Parents, are you fussy when it comes to the products you use on your children? You may look for “extra gentle,” “tear free,” “hypoallergenic,” and “natural” to avoid synthetic preservatives, dyes, fragrances, and foaming agents—linked to health concerns including skin rashes, hormone disruption, and cancer—but these terms don’t necessarily mean you’ll avoid potentially harmful chemicals, according to experts.

“Many commercial products can contain petrochemicals [chemical products derived from petroleum] and still claim to be ‘natural,’” says Randall Neustaedter, OMD, a homeopathic pediatrician and author of The Holistic Baby Guide (New Harbinger, 2010). The long-term effects of exposure to these chemicals are not entirely clear, but some ingredients, including butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) in diaper-rash balms and phthalates found in shampoo and soaps are suspected carcinogens—and they’re even more potent to your little one’s body than to yours. “Kids are three times more susceptible to toxic effects than adults,” says Neustaedter.

The safest bet: Choose USDA Organic or NSF/ANSI 305 “Contains Organic Ingredients” items, or products  that are truly natural—certified by the Natural Products Association or NaTrue (and stay up-to-date on NSF/NaTrue’s developing natural personal care standard at deliciousliving.com). Plus, regularly check the Environmental Working Group’s updated Skin Deep cosmetics database, which gives safety ratings for thousands of personal care products and now contains a section dedicated to children’s products. In general, the fewer ingredients a product contains, the better it’ll be for your child’s health. Here are some smart-shopping pointers and top safe-product picks. 

Diaper-rash balm

The best diaper-rash treatments soothe irritated skin and form a protective barrier between baby and diaper. Many commercial brands accomplish this with harsh petroleum derivatives, such as petrolatum (petroleum jelly) and mineral oil, and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a preservative. Look for a natural base of zinc oxide and organic cocoa butter or beeswax, with soothing add-ins such as vitamin E, lavender, tea tree oil, aloe, and calendula.
Try: Badger Certified Organic Baby Balm; Terressentials 100% Organic Terrific Tush Treatment

Dry-skin lotion

Babies and kids are prone to eczema and other skin irritations, which is why nontoxic moisturizing is a must. Neustaedter recommends organic coconut oil for children’s sensitive skin. “It stimulates the immune system and helps with eczema. Plus, it’s cheap,” he says. Other gentle, effective moisturizing agents include shea butter, olive oil, and aloe vera. Avoid any lotion with synthetic fragrances, which tend to be allergenic and are potentially toxic, and “-paraben” preservatives. “Parabens are estrogenic and have a suspected link to breast cancer,” says Sandra Steingraber PhD, author of Raising Elijah (Da Capo, 2011). Try: Earth Mama Angel Baby Lotion; Lafe’s Organic Baby Lotion

Shampoo and conditioner

Parabens, synthetic fragrances, and phthalates are obvious shampoo no-nos, but sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which lends shampoo its suds, also can irritate a child’s skin, says Steingraber. Some shampoos replace it with plant-based foaming agents such as those from yucca, but a rich lather doesn’t necessarily indicate cleanliness, so don’t worry if a shampoo doesn’t foam. Look for soothing botanicals such as aloe vera and herbs like lavender, which cleanse hair while nourishing a sensitive scalp—and may help relax your little one, too. Try: Dolphin Organics Baby Shampoo & Body Wash; Nature’s Baby Organics Conditioner & Detangler

Soap and body wash

When it comes to keeping your kids clean, harsh antibacterial agents aren’t necessary; in fact, they can be harmful, eliminating too much of skin’s bacteria, some of which the body needs to fend off infection. Avoid chemicals, particularly triclosan, which is linked to cancer and immune disorders and may alter hormone regulation, as well as synthetic detergents, which can irritate sensitive skin. Instead, opt for natural soaps made from fats such as coconut oil and jojoba oil, with natural antibacterial ingredients like citrus, neem, honey, and essential oils. Try: Dr. Bronner’s Organic Baby Mild Liquid Soap;
Nature’s Paradise Organic Kids Watermelon Body Wash

Toothpaste

Kids will be more likely to brush if they like a toothpaste’s flavor, but artificial flavorings, along with synthetic foaming agents like SLS, can cause gum and mouth irritation. Many natural brands use organic fennel and spearmint for flavorings, while others include cranberry extract, which may also help reduce plaque. Other natural bacteria inhibitors include neem and xylitol. As for the fluoride debate? That remains controversial, especially when it comes to kids. The American Dental Association recommends children use “a small amount” of fluoride toothpaste (except children under age 2), but many holistic practitioners like Neustaedter caution against it, especially for little kids who could swallow it, potentially weakening their developing bones. Try: Burt’s Bees Natural Toothpaste Kids (contains fluoride); My Dentist’s Choice Tooth Tissues; Weleda Children’s Tooth Gel (fluoride free)