Bath time can be such fun. But, as many parents have become aware, those sweet-smelling baby products may contain some pretty unsavory chemicals — from skin irritants to more serious substances linked to hormone disruption, even cancer. Such chemicals are especially bad because children's thinner skin (it doesn't reach full thickness until age 20) leaves youngsters more susceptible to toxins. Plus, kids are less able to process the chemicals that get into their developing systems. Without a degree in chemistry, what's a parent to do when confronted with the confusing multisyllabic chemical compounds in ingredients lists? You'll be relieved to learn that there are plenty of safe products out there, if you know what to look for.

Don't trust “gentle” labels

Surprisingly, the FDA doesn't require safety testing of personal care-product ingredients. So cosmetic companies are free to use marketing claims without any burden of proof. An Environmental Working Group (EWG) study released in 2007 revealed that, on average, children are exposed to 60 chemicals daily via personal care products. Of those, 27 have never been assessed by the government for safety. Although a few body care companies, such as Burt's Bees and Aubrey, are pushing for better regulation of terms such as natural, another EWG study showed that 35 percent of products labeled natural contained artificial chemical preservatives, and 80 percent of products described as “gentle,” “soothing,” or “hypoallergenic” contained ingredients linked to allergies and skin irritation.

Go organic

After his kids begged for Scooby Doo and Bratz shampoos, David Steinman, author of Safe Trip to Eden (Thunder's Mouth, 2007), tested dozens of children's bath products for toxicity and discovered that many mainstream brands contained the contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a cancer-causing petrochemical. But here's the sticky wicket: Because it's a byproduct, 1,4-dioxane doesn't appear in the ingredients. “Consumers have no way of knowing,” says Steinman. To be safe, he recommends seeking out products that bear the USDA Organic seal and don't contain chemical compounds with the “eth” suffix (like sodium laureth sulfate), a red flag for 1,4-dioxane.

Opt for fragrance-free products

Because fragrance formulas are considered proprietary, their specific ingredients aren't required to be listed on a product's label. “Hundreds of chemicals can hide in that one word fragrance,” says Rebecca Sutton, an EWG staff scientist with a PhD in environmental chemistry. One particularly pesky group of toxins that hides under the guise of fragrance is phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to reproductive problems. A study published in Pediatrics in February 2008 reported that babies are exposed to phthalates through lotions, shampoos, and powders — even though phthalates aren't listed in the products' ingredients.

Research safe brands

Even if your eyes are sharp enough to read the fine print, some dangers are hidden deeper. To be double sure that the products you choose are safe, check out the EWG's Skin Deep database, which analyzes and rates some 25,000 products for safety. Look up a product already on your shelf, or scan EWG's safest picks by product category. The website's Children's Product Guide outlines the most common ingredient hazards, such as hormone-disrupting parabens and DMDM hydantoin, which can break down into formaldehyde, a cancer-causing agent.

Use less

Often the easiest solution is the best solution. For instance, try using smaller amounts of fewer products. “Being more thoughtful about the number of products you use will automatically reduce the number of ingredients your child is exposed to,” says Sutton. “Harsh soaps dry out the skin so you need to use lotion. Try just using a milder soap instead.” And go easy on the amounts: Unless Junior has been baking mud pies, a small dab of body wash should get the job done.

Safe body products SAMPLER

AROMABABY NATURAL BABY LOTION contains organic avocado, evening primrose, safflower, jojoba, and rosehip oils to soothe dry, easily irritated skin. It's also free of synthetic fragrances, as well as aromas from essential oils.

AUBREY ORGANICS NATURAL BABY & KIDS BATH SOAP washes gently with a blend of organic coconut, vanilla, and almond oils; aloe vera; and extracts of fennel, chamomile, and yarrow.

CALIFORNIA BABY NO FRAGRANCE SPF 30+ SUNBLOCK STICK protects kids from the sun with zinc oxide, one of the safest ingredients available in sunscreens. This PABA-free, fragrance-free sunblock shields against both UVA and UVB rays.

CALIFORNIA BABY SUPER SENSITIVE SHAMPOO & BODYWASH cleanses with aloe vera. This organic, fragrance-free formula was designed particularly for children with sensitive skin, allergies, and chemical sensitivities.

DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC PURE CASTILE LIQUID SOAPS are made with coconut, olive, jojoba, and hemp oils. All the company's soaps are USDA Organic. The labels suggest 18 uses, from shampoo and body wash to degreasing dishes.

EARTH TRIBE KIDS BOTANICAL BABY SHAMPOO & BATH GEL is infused with a combo of aloe vera, and coconut, avocado, and organic lavender oils. The entire body care line is free of chemicals, dyes, fragrances, and preservatives.

To learn more about nontoxic items for adults, read our related article, Perk up your personal care.