Plastics Parents Should Avoid (and What to Do Instead!)
Before becoming a parent, you may have easily been able to tune out how much plastic you consume. But once you’ve added a baby to the mix, it’s hard not to notice the dramatic influx of plastic in your home. The brightly colored toys, the saucers and baby seats, the pint-size bowls and sippies and spoons: The list is virtually endless! But is all this plastic safe? Here, your guide to which plastics your family should try your best to avoid.
Are plastics dangerous for babies?
Will your child fall gravely ill because one of their favorite toys is a plastic dump truck? No. But that doesn’t mean that repeated exposure to certain plastics can’t potentially cause harm. For example, certain types of phthalates and bisphenols (two chemicals found in plastics) are already banned in child care products because of the risk they pose, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Here’s a quick take on these two potentially harmful plastics:
Phthalates: These chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors because they can interfere with hormones that affect male genital development, childhood obesity, and cardiovascular disease. That’s why the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of certain phthalates in child care products such as teething rings and rubber duckies.
Bisphenols such as BPA: Products containing bisphenol A, or BPA, another endocrine disruptor, can act like estrogen in the body, potentially altering the timing of puberty, decreasing fertility, upping body fat, and affecting the nervous and immune systems. BPA has been banned in baby bottles and sippy cups.
There’s also significant research that shows exposure to phthalates and bisphenols during pregnancy may have detrimental effects as well. A recent analysis of 6,000 pregnant folks in the United States found that those who were exposed to multiple phthalates during pregnancy had an increased chance of preterm birth, which puts both Parent and Baby at risk for complications. Plus, 2019 research indicates that exposure to high phthalate levels in the womb may be associated with asthma in childhood.
Are microplastics dangerous for babies?
Microplastics are teeny plastic particles that measure less than 5mm in size. These wee plastics are born from larger plastic items slowly getting worn away or broken over time. Microplastics don’t biodegrade easily, they’re floating around in the likes of dust and food…and wind up in our bodies. A small study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters found that infants have 10 to 20 times more microplastics (specifically PET or polyethylene terephthalate) in their poop than adults. While we still don’t have a ton of info on how microplastics affect children, experts note that it’s important to help prevent children’s exposure to nano- and microplastics (NMPs).
How to Avoid Potentially Harmful Plastics
The good news? Chemicals in plastics, like phthalates and bisphenols have a relatively short half-life, exiting your body in about 5.5 to 12 hours. That means, it’s never too late to make positive changes in your plastic consumption. Follow these easy steps to limit your family’s exposure to phthalates, bisphenols, microplastics, and more.
Reduce exposures from toys.
Most parents probably already have a love-hate relationship with plastic toys: We love that our kids are having fun and playing…but hate that our collective living rooms are jam-packed with plastic whatnots and doohickies that flash, sing, roll, and otherwise attack our senses. But now there’s another reason to dislike so many of these toys: While certain phthalates in soft plastic toys were banned in 2008 and more were banned in 2018, a global 2021 study in the journal Environment International found more than 100 “chemicals of concern” in children’s toys. The two main types of chemicals found were volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released into the air quickly and, well, smell like plastic, and plasticizers, which release their chemicals for 15 years. (Yikes!) This doesn’t mean you need to toss or donate all your child’s favorite plastic toys, instead try your best to cut back on your toy collecting and follow these research-backed tips:
Store unused plastic toys away from your child to reduce exposure to the chemicals they release.
Try wooden or silicone toys, especially if your little one is between 6 months and a year old, and is putting everything in their mouth.
Air out smelly toys. If your child opens a toy and it smells like plastic, remove it from rotation until it doesn’t smell anymore. If that proves tricky, limit playtime with it during the first days and weeks and when you can, air it out.
Regularly ventilate the playroom, or whatever room your child plays in the most.
Swap plastic for stainless steel.
There are a few reasons why stainless steel sippies and straw cups are now a staple in kindergarten cubbies and backpacks everywhere…and one of those reasons is they reduce your kiddo’s exposure to microplastics. A 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Chemistry found that water sipped from plastic bottles contained about double the amount of microplastics than straight-from-the-tap water. Worried about microplastics from your faucet? Have your water pass through with a home filtration system, like LifeStraw Home Water Filter Pitcher, to remove microplastics before filling up your child’s reusable metal water bottle. (Find out how much water your child should drink.)
Store and heat meals in glass containers.
Microwaving plastic containers, tossing them in the dishwasher, and even storing still-warm leftovers in them is not the best idea. All these seemingly innocuous actions can increase the chance that chemicals like BPA and phthalates will leach from them and end up in your food. In fact, a 2022 report found that millions of micro- and nanoplastics are potentially released from plastic food packaging after being exposed to high temps. So, if you’re, say, warming up some homemade mac ‘n cheese for your bub, be sure to do it on the stovetop or use a glass container in the microwave. If hand-washing dishes isn’t your thing, go glass. PS: Plastic food containers labeled “biobased” or “greenware” are considered safe to store food in, notes the AAP. Those that feature the recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) are not.
Prepare infant formula this way.
Great news: BPA is no longer used in baby formula packaging. Less great news: Preparing infant formula with hot water in a plastic bottle can cause micro- and nanoplastics to “flake off” into baby’s milk. When researchers filled plastic baby bottles with room temperature water and shook them for roughly 60 seconds, hundreds of thousands of microplastics emerged. When they upped that temperature to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, the bottles released anywhere from 1 million to 16 million particles per liter…plus trillions of nanoplastics. Again, the health effects of microplastics are still unknown, but researchers suggest the following to help limit exposure:
Let plastic bottles cool completely after sterilization in hot water.
