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21 Oct 2020

Baby wipes: can they kill coronavirus and other common questions answered

We spoke to a consultant dermatologist and a cosmetic chemist to find out what parents need to know when buying baby wipes

The average baby gets through 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies by the time they're potty trained - and that means using a hefty load of baby wipes, too.

To help you buy the right ones for your family, we spoke to two experts - a consultant dermatologist and a cosmetic chemist - to help us answer common queries about baby wipes.

Find out which are the best disposable nappies in our tests.

Can you wash your hands with baby wipes to help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Wipes are handy when you're on the go and need to clean up. But in these coronavirus times, can they be used to wash your hands to help protect you from catching or spreading the virus?

Dr Barbara Olioso, cosmetic chemist at The Green Consultancy, says: 'Baby wipes are designed for gentle cleaning and I would not expect them to have the same cleaning performance or effect on coronavirus as a hand wash or an antibacterial hand gel.'

Dr Justine Hextall, consultant dermatologist, recommends washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water, and if you're travelling and don't have access to washing facilities, use baby wipes - but make sure you then apply hand sanitiser (with a minimum 60% alcohol content to kill the virus).

Coronavirus: how to keep your hands healthy

What baby wipe ingredients should you avoid if your baby has sensitive skin?

Babies' skin is delicate and the nappy area is particularly vulnerable to irritation from exposure to moisture, urine and faeces.

Dr Hextall explains: 'In the past, alcohol, perfumes and preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone (MI) in wipes have caused significant sensitivity issues. However, there are now clear guidelines around these potential sensitisers.'

Nonetheless, Dr Barbara Olioso, cosmetic chemist at The Green Consultancy, says: 'As babies are still developing their immune system, I'd suggest staying away from fragrance to avoid any potential to develop sensitisation later in life or choosing those with fragrances that contain low or no allergens and specifically designed for babies.'

The NHS recommends choosing fragrance-free and alcohol-free wipes for babies and young children.

Find out which are the best disposable nappy brands as rated by parents

Are baby wipes bad for the environment?

Yes. Although baby wipes may look and feel like cotton, they are generally synthetic and most don't biodegrade (not to mention the plastic packaging, which tends to be non-recyclable).

A 2017 study by Water UK, which represents the main water and sewage companies, found that wipes make up around 93% of the material causing 'fat bergs' and sewer blockages - and this includes a high proportion of baby wipes.

Dr Olioso says: 'If they end up in the ocean they also affect sea life. So wiping a baby's bottom can have quite some serious consequences if you flush the wipes down the toilet instead of throwing them in the bin.'

How to be greener with baby wipes

  • Some wipes may say they're made from natural fibres, but watch out for brands that contain plastic, too. For example, Huggies Pure contains 65% wood pulp, but the remaining 35% is plastic ('to prevent the wipe tearing'), so shouldn't be flushed.
  • For wipes to be biodegradable, they have to be made from natural fibres alone, such as Mum & You wipes, which are made from 100% viscose (cellulose from plants) and are said to biodegrade in as little as 15 days - quicker than cotton.
  • Check if your wipes contain wood fibre by looking for the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) 'green trees' logo. This means at least 70% of the wood component is from sustainably managed forests and the remainder from 'controlled sources'. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the entire wipe composition is a wood product so check the label to see if they contain any plastic.
  • Many baby wipe brands that are labelled 'biodegradable' - such as Fred & Flo Biodegradable wipes, made from 100% plant-based fibres - tell you on the packaging not to flush them down the toilet, but bin them or recycle (check with your local council). Read individual packaging for guidance.
  • The only real guarantee of them being acceptable to flush is if the packet carries the Fine to Flush logo, a water industry certification introduced in 2019. An example of these are Pura wipes.

The environmentalist's view

Tony Bosworth, Friendsof theEarth campaigner, told Which?: 'Although many wet wipes now meet a 'Fine to Flush' standard, meaning they don't lead to blocked sewers, this doesn't mean we should be using them.

'Of course for some, wet wipes are not a luxury, but really helpful in day-to-day life. But for most, reusable options such as washable cotton baby wipes or a good old flannel will do the job and are better for our environment.u201d

How to buy the best reusable nappies

Can you use baby wipes instead of toilet paper?

Technically, yes. And some people don't feel clean unless they have used a moist paper tissue, rather than toilet paper.

However, Dr Hextall says: 'Once a child is potty trained, I would advocate toilet paper alone because dry paper is much less likely to sensitise skin than wet wipes. I often see adults with significant skin irritation from the use of wipes.'

If you do use wipes for this purpose, it's better to use ones that have Fine to Flush certification, such as Aldi Moist Toilet Tissue or Andrex Washlets.

