Do Diaper Wipes Cause Food Allergies in Kids? What the Science Really Says

baby wipes cause food allergies
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Food allergies in babies and kids have been a major source of mystery in the medical and science communities and among parents. It's a condition that affects about 5.9 million kids in the US every day to varying degrees, and the search for the possible cause of food allergies has been happening for decades. A new study recently suggested that an ingredient in baby diaper wipes may have a major link to food allergy development in babies and children. While some are calling the "revelation" groundbreaking, it might not be time to dump the wipes just yet. Further research may prove that this theory doesn't hold as much truth as many think. 

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Conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the buzzworthy study concludes that food allergies in infants and children are caused by a "perfect storm" when four different factors come together. First, according to scientists, the baby must already have genetics that alter the way the skin absorbs things. The baby also has to have his or her skin exposed to dust-based allergens -- like house dust mites and mold spores. Then, baby needs to be exposed to common allergenic foods -- like wheat, milk, and peanuts -- through the skin. Finally, the baby needs to be exposed to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which is present in many baby wipes and leaves a soapy residue on the skin that ultimately isn't washed off by parents. 

"The development of a food allergy required all four factors together," said the study's lead author Joan Cook-Mills, according to Northwestern Now. "It's a major advance in our understanding of how food allergy starts early in life."

About 35 percent of kids with food allergies also have atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, which is caused by three different genetic mutations that dramatically reduce skin barrier. Hoping to figure out what triggers food allergies, Cook-Mills found neonatal mice with the same three skin barrier genetic mutations. She exposed the mice's skin to common allergenic foods like peanuts, but they didn't trigger any sort of allergic reaction in the mice. 

Cook-Mills and her team then exposed the mice who already had the genetic mutations to food and dust allergens, then SLS -- found in many baby diaper wipes. The mice didn't develop any atopic dermatitis–like skin conditions until they were a few months old -- nearly young adults as a human equivalent. But within two weeks they started having extreme allergic anaphylaxis to the eggs and peanuts they were fed. 

Since its initial release on April 6, this study has gained a ton of attention from both parents and publications. The implication that baby wipes can "cause" food allergies has created a huge stir. But Cook-Mills told Allergic Living that there's definitely been an overreaction to her study results. "I wouldn't say don't use baby wipes, I was hoping nobody went down that road," she said. 

According to Lifehacker, the study results only listed SLS because it was an example of a common cleaning ingredient; the mice weren't even exposed to any actual baby wipes during the experiment. Additionally, SLS doesn't seem to have been chosen for any reason other than the fact that Cook-Mills had it readily available in the lab. 

baby wipes cause food allergies
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Allergic Living spoke with allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer, who says that the study isn't groundbreaking, either. "It is additional evidence for the current thinking about how skin barrier and exposure of skin to food can be a way a person can become allergic,"/ he said. Sicherer argued that parents definitely don't need to freak out about their baby wipe usage since they haven't actually been linked to the development of food allergies yet. "Should the whole baby wipe industry shut down now because of a mouse model that didn't even look at the baby wipes?" asked Sicherer. "Is there a study proving it? No."

The conversation surrounding baby wipes and the role they play in food allergies seems to be sensationalized. While interesting, Cook-Mills's experiment only sheds an interesting light on some of the things we already know about food allergies and their relationship with skin barrier defects. The team at Northwestern University didn't make any bold statements about baby diaper wipes, which makes it important for the rest of us not to get ahead of ourselves and start declaring baby wipes as bad or dangerous without any evidence. 

Pediatric allergist Dr. David Stukus told Lifehacker, "I think the study was brilliant, but the interpretation and extrapolation to baby wipes in humans is not supported in any way." Still, Joan Cook-Mills told Northwestern Now that any parents who are concerned about their kids developing food allergies can wash their hands before handling their babies to reduce skin exposure to food allergens. Additionally, they can rinse their little ones off with water to get rid of excess soap residue after using baby wipes. 

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