Harmful Chemicals in Children's Products

Tinker Ready

June 14, 2019

MILAN — Children are exposed to thousands of chemicals each day — from formaldehyde in textiles to sodium borate in their sticky play Slime — and many can trigger allergies, rashes, and other skin problems.

However, little is known about the chemical make-up of many of these substances, or their impact on children's health, said Carlo Gelmetti, MD, from the University of Milan in Italy.

For physicians trying to treat skin problems in children, this lack of information can be a challenge, he explained here at the World Congress of Dermatology 2019.

Gelmetti and colleagues identified allergic reactions caused by glittery temporary tattoos, marketed directly to children, which, in some cases, led to permanent skin damage.

It is very difficult to find information on these products in scientific journals; most of the information his team was able to find came from European and American consumer magazines, he explained.

Even products not designed for children can put them at risk. Colorful detergent pods that look like candy have drawn attention because of reports of children eating them, but they have also caused skin problems.

"If the pods explode, you can have serious burning," said Gelmetti.

And details on potential allergens and irritants are hard to find even for some medical products, like adhesive bandages with cartoons on them, he added.

The sources of some pediatric skin irritants sound benign. During his presentation, Gelmetti showed an image of an infant whose dark skin was the color of grey slate from the neck down. It turned out that the parents had rubbed the baby with a combination of aloe vera and olive oil.

"Olive oil is good for your salad but is not good for your skin," he said.

Neither is Slime, which is made with the same caustic substance found in Borax cleaner.

Boron in Slime

Testing by consumer magazines revealed that the level of boron in Slime is much higher than allowed under European Union rules. Excessive levels of boron can burn, cause vomiting, and even affect fertility, Gelmetti reported.

Although the scientific literature is thin on pediatric skin irritants, case reports on allergic reactions to Slime are starting to turn up in pediatric journals.

A recent letter — which accompanied a case report of contact dermatitis associated with homemade slime (Pediatr Dermatol. 2019;36:335-337) — described the product as a "perfect storm" (Pediatr Dermatol. 2019;36:338). Slime recipes include ingredients not designed for the skin, like glue and liquid cleansers, which predisposes the skin to irritation and barrier disruption, writes Sharon Jacob, MD, from Loma Linda University in California.

Scientists researching the effect of environmental exposure to chemicals on women's health at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, often raise the same concern as Gelmetti: consumers don't know what is in everyday products, and they can be harmful.

Consumer products are a major source of contaminants in indoor air and dust, said Kathryn Rodgers, MPH, from the Silent Spring Institute.

"These are chemicals that migrate out of products and linger inside our homes, sometimes for years," she told Medscape Medical News. "Many of them are hormone disruptors that have been linked with a variety of health effects, including reproductive problems, birth defects, asthma, and cancer. Therefore, exposure to these chemicals on a daily basis raises health concerns."

With no requirement that labels identify the chemical ingredients in consumer products, it is hard for consumers to avoid them, she explained.

Researchers are just starting to "scratch the surface" on the effects of hormone-mimicking chemicals in the field of pediatric dermatology, explained Gelmetti, who said he expects more research and information on the topic in the future.

Gelmetti has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. The Silent Spring Institute is funded through foundations and government contracts.

World Congress of Dermatology (WCD) 2019. Presented June 11, 2019.

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