Doctors were at first mystified when an 8-year-old girl arrived at the University of Connecticut (UConn) Health Center with red rashes around her mouth and buttocks. And even after the girl was placed on antibiotics, the rashes returned. Dr. Mary Wu Chang, an associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine, ultimately traced the skin reaction to the presence of a chemical preservative in common wet wipes that were being used on the child's skin.
More children arrived at the hospital with red patches of swollen, blistering, and cracked skin around the mouth, cheek, hands, or buttocks. Between March 2011 and January 2013, there were six cases Chang and fellow researchers looked into. These cases were all linked back to Huggies and Cottonelle baby wipes that were highly concentrated with methylisothiazolinone (MI).
Chang, the author of the study, told NBC News that the skin reactions are “more common than people realize.” However, in the past they haven’t been as frequently reported, due to the fact that these rashes may have been confused with other skin disorders, such as eczema or psoriasis. She discovered while running tests on the 8-year-old girl that the child had an allergy to MI. When the girl stopped using baby wipes, the rashes disappeared. Another five children arrived at the same hospital in the next two years, all with the same allergy.
“This preservative is not new,” Chang told HealthDay. “But it was used as a combination preservative for many years. To try to minimize allergic reactions, it is now being used as a single preservative but in higher concentrations, and now people are developing allergic rashes to the new formulation.” However, Chang also noted that it wasn’t necessary to completely stop using wipes. “They’re so convenient,” she told NBC News. “I have three kids, so I know how hard it is to do the changes, especially when you’re traveling. But maybe when you’re at home, it would be better to use a gentle cleanser and water. That way you minimize exposure.”
Meanwhile, the companies producing these wipes are gaining awareness of their hazards and are looking into alternative options. “While our wipe products remain safe for use, we recognize that recent studies have raised concerns about the use of MI as a preservative ingredient,” Bob Brand, a Kimberly-Clark spokesman, told HealthDay. “We have been evaluating alternative preservative options over the past few years and are now ready to confirm that, beginning this month, Kimberly-Clark will start introducing new wet wipes that are MI-free across its entire product range in the U.S., Canada, Europe and other global markets.”
MI is also found in cosmetics and other household items and has caused allergic reactions in the past when people apply makeup or are exposed to high concentrations of the preservative on their skin. According to The Telegraph, last year revealed what Dr. John McFadden, a consultant dermatologist at St John’s Institute of Dermatology in London, called an “outbreak” of contact dermatitis from MI exposure. Later, in December 2013, MI was banned in Europe.
Though it’s been banned in Canada as well, MI is still available in the U.S. The Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics database dubs MI as a “moderate” health hazard due to its chemical irritability which can harm the skin, lungs, or eyes. However, new regulations have allowed MI concentrations in skin products and cosmetics to rise significantly, from 3.7 parts per million to up to 100 parts, according to Chang’s study. “More and more people are using these products and becoming sensitized to the preservative,” Chang told HealthDay. “With increased marketing and popularity of disposable wet wipes for all ages, there will likely be more people developing allergies to the preservative.”
However, Dr. Carla Davis, the director of the food allergy program at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, told HealthDay that these cases of severe skin allergies shouldn’t cause alarm in the majority of parents and children nationwide. “We’re talking about a very small proportion of people who will have a problem with MI,” Davis said. “[P]arents should be comfortable using wipes until ... their child develops a rash that doesn’t resolve in the regular manner.”