Baby Bath: Should You Slather on the Soap or Just Skip the Suds?

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Baby Soap

My twins are now five months old and until very recently, we have only bathed them with plain, warm water. We had initially planned to use some baby soap until my midwife Jennifer advised us not to until it was necessary.

“No soap? How do they get clean?” we had wondered aloud.

She explained that introducing baby soaps too early may strip our newborns of their natural oils. She reasoned that it was pointless to use these soaps, only to have to put back the removed oils by using moisturisers. This simple logic made sense, so we decided to skip the suds. So far, our kids – save for some heat and milk rashes – have reasonably good skin.

However, now that the twins are more active and taken out more often, I have started seeking out safe baby soaps. My research surfaced some shocking but significant insights.

Parents today have too much choice and too little time. We rely on quick recommendations by friends or common brands that are easily found. We act out of love but often take product safety for granted; unaware that some can be harmful to our children. For instance, we originally bought Johnson’s & Johnson’s Soap-Free Baby Bath. However, an alarming article on the time-honoured industry titan made me realise that even big brands were not trustworthy.

It is important to limit new babies’ exposure to harmful chemicals, as they are pure and more vulnerable to the effects of toxins. Their immune and central nervous systems are immature, so their bodies are less efficient at eliminating toxins. Additionally, they breathe more air and have more skin surface per pound of body weight than adults. So, they absorb proportionally more chemicals through application and inhalation. Decreasing children’s exposure to chemicals from day one – even in the womb – can help lower their risk of sensitivity to chemicals, allergies, cancers and other illnesses.

I asked for recommendations from friends and online groups, then checked if these could be purchased locally. I tested the following eight popular products:


I used each at least three times, observing their effects on my babies. My son’s skin tends to be more sensitive, so I used his reactions as a yardstick. He had no issues with the Burt’s Bees, California Baby, Bepanthen and Buds’ Super Soothing Hydrating Cleanser products. With the rest, his skin developed reddish rashes. The Cetaphil and Baby Sebamed soaps in particular made both babies’ skins feel quite dry to the touch. At first, I did not think much of this as product use tends to be very personal from baby to baby. However, as I did more research, I started to understand why this was so.

These two brands contain ingredients that are considered harmful. Cetaphil contains butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. Parabens are a class of chemicals commonly used as preservatives in personal care products. They inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts and mould, giving products a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that these are endocrine disruptors that interfere with the normal function of our bodies’ hormones. Parabens mimic the hormone estrogen and have been found in breast cancer tumours. While no studies have directly linked parabens with breast cancer, we do know that parabens can be absorbed through the skin, and accumulate in breast tissue.

Despite the industry’s insistence that parabens are safe, many consumer advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) advise people to steer clear of them. I was surprised that Cetaphil, a brand frequently recommended by dermatologists for skin problems contained parabens – proof that specialists tend to work in silos. Cetaphil also contains Propylene Glycol that if used in a concentrated form and frequently, can potentially irritate your skin and eyes, or cause liver abnormalities and kidney dysfunction.

Both Cetaphil and Sebamed’s Children’s Shampoo contain Sodium Laureth Sulfate, another “no-no” ingredient. This foaming agent creates your lather and suds; plus works as a degreaser for car washes and workshops. However, it is also a neurotoxin that can mutate cells; cause reproductive harm or failure; irritate your skin and eyes, and maybe even trigger cancer. Not exactly something you want to rub on your baby’s belly. Both Sebamed products also contain the potentially problematic Benzyl Alcohol.

Most soaps I sampled were fragrance free or scented with safe essential oils whereas Sebamed’s products contain perfumes. Fragrance or perfumes are another controversial component often found in baby products like wipes. It is a catch-all term that can conceal harmful chemicals tied to allergies, hormone disruption, and neurotoxicity. So, why mask your baby’s lovely natural smell with such potential toxins? Like Parabens, Phthalates, a common component of fragrances are also known “endocrine disruptors”. Whilst pregnant, I used a Phthalate-free body soap from Method.

Many baby product manufacturers are not required to disclose what their products contain. So, before you buy new baby soap, do check out the list on the EWG’s amazing Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. They rank products and provide a complete breakdown of each ingredient of concern for every product. Of the soaps I tested, California Baby ranks best – the brand does not have a single product over a 2. Although the Burt’s Bees’ product ranks lower, I still prefer its thicker moisturiser-like consistency and texture that is visible when squeezed into the bath water, and also its natural scent (California Baby smells more like a cleaning agent). However, for something cost effective and easily purchased at pharmacies, Bepanthen’s Baby Bath (not listed) that does not contain any preservatives, colourants, alcohol or perfume comes a close third. See also the ratings for Cetaphil, Sebamed’s Baby Wash and Sebamed’s Children’s Shampoo.

I have decided to minimise my use of baby soaps for now; using them only when my babies become hot, sweaty and dirty. When I do need to use them more regularly, I will consider using the abovementioned brands or trying other organic ones like Earth Mama Angel Baby.

I have no intention to scaremonger with what I have shared. The information is not exhaustive but just the tip of the ingredients iceberg. We should not become unnecessarily paranoid about products but when it comes to the health of our babies, it is better to err on the side of caution and follow The Precautionary Principle. As mindful mamas, we should scrutinise labels and do Google searches to make informed decisions as this can have a big impact on our little ones’ quality of life in the long run.

What baby soap do you use, and how does it rate?

Li-Hsian recently left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role.

Image credit: Flickr user Donnie Ray Jones