Could Your Child Be Allergic to Baby Wipes?

Does your child have a rash diagnosed as eczema or atopic dermatitis? It might be an allergic reaction to baby wipes, suggests a new study published today in Pediatrics.

The small study reported six cases in which children ranging in age from 3 to 8 years old had recurrent rashes on their faces and/or buttocks because of an allergy to wet wipes. Methylisothiazolinone (MI), a common preservative used in several brands of wipes was identified as the allergen. None of the children wore diapers and all were using either Huggies or Cottenelle brand wipes.

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The Curious Case of the Wet Wipes 

Since a reaction to this particular allergen is almost always misdiagnosed and then treated unsuccessfully with topical or oral medications, how did the study’s authors find these cases?

“This was sort of sleuth work,” says pediatric dermatologist Mary Wu Chang, M.D., Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Dermatology and Pediatrics, University of Connecticut School of Medicine. It started with an eight-year-old patient who kept coming to Dr. Chang with an itchy, red, inflamed rash on her face and buttocks. “I was suspicious that a contact dermatitis was occurring, but the mother could not think of what it might be. Finally I asked about whether she was using wet wipes and she said, ‘Yes.’”

When the mom stopped using wipes, the little girl’s rash disappeared within days. And the research started there. “As time went on, whenever I encountered patients with chronic eczematous rashes on the buttocks or face, I would ask about the use of wet wipes.” It took some time to figure out what in the wipes was triggering the allergic reaction, but Dr. Chang’s research finally concluded that it was MI.

Originally paired with methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) as a preservative in personal care and household products, MI was separated out from the combo because it was known to be milder on its own and didn’t cause high amounts of allergic reactions. Baby wipes containing only MI have been tested and deemed safe in the past, but the concentration of the preservative has increased by 25 times in the last 30 years. Because MI is so widely used in wet wipes, which are now also marketed for personal hygiene (i.e. moist toilet paper), allergic reactions will most likely be on the rise.

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How to Protect Your Child — and Yourself

If your child’s allergy is caused by MI in wet wipes, read labels and avoid buying baby wipes (or any household products) that contain ingredients ending in “isothiazolinone.”

Adults using wet wipes on their kids should keep an eye on their own hands for allergic reactions. Symptoms include itchy, dry eczema-like patches that comes back often on the tops of the hands and fingers.

If you suspect an allergic reaction from baby wipes, stop using them immediately. The rash will clear up quickly once the allergen is removed. See your doctor to report symptoms and your suspicions that wet wipes may be the cause.

A Cause of Other Allergic Reactions?

MI isn’t just in baby wipes. Indeed, the American Contact Dermatitis Society just named MI the “Contact Allergen of the Year” for 2013. It raises the question: Could adults as well as children be experiencing undiagnosed rashes due to MI?

According to Environmental Working Group, MI is in nearly 3,000 products in the U.S. — including 12 baby wipes but also 706 shampoos, 575 conditioners, 401 body washes, 200 styling gels, 198 hair coloring agents, 148 moisturizers, and 100 facial cleansers. (The U.S. government has a similar list.) In Europe, new rules require manufacturers to remove MI from many products used on the skin. If any member of your family develops skin allergy symptoms, looking at personal products that contain MI may be one place to look.

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Heather M. Graham is a writer and editor specializing in healthy living. She lives in New York City.

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