Until they’re old enough for Axe and Bath & Body Works, it’s up to us parents to keep our kids clean. With seemingly endless baby-wash offerings on the market, choosing one can give any conscientious parent a headache. If I were buying one baby wash for my baby today, I’d buy Earth Mama Angel Baby Non-Scents Shampoo and Body Wash because it is one of the safest shampoos out there, and it’s affordable.
This is one purchase many parents take lightly, but really shouldn’t. We researched more than 65 brands of baby soaps before narrowing the search to five products for testing, all over the course of more than 30 hours of research and a week of testing, and Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo came out on top. While many people believe that scent or cleaning power is the most important thing to look for in a baby shampoo, our research revealed an important category to consider: safety—that is, the lack of potentially harmful chemicals.
I spoke to experts at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and GoodGuide to learn more about how products are rated for safety and searched both group’s databases for each of the 65 products for safety. Before a product could move on, it had to pass the safety-rating test. I took the top contenders and tested them on two small, filthy children. After all of that, I was able to determine that Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo is the best pick for most babies.
A quick—but important—reminder to new parents: never, ever, leave a baby in the tub alone. Not even in an inch or two of water. If it’s your baby’s first bath, you may want to enlist your partner’s help with the bath—babies are slippery when wet! My personal tip is to make sure you have all of your supplies ready, within arm’s reach, so you can remain with your baby at all times.
Who Needs Baby Wash/Shampoo?
Technically, newborns don’t usually need soap or shampoo (more on that, below). However, most parents will want a gentle soap once their baby is moving around and can get into things (and really get messy). Our pick is safe for newborns, so it’s up to you when you decide your baby is dirty enough to need a wash or shampoo.
What makes a good baby wash?
Here’s a shocker: Did you know that soaps and shampoo—even those made and marketed for infants—contain ingredients that can have long-term, harmful effects on children? What your mother used may not be what’s best today. In fact, the ingredients may not even be the same.
The concern surrounding chemicals in baby shampoo is about the long-term effects and how the chemical exposure over time might negatively affect your child as he or she grows. “How Environmental Exposure Affects Your Child,” (WebMD.com), cites several studies surrounding different chemicals and their effects. One study, in 2008, showed, that “high levels of phthalates were found in the urine of babies that were recently soaped or slathered with baby shampoo, powder, or lotion.” There was no connection made to the amount of phthalates and any reproductive problems, but the study got a lot of attention because the questionable chemicals were in products especially targeted toward babies.
Expert after expert we talked to said that your baby’s health is the No. 1 thing parents should consider when choosing a baby soap. With that, we put safety at the top of our criteria and looked for soaps free of harmful chemicals, added perfumes, and unnecessary dyes. We’re not anti-chemical—everything is, after all, some sort of chemical!—but we err towards products that are as gentle and known-safe as we can find.
Expert after expert we talked to said that your baby’s health is the No. 1 thing parents should consider when choosing a baby soap.
Nneka Leiba, the Environmental Working Group’s deputy director of research cautions parents to be aware of exposures to endocrine or hormone disrupting chemicals (like parabens and phthalates) for babies. “Hormones guide a lot of the growth and development processes in our body. Anything that disrupts growth is a problem,” Leiba explained.
Babies are more susceptible to these chemicals because they are growing. “Children are not little adults. Pound for pound, kids are exposed to more contaminants in air, water, food, and personal-care products than adults. Immature organ systems are often less capable of fending off chemical assaults. Subtle damage to developing bodies may lead to disease later in life,” according to the EWG’s top tips for safer products.
Of course, we ran across many baby soaps on the market that claim to be “natural,” whether in the product name, packaging or advertising. Bottom line, just because it says it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. There’s a lot of wiggle room in labeling, and the term natural isn’t regulated. “It can mean different things for different companies. What that means to the company may not be what it means to you,” says Leiba.
The million-dollar question you’re asking yourself right now is this: Is any amount of these chemicals safe? “It’s not if you use a product one time, you or your baby won’t necessarily get sick,” Leiba says, “but these chemicals, some of them build up in the body, and can have long-lasting effects.” That was enough for us to err on the side of caution when picking a baby wash/shampoo.
