Study Links Wet Wipes and Food Allergies- How Far is this True?

One of the quickest and easiest ways to clean your baby is through wet wipes, but what modern parents do not know is that they are pushing their little loved ones to various dangerous allergies. The failure in washing the soapy residue from skin harms the skin protective barrier allowing the detrimental particles to penetrate their skin. However, the research still needs more evidence.

According to a study, by breaching the natural barrier of the skin, they make the skin more sensitive to a different type of harmful chemicals. This study of the US researchers further expands our thinking about allergy understanding. Several allergies can be triggered if the skin of the baby continuously gets in contact with the soapy substances. These soapy substances actually remove the natural oils from the skin of the little one.

The authors explain that if parents fail in removing those residues then there are more chances that their baby will get more exposed to allergy-causing substances when they get in contact with something or are picked up. The findings of the research paper “Mechanism for initiation of food allergy: Dependence on skin barrier mutations and environmental allergen costimulation” is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Babies who are genetically liable for developing allergies are more vulnerable to this notion. These allergies are associated with health conditions like eczema. One-third of the children going through any type of allergy are susceptible to eczema.

The researchers in their study paper explain why immune system all of the sudden starts showing response against the harmless substances triggering food allergies. They explain the reason behind such an increasingly alarming rate of food allergies in countries like America in the past 20 years.

“This is a recipe for developing a food allergy,” said the study’s lead author, Joan Cook-Mills, a professor of allergy-immunology at Northwestern University. “It’s a major advance in our understanding of how a food allergy starts early in life.”

Eczema is basically caused by genetic mutations also known as point mutations which alter some of the important proteins present in our skin that are responsible for the barrier effect. However, when a study was carried out in baby mice who had eczema mutations and were exposed to peanuts, they found that only this factor is not responsible to trigger an allergic reaction later in life.

Professor Cook-Mills after reviewing several studies in which drugs were easily administered to the body through the skin by using soap to damage the protective barrier he found that, “I thought, ‘oh my gosh! That’s infant wipes!”

Researchers repeated the experiment, by treating the mice with sodium dodecyl sulfate. Those mice were then exposed to common allergic substances including food items. Sodium dodecyl sulfate is a soap which is mostly found in wet wipes. The mice skin was exposed three to four times in two weeks with egg or peanut to eat.

They say, “soap components, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which is sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), in cleansing wipes… might facilitate allergen uptake during feeding and cleaning of infants with skin barrier mutations.” However, sodium dodecyl sulfate is not listed in the ingredient list of wet wipes of most common brands.

As expected, researchers started observing rashes on the exposed skin area. They also began showing allergic reactions and body-wide anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can be described as “serious life-threatening allergic reaction.”

Professor Cook-Mills emphasizes that wet wipes are somehow similar to the mechanism of skin barrier damage which in turn causes a mild rash and severe eczema. He says that parents should try to follow the older ways of cleaning their infants.

He considers it as one of the comprehensive studies, but Sicherer director of Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai says, “It’s not a new conclusion. 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.”

“It’s all modeling this idea that kids with skin barrier defects and eczema may be prone to food allergy based on environmental exposure,” he says. “These potential factors need more study in terms of what would be effective for people to do.”

Sicherer and another pediatric allergist Dr. David Stukus tries to remind people that this study was carried in mice and not in humans. Plus, the baby wipes were also not properly examined.

Stukus tweeted, “This study conducted in lab rats does not remotely equate to baby wipes ‘causing’ food allergy.”

Sicherer is still not sure of the advice he should give to the parents about the use of wet wipes. He says, “I would say I don’t know – because I’m not aware of a specific study [about baby wipes and food allergy].”

While Cook-Mills addresses the study and says, “I wouldn’t say don’t use baby wipes, I was hoping nobody went down that road.” She instructs parents to “reduce baby’s skin exposure to the food allergens by washing your hands before handling the baby and limit use of infant wipes that leave soap on the skin. Rinse the soap off with water like we used to do years ago.”

Her advice to parents is that they should try to wash off any residue of wipes or soap completely with water from the baby’s skin. However, Sicherer says that before coming to any conclusion with certainty there is a need to do more research.

“Someone who is taking [the study press release] very literally will walk away saying everyone in the family has to constantly wash their hands – and that’s based on some experiments on cells in mice?” questions Sicherer. “Maybe they’re right, but it seems like a big jump.”

Researchers and people are still unaware of the causes of food allergies but many think that it is due to the mixture of different causes including multiple environmental and genetic factors.

“Should the whole baby wipe industry shut down now because of a mouse model that didn’t even look at the baby wipes?” asks Sicherer. “Is there a study proving it? No.” The drawback of the study was that the researchers also did not make arrangements for a control group.

Adeena Tariq

Adeena's professional life has been mostly in hospital management, while studying international business in college. Of course, she now covers topics for us in health.

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