Home > Fluorescent Whitening Agents > Are Optical Brighteners in Baby’s Clothing Safe?

Are Optical Brighteners in Baby’s Clothing Safe?

Cloth diaper, hand mitts and handkerchiefs glowing due to FWAs under black light.

There has been an increasing boom for the use of cloth diapers for our babies.  The main reasons behind this movement is due to environmental reasons, for the health of our babies and for some economic reasons.  The average baby may use up to 3000 to 4000 disposable diapers in their first two years of life.   Converting this to money at a price of 25 cents per diaper leads to about 750~ 1000 dollars.  There are some arguments on both sides whether cloth diapering is truly economical considering that cloth diapering requires a little more dedication in washing the cloth diapers which in turn require the mother’s/father’s time; expenses for detergents, water, electricity/gas for the washing machine etc.  A few also have arguments in the carbon footprints section but we will leave that up to the other pundits and focus on safety.

There are undisputed amounts of chemicals in disposable diapers.  This is evident through high absorbance fibers and gel technology.  However, there may also be toxic chemicals lurking in cloth diapers as well.  Previously there were a couple of written articles on fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs) and have noted that FWAs may be the icing on numerous agents used to create the finished cloth product.  HappyBabyUSA recommends at the very least, the use of organic labeled cloth products for cloth diapers, baby mitts and handkerchiefs.  The reason behind this is that we believe the products that are capable of going into our babies mouths and being in constant contact with the skin should be toxic free.  (A well-known non-profit organization The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have a created a very simple story ” Toxins in, Toxics out”.  It is a video everyone should see.)  Albeit, there is ongoing controversy about the safety of FWAs but it is evidently clear that most of the manufacturing industry is fine with it.  Ask yourself this question.  Would you allow your baby to ingest or even bathe in a chemical dye that lights up in a flourescent blue?   Would the FDA allow this dye to be used for the coloring of the food?  The answer is an emphatic no.   The more serious and urgent question is whether or not your cloth products in particular – cloth diapers, baby mitts and handkerchiefs are leaking FWAs to your baby.  Some European and Asian countries have strict guidelines not whether the product contains FWAs or not but whether there is migration of FWAs from the product.  The Council of Europe passed a resolution stating that they have no reservation with colorants (including FWAs) “as long as the colorants are fit for purpose and no traces are transferred to the foodstuffs when the consumer goods are used in a manner for which they were intended.”  The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Germany also states that “there must be no migration of colorants to the foodstuff.”  Cloth diapers, baby mitts and handkerchiefs are not food.  However, babies suck on mitts and handkerchiefs are used often to wipe their mouths.  Cloth diapers are in constant contact with the skin and with moisture from the urine, contact dermatitis can result.

For sanitation of cloth diapers, some practice the use of boiling cloth diapers in water to kill bacteria.

1 – Cloth diaper being placed in the small vat of boiling water.  2 – Cloth boiling in the water.  3 – Cloth placed in a glass bowl under normal lighting.  4 – Cloth under black light.  5 – Vat of the water that boiled the cloth diaper under fluorescent lighting.  6 – Close-up up a splotch on the side of the vat – evidence of FWAs in the water.

As evident in the experiment above, this particular cloth diaper contains FWAs as exhibited by the fluorescent blue under black light.  The more shocking fact occurs in the 5th and 6th slide.  FWAs have leaked out of the cloth diapers and are also present in the water.

As written before, the toxicity of FWAs are controversial and society has long been in the dark about it.  FWAs have many applications in our products from the apparel we wear to making the paper we use more white.  FWAs are so much resilient in the environment, it can serve as a marker for industrial pollution.  FWAs itself is not the culprit.  It is the application of where FWAs are used that leads to problems.  At the very least it should be left out of children cloth products that have the ability to get into baby’s mouths.

The reason that we focus on babies is that the human adult has the capability to chemically “detoxify” itself through the liver and other mechanical processes via perspiration by the skin.  In addition the adult has the ability to sense whether the clothes he or she is wearing are itchy or burning and thus have the ability to immediately take action.  Babies on the other hand have limited detoxification capability and language expression.  Therefore it is the duty of the parent to protect their newborn babies from things they cannot handle or express.

In conclusion, whether cloth diapers, baby mitts and handkerchiefs treated with FWAs are safe is questionable. There are many other chemicals that are more toxic, so why focus on FWAs? FWAs is the easiest for consumers to identify without the need for expensive equipment. In addition, clothes containing FWAs may be an indication that other chemicals and residues have been left on the clothes. Babies need our help and a voice. As small a factor FWAs may be, it is sometimes the splinter in the foot that can bring more problems in the future.

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