Next, after safety, is how well the product cleans and lathers. The shampoo or wash must be something that actually cleans dirt and any offending odors from our baby. How well a wash cleans is hard to quantify, but Leiba reminded me that if a baby wash didn’t clean, it wouldn’t continue to be on the market. And while a soap doesn’t actually have to lather to clean, most parents are accustomed to using a shampoo product with some lather. (And lather does help dislodge dirt and oils at the macroscopic level, so they’re not bad to have—plus they’re fun!) Other criteria include scent: a good soap can’t smell bad. And, finally, the product must be a good value. We don’t think a good shampoo should cost a fortune.
For a shampoo or wash to be “great,” we think—and consumer reviews show most parents out there agree—it should also be a combination shampoo and wash. Babies are small and don’t get very dirty, so having to spend money on only one product is a definite bonus.
Also, for the purposes of this guide, we chose a product that was best for all skin types and didn’t specify for skin irritations like eczema.
how we tested
Thank goodness for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and GoodGuide, two organizations that study, research, and rate baby soaps. Both have specific criteria, although different, for rating the safety of products, and both have a specific category for baby wash/shampoo.
There are between four and seven soap ingredients that should raise parents’ eyebrows. The EWG flags four: fragrance, parabens, PEGs, and ingredients ending in “–eths,” according to Leiba of the EWG.
The GoodGuide’s Chief Scientist, Bill Pease says, “we don’t generally advise consumers to try to shop in a way that avoids specific chemicals, because there are so many chemicals in most products, and many pose some level of low or moderate human health risk. We advise shopping with broader selection criteria—see the website’s The Best Baby Shampoo Products—where we rate shampoos using a score that integrates health, environmental and social concerns.”
Still others list more ingredients to avoid, including the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of public health, educational, and consumer groups, working to eliminate chemicals linked to cancer (and other adverse health concerns) in personal care products. It says consumers should read labels and avoid products containing about seven listed products that have very long names. You can see its full list here. While, Dr.Greene.com, pediatrician, author of Raising Baby Green, and father of four, lists five ingredients to avoid in baby shampoo: fragrance (parfum), Sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate (SLES) and (SLS), parabens, triclosan, and methylisothiazolinone.
If you’re the type of parent that won’t sleep at night unless you’ve read, first-hand, all that you can about products, then we’ve got some bedtime reading for you. Here’s a list of some of the most talked about chemicals in baby shampoos, as gathered from the CSC: Fragrance, Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs), Parabens, Phthalates, and 1,4-dioxane (sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
But do soaps without chemicals clean was well as others? GoodGuide’s Pease reminded us to, “give up the notion of finding a “chemical-free soap,” adding “There really aren’t any cleaning products ‘without chemicals.’” He said, “Some ‘natural’ products may contain only plant-based compounds (like citric acid), but these are all chemicals, and they can have adverse health effects (e.g. essential oils can be skin sensitizers or allergens).”
Armed with all this safety information, I looked for products with excellent ratings on both the EWG’s Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics and GoodGuide’s database, and from there, selected candidates for further testing.
Most liquid soaps contain sodium lauryl sulfate in order to lather.
I ranked them based on the EWG and GoodGuide databases and put the top six baby soaps through a series of tests to ensure the best one came out on top. First was a handwashing test with the six soaps. My 5-year-old daughter and I washed our hands with each product, one at a time, and made notes about lather, feel, scent, and packaging (ex. is the bottle hard to open?). From this test, we crossed off two products from the list because of feel (one made our hands feel sticky), or an unpleasant smell. (See “The Competition” below.) That left four for a real-world test: a bath!
For that, I got both of my kids good and dirty (while camping), and gave them baths each night for three nights, using a different shampoo product each night. In this series of tests, I used the same product on each child (and on my own hair that night), and made notes for: lather, scent, and if the kids complained about it stinging their eyes. I also noted the consistency, and how much shampoo was needed to properly clean the hair and body, to keep value in mind.
I also looked at how the soaps lathered. This is another area that took considerable research. Most liquid soaps contain sodium lauryl sulfate in order to lather. “GoodGuide (and other consumer advisory services) consider SLS to be of “relatively low concern in terms of human health risk,” Pease says. The main reason it’s a risk is that it is “suspected of causing skin irritation.” Since all babies have delicate skin, we wanted a shampoo that can lather without the use of this chemical.
