What’s really hiding inside your baby’s wet wipes?


In our BabyNatal Practical Baby Care classes we discuss nappy changing, washing baby clothes, and bathing amongst other things, and one aspect that invariably always comes up is around the usage of ‘baby products’, be it soaps and shampoos, wet wipes, detergents etc. You’ll never hear us recommend one product over another one, but you’ll hear us say is that we encourage all parents and parents-to-be to make informed choices, which are right for their families, their babies and their own unique circumstances.

And we feel that when you are a parent, ‘making informed choices’ also translates into looking into the options that you have available when deciding to use a particular product. Is one brand better than another one? Why? Is a certain product more suited for my child than another one? What does this product contain, as opposed to the one on the next shelf? What’s the real difference, if I look beyond the marketing and the pricing?

So, to ‘practice what we preach’ (so to speak), we decided to do our homework and picked a packet of ‘fragrance free’ and ‘ultra-soft’ baby wipes. We won’t mention the particular brand, as this isn’t about recommending a brand over another one – this blog is simply about picking a very versatile, multi-use product, which most of us have in our homes and use for our babies and children (wet wipes), turning it around, and having a proper look at the list of ingredients.

Unless this is your area of expertise, like us, you might find that you need to look twice before you can work out how to even pronounce some of these words, so, armed with a desire to learn something new, a lot of patience and our favourite search engine, we give you what we found on this whopping list of 17 ingredients…

  1. Aqua

Well, this is an easy one. Aqua is water – it’s in Latin because most wipes manufacturers choose to label cosmetics ingredients using the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients system (or INCI for short). This makes it simpler to recognise ingredients across products manufactured in different countries.

  1. Cetearyl Isononanoate

This is an emollient – in other words, a substance which is added to cosmetic products to help soften and lubricate the skin, making it smoother.

  1. Glycerin

Similarly to the ingredient above, glycerin is also known as a ‘humectant’, meaning that it’s a substance which attracts moisture to the skin. It’s there to soften the skin – some people think this happens because glycerine attracts moisture, but there could be other reasons why this happens; for example, some think that glycerin could have some properties of its own which are helpful to the skin.

  1. Ceteareth -20

We struggled to find information specific to Ceteareth -20 (or about Ceteareth -12, a little further down at #7), but we found that Ceteareth -4 is classified as ‘surfactant cleansing product’. In other words, it’s used to clean surfaces.

  1. Cetearyl Alcohol

This is a fatty alcohol, which is commonly used in the cosmetic industry as an emollient, emulsifier or thickening agent, especially in the manufacturing of skin creams and lotions. We didn’t find anything specific about its usage in wet wipes, but we did find a mention about the fact that people who suffer from eczema can be sensitive to it. Ironically though, this ingredient is sometimes included in the medications for the treatment of eczema, as it is believed that sensitivities might be due to impurities, rather than with than with the ceteryl alcohol itself. Interesting debate…

  1. Glyceril Stearate

This is known as an ‘emulsifier’ and ‘emulsion stabiliser’ and is used to bring a non-greasy but rich touch to creams and solutions.

  1. Ceteareth -12

See #4.

  1. Polysorbate 20

Polysorbate is apparently a harmless ‘sorbitol’, or in another words, a sugar alcohol. However, the ‘20’ in the name seems to indicate that the sorbitol has been treated with 20 parts of ethylene oxide. The result, polysorbate 20, is, once again, a substance used as an ‘emulsifier’, i.e. a substance that helps mix oil and water.

What we found through our research is that the process of mixing a substance with ethylene oxide entails mixing that substance with a potentially dangerous by-product called 1,4-dioxane, which could be linked with skin allergies. So potentially, this would be one to watch out for if it was used in large quantities…

  1. Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice

This is the juice expressed from the leaves of the aloe (and in particular, the Aloe Barbadensis) and its function is classified as a skin conditioner.

  1. Chamomilla Recutita Flower Extract

This is an extract of the flower heads of a specific type of chamomile and is classified as skin conditioning and masking, although we also found references to it being an antioxidant, i.e. a substance that helps removing potentially damaging agents in our bodies.

  1. Disodium EDTA

In simplistic terms, this is effectively a type of salt and is used as a preservative.

  1. Propylene Glycol

This product is a clear, colourless compound, which is widely used as it mixes well with a range of solvents, including water. Interestingly, this ingredient can also be found in other industries; for example, it is used as preservative in food and in tobacco products (in fact, it’s one of the major ingredients of the ‘e-liquid’ and cartridges used in electronic cigarettes, as well as liquid nicotine).

  1. Sodium Citrate

Together with two other types of citrates (or salts), sodium citrates are known with the collective name of E331. They are normally used as acidity regulators in food and drinks, and also as ‘emulsifiers’ for oils (i.e. used to stabilise processed ingredients), which is probably why they can be found in baby wipes.

  1. Phenoxyethanol

This is a natural ingredient that can be found in green tea, but the product we are looking at here is synthetically produced in a lab to fight bacteria. Because a lot of personal care products are made with a lot of water and a variety of nutrients, they can become a hospitable breeding ground for microorganisms – in other words, our wipes could be full of bacteria or fungi that are dangerous to our babies’ health, so it’s important that preservatives are added to them to ensure their safety.

Apparently, phenoxyethanol has suffered some bad press lately, mainly due to the fact that high exposure to this ingredient is thought to be harmful, but in small quantities (and the content in wipes should be small), it is harmless.

  1. Benzoic Acid

Benzoic acid occurs naturally in many plants, and similarly to phenoxyethanol it is used as a preservative. It helps to inhibit the growth of mould, yeast and some bacteria.

  1. Dehydroacetic Acid

As above, this is also used in wet wipes and other cosmetic products as a preservative.

  1. Citric Acid

And last but not least on our list is citric acid, which is widely used to either enhance the activity of many antioxidants (although it’s not an antioxidant by itself) or as an acidity regulator and aroma compound.


And this is it – thank you for staying with us until the end of our long list. Whether you decided to go through it in details or you just scanned through it, we hope that this will serve as a positive reminder that as parents and consumers we should all make an effort to understand a bit more about the chemicals and formulations of the products that we use for ourselves and our babies and children. Ultimately, it is our ‘job’ to make informed choices for our families.

Of course there is a lot more to be found and said about each and every one of these products, and we purposely tried to make this list as short and simple as possible, but if we’re honest, without holding a Chemistry degree, some of the information we found was a little hard to ‘translate’, so we really do (and on this more than ever) welcome your honest feedback!

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