The Mayo Clinic recommends bathing a newborn 3 times a week, which means a lot of baby soaps are being used! In fact, the baby bath market is a nearly $2 billion industry in the United States.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
Opting to wash with a bar of soap instead of liquid soap is already a step in the right direction. Life-cycle assessments show that the carbon footprint of liquid soap is 25% higher than bar soap. That’s because a pump of liquid soap uses a greater mass of soap (almost 7 times more!) than spreading some on with a bar. Plus, you’re ditching all that plastic packaging that requires energy to produce and dispose of. Regardless of which baby bar soap you use, be mindful of the ingredients that go into making it and how much water you use while washing with it.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Sulfates, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), are emulsifying cleaning agents used to break down and wash away the dirt and grime that water can’t get rid of on its own. They also happen to be highly toxic threats to aquatic life. Although there is some debate on sulfates, the World Health Organization (WHO) unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” Take our advice, and the WHO’s, and try to avoid baby bar soaps that contain these harmful ingredients.
Parabens are cheap preservatives that are used to prevent the growth of mold and harmful bacteria. They have been associated with endocrine disruption in humans, and certain kinds can kill coral, even at low levels of exposure. After a 2004 study concluded that the presence of parabens may spur the growth of breast cancer cells, the public backlash led some cosmetic companies to start removing parabens from their products. However, additional studies of the effect of parabens on our health have proved inconclusive, and the FDA currently approves the use of parabens in cosmetic products. We recommend avoiding them (and luckily many baby bar soaps are paraben-free).
The most elusive ingredient of all might be fragrances. That’s because fragrances are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! It’s not the scent that worries us, but phthalates, which enable fragrances to become soluble. They are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children. Who needs fragrances anyways when that natural baby smell is already so delightful? Our advice is to protect your children from unnecessary harm and look for baby bar soaps that are fragrance-free and phthalate-free.
Some of the biggest offenders in baby bar soaps are phosphates. Excessive use of phosphates may lead to eutrophication, which is the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water. When too many nutrients enter the water, they can lead to a huge increase in algae growth, which can release nasty toxins that make humans and fish sick. Even worse, these algal blooms can block sunlight from getting to plants in the water, which can lower oxygen levels and suffocate fish. Look into baby bar soaps that avoid the use of this questionable chemical.
Oh palm oil… don’t want to live with it, but it’s hard to live without it. Palm oil is commonly found in bar soaps because it’s great at helping to remove dirt and oil and is a great source of vitamin E and antioxidants. About 66 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, making it the most common vegetable oil on Earth. It is a very productive crop, offering greater yield at a lower production cost than any other vegetable oil. However, it’s derived from oil palm trees which only grow in the tropics and need a serious amount of water to flourish.
The increased use of palm oil has directly led to deforestation, child labor exploitation, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, has increased global warming, and has threatened 321 species with extinction, such as orangutans, Borneo elephants, and tigers. Not a great track record. As the demand for palm oil-based products expands, so too does the demand for palm oil plantations. That means that areas like Borneo and Sumatra are disproportionately affected by the problems caused by the expansion of palm oil production, which is reportedly responsible for 5% of all tropical deforestation. The expansion also leads to increasing land scarcity and higher land prices, which affect the livelihoods of local farmers who can be shut out by bigger corporate growers.
It’s important to note that not all palm oil is produced in such an irresponsible way – some palm oils are produced without contributing to deforestation or ecosystem disruption, but it is a limited amount. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) claims to certify sustainable palm oil production. However, researchers have found no significant difference between certified and non-certified plantations for any of the sustainability metrics investigated, such as conservation of biodiversity, consideration of social impacts, and economic viability. Plus, less than 7% of total palm oil production is certified as sustainable by RSPO, so it’s not a silver bullet.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on baby bar soap.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit and its label ensures products are free from chemicals of concern to human health that are outlined in their unacceptable list. The EWG verifies products using data on ingredients and chemicals banned by governments, as well as known carcinogens and developmental toxins. Because companies have to pay for the verification, there is inherent bias… but they do source their ingredients data from reputable sources. In Finch’s rating system, we look at their ingredients data rather than companies certified by the EWG.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair Trade Certified™ is the global brand of the nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA. The Fair Trade certification works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making FTC products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. This certification has intersectional impacts, including an emphasis on safe working conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and Community Development Funds. For more details on this certification, check out our Fair Trade Certified glossary definition.
Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any of the ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.
PETA Cruelty-Free Certified
PETA’s Cruelty-Free offers a searchable database of companies and denotes whether they conduct, commission, or test their products on animals. It’s a great tool to use when vetting baby bar soaps and other personal care products.
If you’re considering buying a new bar of baby soap, it’s likely that you’re thinking of using it to wash your baby’s body. To lather up, the Mayo Clinic recommends filling a baby bath with around 2 inches of water. Filling up a bath can reduce your water use compared to leaving the faucet on. Turning off the faucet can reduce the environmental footprint of water use because wastewater treatment plants are responsible for 9% and 4% of methane and nitrous oxide emissions globally, respectively. And because water treatment and movement require energy, which is the greatest source of global emissions, taking the extra step to cut back on water use can have significant environmental payoffs. Our advice is to listen to the Mayo Clinic and fill up a bath with just enough water to cut down on emissions during bath time.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
Since we use soap to ward off illness and keep our babies clean, make sure its ingredients aren’t working against you. Refer to our certifications list to limit the harm that certain materials can cause to your baby’s body and the planet. Perhaps most importantly, be mindful of how much water you use during bath time. A big portion of carbon emissions for baby bar soap comes from the use phase, so that means it’s up to you to make a difference.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What is the safest baby soap?”
We can say with certainty that any soap with phthalates should be avoided since they are known endocrine disruptors. While we haven’t found any research that shows how these ingredients can impact the safety of children when used, we also recommend avoiding sulfates and phosphates because of their toxicity to aquatic life. Protecting your babies is super important but it doesn’t hurt to keep other species safe in the process!
“Which is the best natural baby soap?”
If you were to check out our handy-dandy glossary, you’d see that based on Finch’s definition, “natural” isn’t useful in choosing baby products. And, if we’re defining natural as not made or caused by people, then natural products just don’t exist – you likely won’t just stumble across a bar of baby soap in the wild. Individual ingredients or materials might be natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better. If you’re on the hunt for products that are “natural”, we encourage you to ask yourself what you’re really looking for. Are you interested in purchasing a product that is minimally processed or includes the least amount of artificial ingredients possible? Are you interested in purchasing a product with a lower carbon footprint? Once you find out what matters most to you, use this guide to help you make the right decision.