This next criterion may be a hard one to swallow, or … sniff. We determined that the product should be fragrance-free, or use a completely natural scent like lavender oil. Fragrance isn’t necessary to clean a baby. It’s just for the parents! Phthalates, which are known to disrupt the reproductive system in animals, are common components of fragrances. “The fragrance industry can use about 3,000 ingredients in their mixture. So you don’t know how many of those ingredients are in your shampoo. Some of the ingredients are phthalates and things we are definitely concerned about” says Leiba. And GoodGuide says to, “look for products from companies that state their products do not contain phthalates.“
Although cost is an important factor in the decision-making process, we feel a safe product is worth paying a few extra dollars per bottle. Sure, we don’t want to pay $15, or even $25 for one bottle of baby wash, but some really great products do cost more. Before we came to the conclusion about price, I researched how often babies really need to be bathed. Sites like Parenting.com, BabyCenter.com, to AskDrSears.com agree that babies should not be bathed daily. The Mayo Clinic, even suggests that newborns don’t need any soap. The common ground for the amount of time a baby needs a bath is two to three times a week, tops. When you consider how much soap you actually need to use, especially if you use a washcloth or sponge that retains more soap than just washing with your hands, the amount of soap used in a week is only a few teaspoons. That 8 oz. bottle should last awhile.
Babies are reliant on their caretakers for even the most basic of needs, and new parents are often left wondering if they got it right. Many times, that translate into doing more than is needed. Whether it’s excessive burping or changing barely damp diapers, it often takes weeks if not months for new parents to get the hang of what is enough. And while most of the anxious hovering makes no difference to a baby, washing too much can lead to health concerns.
When browsing reviews, nearly every shampoo has negative comments from parents complaining that their baby’s skin was dried out from the shampoo. And while the shampoos may be to blame, overwashing is a more likely culprit. Our skin is covered in a layer of oil, sebum, that serves as a water barrier. And since soap is a surfactant, it breaks down those oils. And those oils (sebum) are what protect the skin from drying out. This is especially crucial to understand when washing little private parts.
This issues is further complicated by the type of water in your home. Soft water is gentle on babies’ skin, but hard water, because of its acidity, can dry it out and cause irritation.
silencing some internet noise
If you are like me, and Google constantly for nuggets of information, your results for “baby shampoo” or “safe baby shampoo” are going to be bombarded with links about formaldehyde. Yes, formaldehyde. That’s enough to scare any parent. You won’t find formaldehyde on any label though, because it’s released over time from preservatives. It’s not an intentional ingredient.
Among these articles is an onslaught of information about Johnson & Johnson’s iconic No More Tears baby shampoo. The short story is that J&J landed the No. 1 spot on Forbes 2011 top brands list, and just after that announcement, the company was “called out” for not removing “chemicals of concern.” What you won’t find as easily is the New York Times article that says in 2013, Johnson & Johnson “has removed the preservatives that release formaldehyde,” and had reduced other questionable chemicals. The article also notes, “the team’s [Johnson & Johnson’s] next step is removing another type of preservative, parabens, from their baby products.” We should point out that our pick for best baby shampoo, although a separate product line, happens to be part of the Johnson & Johnson family.
And it wouldn’t be a baby shampoo guide without talking about tear-free products. If you search on this topic you are bound to come across information that tear-free shampoos contain numbing agents, like Novocain, that essentially anesthetize the tear ducts, thus not allowing your baby to cry. If you keep searching, you’ll find numerous sources that tell you that numbing agents aren’t in baby shampoos, and if they were your hands would also feel numb after use. There is little information about this topic and many sources say that the tear-free portion is just a lighter concentration. In the end, we relied on this little gem from How Stuff Works. And it looks like tear-free formulas leave out the surfactants, which leaves you with a product that is only “mildly cleansing,” but tear-free. Once again though, the water in the tub plays a huge role. Water that doesn’t have a balanced pH can also cause those tears.
