A blog by Dr Lin Day

What’s in a Nappy Wipe?

If your baby suffers from nappy rash, eczema, dermatitis or allergies, anti-bacterial preservative methylisothiazolinone may be the culprit. If used on your baby’s face, the preservative can cause itchy eyes and facial swelling. In 2013, the American Contact Dermatitis Society identified the chemical as the ‘Allergen of the Year’.

Due to increasing health concerns, many manufacturers of nappy wipes are under serious pressure to remove methylisothiazolinone from their products. The problem is that even if the chemical is removed, other preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria will be included.

In addition to methylisothiazolinone, nappy wipes may contain methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben or other ingredients ending with ‘parben’. These preservatives can affect reproductive development and damage organs when absorbed through your baby’s skin.

While nappy wipes are super-convenient for cleaning up after your baby, the following alternatives are much safer:

  • Cotton balls dipped in warm water.
  • Wet paper towels or tissues.
  • Washable terry towelling, fleecy cotton or flannel squares moistened with water.
  • Washed nappy wipes.

If you find nappy wipes too convenient to resist, only use them for travelling, and dispose of them in a waste bin. Alternatively, take a small bottle of water with you, tissues, towels or cotton wool.

Environmental concerns

Although it is the effect on babies that concerns us most, the Daily Mail ‘How wet wipes are destroying the planet’ (20th March 2015), reported that wipes, including ‘flushable’ and ‘biodegradable’ ones tossed down the loo, can block sewage pipes and cause raw sewage to flood into nearby homes, gardens and parks. Wipes can also float about in the seas for years endangering marine life before reaching the coastline. The Marine Conservation Society said that volunteers pick up them up at a rate of 35 wipes per kilometre. Wipes are currently the fastest growing cause of pollution on UK beaches.

According to the market analysts Euromonitor, between 1,500 and 2,250 nappy wipes are used per child from birth until age three in the UK alone.  When they end up in landfill sites, the synthetic fibres can take a hundred or more years to break down. In septic tanks, the chemicals and preservatives can kill beneficial bacteria and enzymes, which break down solid waste.

Washable, chlorine-free cloths or reusable wipes are much safer for your baby. They don’t contain any harsh chemicals or preservatives. They are also biodegradable and they don’t leave a footprint on the planet.

If you are set on the disposable route, wash the chemicals out under warm running water before use. If the wipes are not soiled, they can be rinsed through the washing machine, dried and stored in a plastic tub until needed.

Further reading

Day RL (2008). The chemical evolution. Early Years Educator 10 (4): 24-26.

Day RL (2010). Chemical evolution 2. Early Years Educator 11 (7): 31-33.