Next, rinse bottles at least three times with room temperature water.
Prepare powdered formula as directed in a glass container.
Let it cool to room temperature, then transfer to a plastic baby bottle for feeding.
Consider using glass bottles instead.
Never microwave a bottle filled with formula or breastmilk! (More tips on preparing and storing baby formula.)
Limit package foods.
While grab-and-go store-bought snacks can be helpful when you need an easy bite to toss in your diaper bag or your kiddo’s lunchbox, they’re not ideal. Experts recommend trying to avoid them—or at least save them for a once-in-a-while eat. One of the reasons: The more processed or packaged a food is, the higher the chance that it’s brimming in worrisome chemicals, notes Consumer Reports. Moreover, a 2019 study in the journal Environment International concluded that people who consume more fresh foods and fewer processed and packaged foods have lower urinary concentrations of phthalates in their system. Try eating more fresh, whole foods, and read the labels on the packaged goods you do buy. For instance, when you’re stocking up on good-for-you eats like canned beans or pineapple chunks (packed in their own juice or water), make sure the cans are BPA-free—or that they’re packed in glass containers. (Need ideas for healthy toddler snacks? Check out these RD-approved eats.)
Use fragrance-free soaps, shampoos, and lotions.
Did you know that phthalates (notably diethyl phthalate, or DEP) are commonly used in personal care products that are fragranced? And that phthalate concentration in these products can increase over time? (That means, phthalates might be leaching and migrating from the container into the product.) It’s true. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that DEP doesn’t pose known risks to human health, many experts still encourage limiting—or avoiding—the amount of phthalate-containing baby care products you use on your little one. So, when shopping for your bub’s personal care needs, look for phthalate-free and fragrance-free products. If, say, your favorite baby lotion is labeled as “phthalate-free,” but it also lists “fragrance” on the ingredients label, there could still be phthalates present. That’s because, under U.S. regulations, the ingredients that make up a fragrance do not have to be listed on the label.
Vacuum and dust more often.
Admittedly, this is not an enjoyable to-do for most. But the truth is, regularly vacuuming and dusting your home can help reduce the amount of plastics you and your family inhales. That’s because microplastics, including phthalates, can migrate into household dust from products like vinyl flooring and wall coverings. In fact, a 2021 Australian study of 32 homes across Sydney found that 39% of deposited dust particles collected were microplastics. Researchers also noted that carpets produced almost double the level of microplastics than non-carpeted floors. So, it stands to reason that tots who crawl and play on rugs and floors—and who put their fingers in their mouths—are likely exposed to the most plastic-filled dust. To help, experts suggest dusting and vacuuming regularly with a HEPA filter, which is best for trapping dust.
You may also be interested in…
- How to Reduce Your Child’s Plastic Use
- Why Organic Cotton is Better for Babies
- Earth-Friendly Baby Registry Musts
- Simple Ways to Teach Kids About the Environment
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): American Academy of Pediatrics Says Some Common Food Additives May Pose Health Risks to Children
- Consumer Product Safety Commission: Phthalates Business Guidance & Small Entity Compliance Guide
- EDC-2: The Endocrine Society's Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals. Endocrine Reviews. December 2015
- National Institutes of Health (NIH): Preterm birth more likely with exposure to phthalates
- Prenatal high molecular weight phthalates and bisphenol A, and childhood respiratory and allergic outcome. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology. February 2019
- Occurrence of Polyethylene Terephthalate and Polycarbonate Microplastics in Infant and Adult Feces. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. September 2021
- A Children’s Health Perspective on Nano- and Microplastics. Environmental Health Perspectives. January 2022
- Human Excretion of Bisphenol A: Blood, Urine, and Sweat (BUS) Study. Journal of Environmental and Public Health. December 2011
- Reproducibility of urinary phthalate metabolites in first morning urine samples. Environmental Health Perspectives. May 2002
- United States Senator for California: Dianne Feinstein: Congress Approves Nationwide Ban on Phthalates in Children's Products
- Federal Register: Prohibition of Children's Toys and Child Care Articles Containing Specified Phthalates
- Chemicals of concern in plastic toys. Environment International. January 2021
- Michigan News, University of Michigan: In this season of giving, watch out for harmful chemicals in plastic toys
- Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Bottled Water. Frontiers in Chemistry. September 2018
- Microplastics released from food containers can suppress lysosomal activity in mouse macrophages. Journal of Hazardous Materials. August 2022
- S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application
- Microplastic release from the degradation of polypropylene feeding bottles during infant formula preparation. Nature Food. November 2020
- Consumer Reports: How to Eat Less Plastic
- Ultra-processed food consumption and exposure to phthalates and bisphenols in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2013–2014. Environment International. October 2019
- Mayo Clinic: What is BPA, and what are the concerns about BPA?
- Analysis of phthalate esters in two different baby care products available in United Arab Emirates. Toxicol Mech Methods. January 2019
- FDA: Fragrances in Cosmetics
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Why phthalates should be restricted or banned from consumer products
- Environmental Pollution Quantification and exposure assessment of microplastics in Australian indoor house dust. Environmental Pollution. August 2021
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.