- Size: Available in 5.3 fl. oz. and 34 fl. oz. bottles
- Formula: Mostly Organic
- Fragrance: None
After almost two-dozen hours of research and a week of hands-on testing, I’m confident to recommend Earth Mama Angel Baby Natural Non-Scents Shampoo and Body Wash as the one to buy, because it’s rated high for safety plus, when compared with our other finalists. It cleans well, lathers up like a champ, and is a great value.
For starters, Earth Mama Angel Baby has some of the best safety ratings out there. The EWG ranks Earth Mama Angel Baby with a 0 (0 is the best, meaning it contains no chemicals of concern). It contains just seven ingredients, 73% of which are organic.
Out of the three unscented shampoos we tested, this one had the most neutral scent. It literally smelled like nothing. For those with sensitivities, this is a must. But if you’re looking for that after bath smelly goodness, they also have a lavender version made with real lavender oil, not a fragrance. And it’s also ranked a 0 by the EWG database.
What really puts this product over the top is how well it cleans. We tested the shampoos on permanent marker stained skin. Just a dab of Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo on a washcloth gently rubbed on the stain, and instantly the ink came off. The same didn’t happen with other soaps we tested.
The price isn’t crazy, either. At just $7 for 5.3 oz.—Earth Mama Angel Baby Natural Non-Scents Shampoo and Body Wash is one of the cheapest truly natural shampoos. Plus, it’s a combo product that lets parents purchase one product—instead of a wash and a separate shampoo.
The shampoo has a convenient pump, and unlike some of the other brands, the soap comes out as a foam, which allows you to control exactly where you place it. This is a perk especially since this shampoo’s main drawback is that it is not tear-free.
Who else likes it
The EWG ranks Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo with a 0 (0 is the best, meaning it contains no chemicals of concern). Out of 111 current products listed in their baby shampoo category, only 9 received a score of 0.
GoodGuide gives Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo a 10 for health (10 is the highest, though this shampoo has no yet been rated in the categories of Environment or Society) Out of the 448 products listed in the Baby Soap & Bath category, only 33 score a 10 in health.
The Bump’s guide for best baby shampoos lists the Earth Mama Angel Baby Shampoo as the best all-natural shampoo and body wash.
On Amazon, Earth Mama Angel Baby Non-Scents Shampoo has a score of 4.4 out of 5, with more than 40 reviews. One customer says, “Love this stuff for myself, my baby, and my toddler girls. No smell really, foams up nicely, mild, doesn’t dry skin out, great ingredients.”
The Step up
Nurture My Body Baby Shampoo and Wash
If you are want only very best baby shampoo out there, you may want to splurge on Nurture My Body Baby Shampoo and Wash, which is available in the $25.00 range. It also has the best safety ratings that a baby shampoo can get from both the EWG (a zero) and GoodGuide (a 7.6 overall rating, but it gets a 10, the best score, for health). Nurture My Body’s ingredients are 100% organic and are both gluten and nut-free for those with allergy concerns. It’s tear-free, lathers well, and leaves hair feeling clean. However, it did not do well on our stain test. It took 2-3 washes and scrubbing to get the permanent marker stain off of skin. It’s great for the everyday messes, but if you’re needing a heavy duty wash, this isn’t your pick.
California Baby Super Sensitive Shampoo and Body Wash
California Baby Super Sensitive Shampoo & Body Wash – This product gets great reviews throughout the web, including Amazon. Because of the positive user comments and the acceptable safety rankings (a 1 by the EWG), it ranked high enough to be included in our testing phase.This soap is thinner, so I felt the need to use more to get the kids clean. And their hair felt a bit slippery after washing, more like a shampoo and conditioner combo. This is another tear-free product, but many parents have complained about the reformulation that took place in 2012 when the company added Sodium Benzoate to the ingredient list. At $12 for 8.5 oz., California Baby is a tad cheaper than price of Earth Mama Angel Baby, and it’s accessible both online and in stores (it was in a small section on the shelf at the Target I went to), so you can pick this up with ease.
We considered these alternatives from manufacturers, but can’t recommend them.
- Aveeno Baby Wash and Shampoo – This is ranked only slightly lower than our picks, with an EWG score of 2, and can be found in stores very easily and affordably. However, its use of fragrances made it a non contender.
- Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Shampoo and Wash –This product made it to the testing phase, but left our hands feeling sticky and had a strong, unappealing scent. We couldn’t bring ourselves to use it for the bathing test.
- Cetaphil Restaderm – This made our testing criteria because of its good safety ratings, and amazing Amazon reviews. It’s clearly a winner to many, however, it had a pasty scent that we couldn’t live with. And, it mentions on the label that it’s safe for babies “as young as 3 months,” which doesn’t fit our criteria to include newborns.
- Johnson’s Baby Shampoo – This is the quintessential “no more tears” baby shampoo, but didn’t rank well enough on the guides to be considered for testing at this time.
- Huggies Tear-Free Baby Shampoo – This is ranked number 4 on GoodGuide’s list, but is not ranked on the EWG. There were simply too many other brands that were ranked well on both guides to consider one that wasn’t.
- Seventh Generation Foaming Baby Shampoo & Wash – Although this did well in the initial research phase, many parents complained about the watered down consistency of the product.
- Sweet Baby Shampoo — This looked very promising from the research, but the company doesn’t have a website, just a Facebook page with limited information. We’ll be happy to test it in the future if we can find more specific information about its ingredients.
What To Keep In Mind
The baby wash category is continually evolving and companies change formulas and packaging frequently. Once you find one you like, it’s important to note of the exact product name and packaging. When conducting my research I found myself looking for a product online, or in a store, thinking it was the one I wanted from my research only to realize it was different. I even found a discrepancy on Amazon in one instance, where the product name in the title was different than the product name on the main photo. If you want to ensure you are getting a product without a particular chemical, the only way to be sure is to read the label.
- Amazon reviews, Amazon.com
- Prevention of Drowning in Infants, Children and Adolescents., American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Interview with Nneka Leiba, Deputy Director of Research, Environmental Working Group, 2014
- Email Interview with Bill Pease, Chief Scientist, GoodGuide.com, 2014
- FAQ: What Should I Buy?, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- The Best Baby Shampoo Products, GoodGuide.com
- As Report Reveals Toxic Ingredients in Baby Shampoo, Johnson & Johnson Goes Public with Plans to Clean Up Products, Forbes, November, 1, 2011
- Katie Thomas, The ‘No More Tears’ Shampoo, Now With No Formaldehyde, The New York Times, 2014
- Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- Bathing Your Baby, Nationwide Children’s Hospital
- Liz Szabo, ‘Endocrine Disruptor’ Won’t Be on Label, USAToday.com, Oct. 31, 2007
- FAQ: What Should I Buy? What are phthalates?, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
- Top Tips for Safer Products, Environmental Working Group
- Susan Berfiled, Washing the Formaldehyde Out of Baby Shampoo, Bloomberg Business Week, 2013
- Baby Bath Basics: A Parent’s Guide, MayoClinic.org
- William Sears, Dr. Sears Tips for Bathing Babies, AskDrSears.com
- How Often Should I Bathe My Newborn?, Parents.com
- Irina Webb, Numbing agent – Tear-Free Baby Shampoo, Ireadlabelsforyou.com
- Chrystal Johnson, 5 Ingredients to Avoid in Your Kids’ Bath & Body Products, Dr.Greene.com, April 1, 2013
- Mary Jo DiLonardo, “health-e head2toe: How Environmental Exposure May Affect Your Child” What’s in Your Personal Care Products, Webmd.com, 2010
- Pamela Lundquist, Safe Shampoos and More For Kids, BabyCenter.com
Laurie Dove, “Why doesn’t tear-free shampoo sting your eyes?”, HowStuffWorks.com, Laurie Dove, “Why doesn’t tear-free shampoo sting your eyes?” HowStuffWorks.com
- Dry Skin, Drugs.com
- Dr. Ben Kim, “Why you shouldn’t use soap on your private parts”, DrBenKim.com
- Julie Van Onselen, “Is water-only best for bathing my baby?”, BabyCentre.co.uk
- Dr. Charles P. Davis, “The Hygiene Hypothesis”, MedicineNet.com
- Rachel Monroe, “Cockroach droppings are good for babies”, BaltimoreFishBowl.com
- Mike Carter, Jessica's First Bath, Flickr