I’d often heard the rumor that soap manufacturers use numbing agents to prevent tears. But I never heard the specifics – what the numbing agent was and how everybody seems to know about it. In my research on soap when I encountered the claim “no numbing agent,” I ignored it, mainly because its frequency numbed me to it and as a result I stopped questioning it.
You probably remember my mentioning Bubble and Bee, a producer of non-toxic cosmetics and personal care products before. As I was reading its bar soap description I saw it again – no numbing agent. Bubble and Bee went on, further explaining that soap cannot be tear-free as a result of being naturally slightly alkaline. So I emailed Stephanie, the chemist at Bubble and Bee, and asked her about the numbing agent. Unfortunately, I never heard from her.
While waiting for her response, I typed “numbing agent in baby shampoo” into Google. The query retrieved only 4,710 results. As you know that’s not much for Google, normally the results are in the millions. When I looked at the retrieved results, almost all of them were questions about the numbing agent on various forums. Some people answered making their guesses but nothing was stated I can actually cite here as being from a trusted or verifiable source. Interestingly, even wiki.answers.com had the question whether there is a numbing agent in baby shampoo but nobody answered. I played with different keywords. The keyword “numbing agent soap” retrieved the usual number of results, over 20 million, but there was nothing helpful either. Most of the retrieved websites were the sites of soap-makers of natural soap, who talked about the fact that their soap does not contain a numbing agent.
Next, I turned to one of my reliable sources of information, GoodGuide. The regular readers of this blog know that I use GoodGuide’s and the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) databases as a launching point to review products. GoodGuide is a team of scientists who rate products and companies on health and environmental impact as well as social responsibility. As opposed to the EWG, GoodGuide has a place where consumers can ask questions. The good news was that GoodGuide answered my question promptly. The bad news was that the question remains.
Here is Bill Pease’s answer, “Most baby shampoos are formulated to be tear free by reducing the concentration or even presence of conventional shampoo ingredients that have the ability to irritate the eyes. I am not aware of any reliable source that ingredients are added to baby shampoo formulations because they anesthetize tear ducts, although this is sometimes asserted in various natural product blogs. The ingredients most often indicted in these articles are alkyl polyethoxylates or alkyl phenol polyethoxylates.”
When I was doing research on the numbing agent, I did not see the chemicals he named; instead, I saw that PEGs (polyethylene glycols) were indicted of the crime by some bloggers. No sources of information were cited though. Thus, I concluded that there was nothing reliable on the Internet regarding the mystical numbing agent in baby shampoo.
Next, I thought that it was time to look myself at the ingredients of a tear-free baby shampoo. After all, “I read labels for you.” I wanted to see if I could guess what makes it tear-free, whether it is a numbing agent or the reduction/absence of conventional soap ingredients like Bill Pease suggested. And of course if you search for a tear-free baby shampoo, the first product that comes up is Johnson & Johnson No More Tears Baby Shampoo – something my mother-in-law used on my husband over 40 years ago. So let’s look at it closely together.
Johnson & Johnson No More Tears Baby Shampoo
What do we see? Before even looking at the list of the ingredient, the first thing that caught my eye was the third bullet point in the product description – “soap free.” Was the mystery solved? Maybe. And the fact that it was soap-free was consistent with what Bubble and Bee and Bill Pease suggested and what I knew about soap. Soap can’t be tear-free; in other words, tear-free shampoo can’t contain soap (unless it is liquid soap diluted multiple times, see my post “Certified Organic Liquid Soap – The Myth Dispelled”). In my post “Natural Soap – The Mystery Revealed” I described how soap is made by the process of saponification in which an alkali is added to oil or fat to create soap. Even though no un-reacted alkali remains in the final product, soap is alkaline by nature (as opposed to being acidic), which irritates eyes.
So let’s look closely at the ingredients of Johnson & Johnson No More Tears Baby Shampoo. Here is a list of the ingredients with the EWG’s ratings.
COCAMIDOPROPYL BETAINE: a synthetic surfactant associated with allergic contact dermatitis (rash); may break down into carcinogenic Nitrosamines; rated 4 out of 10 (0 being innocuous)
PEG-80 SORBITAN LAURATE: another synthetic surfactant; may be contaminated with carcinogenic 1,4-Dioxane; rated 5 out 10
SODIUM TRIDECETH SULFATE: a synthetic surfactant; rated 0
PEG-150 DISTEARATE: another synthetic surfactant possibly contaminated with Ethylene carcinogenic 1,4-Dioxane; rated 3
FRAGRANCE: an undisclosed mixture of chemicals associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress, and potential effects on the reproductive system; rated 8
TETRASODIUM EDTA: a chelating agent, used to sequester and decrease the reactivity of metal ions that may be present in a product; limited evidence of eye toxicity; rated 2
QUATERNIUM-15: a preservative releasing small amounts of carcinogenic formaldehyde into a product over time; the European Union has determined that this ingredient may not be safe in cosmetics; rated 7
CITRIC ACID: a pH adjuster, subject to concentration limits, the EWG does not have sufficient information; rated 2
YELLOW 10 AND ORANGE 4: FDA-approved synthetic dyes produced from petroleum and coal tar sources; the EWG states that “Color additive not approved by FDA for cosmetics used around eyes;” rated 2-4 depending on usage
What can we conclude? What makes it tear-free baby shampoo? Is there is a numbing agent? I am not sure about the numbing agent but what I do know that the product is made with ingredients that are not on the EWG’s list of favorites. The No More Tears Baby Shampoo is made with four synthetic surfactants. Possibly these surfactants are designed not to sting eyes because they are not alkaline, possibly these surfactants are adjusted for pH with citric acid, possibly these surfactants somehow numb babies’ eyes. I do not know. I am making guesses by looking at the ingredients and applying my knowledge about soap. Citric Acid is often used as a pH adjuster. The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline a substance is. 7 is neutral (water is neutral), below 7 is acidic and above 7 is alkaline.
