Is baby powder harming your baby?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

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BABY powder became popular in the late 19th century after it was discovered that talcum powder, which was used at the time to soothe irritation caused by medical plasters, could also be used to soothe minor skin irritation in babies, such as diaper rash. One of the first companies to distribute baby powder made from talc and fragrance was Johnson's in 1893.

The majority of Jamaicans have adopted the practice of using baby powder, not just on the diaper area of babies, but also on their chests, necks and backs. Many adults have also taken to using the powder as an antiperspirant on their necks, feet, genitals, and between breasts. Some women even confess to applying puffs of baby powder to their mattresses when making their beds, so that it will have that 'fresh baby' smell.

But medical professionals, including consultant paediatrician Dr Michelle Williams-Cooper, agree that baby powder is not only unnecessary in caring for infants, but it can also affect the respiratory health of those who inhale it.

“Generally the use of powder is not recommended as there is a risk of inhaling the particles of the powder. This can lead to serious breathing difficulties,” Williams-Cooper said.

Most baby powders are made from either talc (talcum) or cornstarch, which is a derivative of corn that is also used in food preparation. Baby powder manufacturers may include other ingredients such as fragrance and zinc oxide — an insoluble compound that is used medically for its antibacterial and deodorising properties.

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) has warned against the use of powder containing talc, as the tiny particles, when inhaled by infants, can cause lung irritation. Respiratory complications include fast and shallow breathing, coughing, vomiting, diarrhoea and convulsions. Talcosis is a lung disease that is caused by prolonged exposure to talc or talcum powder.

Lawsuits have been mounting against manufacturers of talc-based powder, citing a link between prolonged use of talc powder in the female genital area and ovarian cancer. Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay nearly five billion US dollars to 22 women who claimed that the powder caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

Amid these lawsuits, cornstarch baby powder has become more popular, as its particles are larger than those of talc, and is thus considered a bit safer. The particles are still very small, however, and can still be inhaled by babies. As such, the use of baby powder is generally not encouraged.

“Powders are not considered essential to the routine skin care of infants, but if powders are purchased they should be stored out of reach of children because of their potential hazard. Some powder containers have the appearance of a baby bottle and may be mistakenly used in such a manner,” the AAP says.

Dr Williams-Cooper recommends that instead of using powder, parents seek alternatives for baby's skin conditions.

“For diaper rash, it's advised that frequent diaper changes are done with the use of a barrier cream, for example, zinc oxide. In the case that the diaper dermatitis is complicated by a fungal infection, the doctor would prescribe an antifungal cream. Babies with eczema are treated with moisturisers and steroid creams. Heat rash usually resolves on its own once the child is placed in a cooler environment,” she said.

— Candiece Knight

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