can help mask odor and soak up moisture. For those wishing to avoid aluminum, consider a deodorant with ingredients such as baking soda or cornstarch.

Hair care

  • Avoid chemical-based straightening treatments, as they can contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde or sodium hydroxide (lye).

  • Keep hairspray out of the reach of children, and use it in a well-ventilated area.

  • Choose shampoos and conditioners that do not contain phthalates or parabens (check the label to be sure).

  • Try homemade recipes using common household ingredients such as olive oil for deep conditioning of African American hair.

Diaper products

  • Use fragrance-free baby wipes or plain water.

  • To prevent diaper rash, change diapers frequently, clean skin gently, and use a fragrance-free diaper cream (such as zinc oxide-based products).

  • Avoid use of talcum powder, as it can cause lung damage if inhaled. Some talc has also been found to contain small amounts of asbestos.


  • Be cautious with certain imported cosmetics, which can contain lead or other heavy metals. Some examples of potentially hazardous imported cosmetics are kohl, kajal, surma, and sindoor.

  • Nail polish can contain chemicals of concern such as formaldehyde and toluene. Some nail polish brands have created nail polish options without some of the most concerning chemicals; these are typically labelled as "5-free", "7-free", or "9-free" (depending on the number of chemicals they have left out of the formula).

Oral care products

  • Avoid toothpaste with triclosan. Fluoride toothpaste is recommended, but start with a small rice-sized smear for infants.

  • Avoid use of topical benzocaine to relieve teething pain in babies. Safer alternatives include a cold washcloth or massaging the gums with a clean finger.

  • Store mouthwash out of the reach of children, as some ingredients can be toxic to children if they ingest it. Children should not use mouthwash until age 6 years, when they are able to swish and spit.

  • More information on early dental health - start young to prevent cavities and tooth decay!


  • Always use sunscreen with SPF 15 to 30 while outdoors during the warm months.

  • When possible, choose mineral-based products such as zinc oxide sunscreen instead of chemical-based products like oxybenzone.

  • Lotions are better than sprays. If using a spray sunscreen, spray the sunscreen on your hand first and then apply to your child, to lower the chance they will breathe in the sunscreen mist.

  • You can find more information on sun safety here including tips on applying sunscreen and sun protective clothing.

Children with nut or seed allergies

  • Some lotions, body washes, and hair products may contain nut-based oils (almond oil, for example). If your child has a nut or seed allergy, it is best to avoid these products. Be cautious when reading labels, however, since some nut-based oils do not appear with their common name - for example, peanut oil may appear as "arachis oil." Talk to your pediatrician or allergist for more information.

One way to make healthier choices

Being aware of ingredients in personal care products is one way you can make healthier choices for your family and for the environment. While shopping, consider using one of the apps available to help you identify safer product choices.

Talk with your pediatrician

If you have questions about choosing a safer personal care product, talk with your pediatrician. Your regional Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) have staff who can also talk with parents about concerns over environmental toxins.

More information

About Dr. Zajac

Lauren Zajac, MD, MPH, FAAP, is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Environmental Medicine & Public Health and Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Zajac is also a pediatrician with the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU), and the clinical director for New York State Children's Environmental Health Centers (NYSCHECK). Within the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is a member of the Executive Committee of the Council on Environmental Health.

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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health (Copyright © 2020)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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