Also, these synthetic surfactants, except for one, sodium trideceth sulfate, are not rated well by the EWG. The other components of the shampoo, a formaldehyde-releasing preservative and synthetic colors, also do not seem to belong in a baby product. By the way, Johnson & Johnson had already agreed to reformulate the shampoo to make it less toxic by the end of 2013.
Additionally, if you look at “may contain” in the list of the ingredients, you will see citric acid and sodium hydroxide. Citric acid is already included in the list of the ingredients. It is a similar disclosure that you may find on a nut bar – may contain nuts. Sodium hydroxide is probably used to adjust pH level as well. By the way, that is not a good thing. Un-reacted sodium hydroxide is dangerous to the skin – it burns the skin.
Avalon Organics Gentle Tear-Free Baby Shampoo & Body Wash
Further, I decided to search for other tear-free baby shampoos, hoping to find baby products with fewer toxic chemicals than Johnson & Johnson’s. A step toward less harmful baby product is Avalon Organics Gentle Tear-Free Baby Shampoo and Body Wash. Please see the discussion about its toxicity in my earliest post “Safe Baby Wash.” The product description does not explicitly state that it is soap free, but like Johnson & Johnson’s shampoo, it is made of synthetic surfactants, sodium coco-sulfate and decyl glucoside, and citric acid. Decyl glucoside is very mild and the presence of citric acid makes me think that the product’s pH level is adjusted to be less alkaline.
California Baby – Tear-Free Baby Shampoo
From what I can tell, the most popular tear-free baby wash that is supposed to be non-toxic is California Baby. Let’s take a look at it. Unlike the other two shampoos, it does not contain citric acid. Possibly that is because the pH scale does not need to be adjusted – decyl glucoside and lauryl glucoside, glucose-based surfactants, possibly because their pH levels are low enough not irritate the eyes. By the way, it would be very helpful if manufacturers simply listed pH levels of their products. Instead, it is even impossible to find consistent information about pH levels of various surfactants. The EWG has given these surfactants a rating of 0, meaning no adverse health impact. As an aside, California Baby has recently started using Sodium Benzoate in their products, which is used as a preservative. This is probably because higher production volume normally requires stronger preservatives, in order to increase self like and reduce risk to fluctuations in demand. The company claims that Sodium Benzoate is not toxic, and the EWG has given it a rating of 1, a low health concern. I would say that if you absolutely have to use tear-free shampoo, use California Baby but I personally prefer old-fashioned natural soap.
When I told my mom that I was going to write about tear-free soap, she looked at me as if I had told her that I was writing about meat-free meat or chicken-free chicken. When I was growing up in Eastern Europe, tear-free baby shampoos either did not exist, or nobody seemed to need them. Babies learned at an early age the natural reaction to close their eyes when soapy water was poured on their heads. And their parents diluted the soap and were careful – tilted their heads and covered their eyes. Possibly because of my background, when I was looking into buying a safe baby wash, looking for a tear-free wash never occurred to me. In the first weeks of my baby’s life I barely used soap – a couple drops of castile soap. Babies do not need much soap in the first 4 months of their lives (surely I washed his diaper area diligently under running water). But babies are not dirty. Somehow, with their powerful marketing campaigns, parties interested in generating profits by selling baby washes convinced us otherwise. They also convinced us that babies need to be washed with fragrance, a potentially toxic blend of undisclosed chemicals; whereas, babies have this natural wonderful smell, a mixture of sweet milk and aromatic flowers. Maybe because I’ve been using only diluted castile soap made with organic olive oil on my baby, and only every other day, his skin was never dry or irritated.
I might never know whether there is a numbing agent in baby shampoo, but I do know that there is nothing better to clean my baby’s skin than natural castile soap. In the early months of a baby’s life, dilution of castile soap with water and/or olive oil helps to avoid possible eye irritation. And do not forget that terms like “baby mild” and “tear-free” are not regulated by any government agency; thus, manufacturers are free to write anything they would like on the labels. It has become our job to read product ingredients and decide what will work for our babies.
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