Baby wipe use may lead to childhood food allergies, new study

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Baby wipes are a nappy bag staple for many parents. Apart from being an essential at change time, they're also great for wiping up grubby faces and hands in the wake of just about anything your child can get into.

But new research has found baby wipes and soaps may promote childhood food allergies by damaging the natural protective barrier on the skin.

In Australia, food allergies currently effect around one in 20 children, and the cause is unknown.

The study, by Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, found a mix of environmental and genetic factors can work together to trigger a food allergy. These factors can include the use of baby wipes which can leave a soap residue on the skin, household dust and food, and genetics that alter a baby's skin absorbency.

"This is a recipe for developing a food allergy," said professor of allergy-immunology and lead author of the study, Joan Cook-Mills.

Professor Cook-Mills said parents of babies should limit the use of baby wipes, and wash their hands regularly, especially after handling food.

"They may not be eating food allergens as a newborn, but they are getting them on their skin," said Professor Cook-Mills. "Say a sibling with peanut butter on her face kisses the baby. Or a parent is preparing food with peanuts and then handles the baby."

If the skin's natural defences are disrupted, this can leave the baby more vulnerable to being exposed to allergens such as food and dust.

Dr Ryan Harvey from House Call Doctor says soaps are designed to break down fat and oils.

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"Our skin is lined with a thin layer of fats and natural oils," he says. "This helps to create that barrier between our body and the outside world, and also helps to keep the underlying skin hydrated.

"Soaps break down or remove the natural fats and oils on our skin and therefore disrupt this protective layer. One of our natural defences is therefore compromised against potential allergens when this layer is disrupted."

Dr Harvey says genetics can affect how absorbent our skin is to allergens.

"Certain genes passed down will allow more allergens to encounter a child's immune system and therefore lead to the development of an allergy," he says.

So does this mean parents should abandon baby wipes soap entirely?

Dr Harvey says hygiene is still an important factor, and has been proven to reduce infectious diseases, so it's still important to keep your baby clean. He also adds that it's fine to use baby wipes for nappy changes.

Instead, Dr Harvey suggests that parents wash their hands regularly to limit the allergens they're exposing their baby's skin to, and use baby wipes and soap only when they are required.