Dr Olioso adds: 'If you do, dispose of them in the bin, not the toilet.'

Find out all the information you need to help you potty train your child

Do baby wipes dry out and can you wet them again?

Opening a packet to get a baby wipe out then closing it securely may keep them moist, but eventually they may begin to dry out slightly - or even completely. So can you rehydrate them yourself?

'I would recommend just adding water to the individual sheet,' says Dr Hextall.

'If water is added to the whole packet without the requisite preservatives, this could increase the risk of colonisation with bacteria and yeast.'

To stop wipes drying out, make sure you close the lid after use and store them away from heat sources, such as radiators or direct sunlight.

Do baby wipes dry out skin?

'Wet wipes can dry out the skin if they disrupt the skin barrier,' says Dr Hextall.

'If wipes contain too much alcohol, preservative or perfume that irritate the skin then the disrupted skin barrier will start to lose water, leaving it dry and vulnerable to further irritation and allergy.'

If a wet wipe disrupts the naturally acidic skin pH, the skin barrier will be less effective, so choose wet wipes that respect the skin's pH.

Look for terms such as 'pH balanced', 'paediatrician approved' or 'dermatologically/dermatologist approved', or accredited by the British Skin Foundation or the Skin Health Alliance.

What's in your baby lotion?

Can you make your own baby wipes?

Dr Hextall says: 'When their baby's skin is very sore, I have sometimes recommended to parents to add some gentle cleanser (such as Avene's XeraCalm Cleansing Oil or Dermol 500) to water in a spray bottle.'

She says spray this on to your baby's skin and wipe away with cotton wipes.

After cleansing, apply a hydrating moisturiser or barrier cream, for example La Roche Posay's Cicaplast balm or Sudocrem, to protect the skin barrier against the irritation of urine.

Some parent may opt to simply use warm water and cotton wool, and then dry with a towel.

Can you clean toys or baby equipment with baby wipes?

It may be easy to reach for the wipes if you're mopping up spills on highchairs, pushchairs or mucky toys, but the experts say baby wipes might not provide them with the most effective clean.

Dr Olioso explains: 'Baby wipes are designed to gently clean baby's bottoms, not surfaces where all sorts of microbes reside. So from a hygiene point of view the best way would be to clean the toys with soap and water.'

Dr Hextall says that although you can use baby wipes for purposes other than skin cleaning, 'in a time of COVID-19, it may be wise to use antibacterial products if toys are shared'.

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What's in your baby wipes?

The technical jargon on the packet can be confusing. We explain what to look for in your baby wipe ingredients so you can buy the best ones for you and your family.

Water: to provide moisture for wiping

Dr Hextall says that, ideally, baby wipes will be mostly water (some claim to be as much as 99.9% water).

'The water is purified and salts such as calcium and magnesium carbonate that contribute to removing the water hardness,' she says.

Also you need wipes to have a high water content, otherwise they could end up being oily.

Sometimes water is written on the label of baby wipes in its Latin form, 'aqua', according to the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) standard.

Cleaning agents: to make wipes clean well

Some of these are surfactants (or solubilisers), including coco-glucoside and lauryl glucoside, to lower surface tension between the liquid and solid ingredients of the wipes so they glide across the skin more easily.

Surfactants are commonly found in cleaning products, including laundry detergents, washing-up liquid and shampoo.

However, Dr Hextall, says: 'Surfactants that help to remove unwanted soiling are at extremely low levels - much lower than those found in shampoos or soaps. This is so they can remove unwanted oils without removing skin lipids that protect the delicate skin barrier.'

For example, glyceryl stearate at a concentration of 1 to 2% has been shown in studies to cause very little skin irritation. Other cleaning agents include PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil, sorbitan caprylate, polysorbate 20 and disodium cocoamphodiacetate.

Preservative - to keep wipes fresh

Dr Hextall says: 'In order to prevent colonisation with bacteria and yeast, baby wipes need a preservative. but there are clear rules regarding this. For example, MI and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are rarely found in wipes now.'

Examples of preservatives that are low in irritation and allergy include sodium benzoate at 0.5% and potassium sorbate at 0.6%.

Other preservatives you might find in wipes include sodium sulphite and caprylyl glycol, as well as phenoxyethanol which helps to protect the gap in the container above the wipes against microbes where condensation may gather.

Fragrance: to counteract nappy-changing odours

Opting for a fragranced or unfragranced baby wipe is a matter of personal choice.

Dr Olioso suggests staying away from fragranced products when using them for babies as much as possible.

She suggests that if in doubt, buy products with the Allergy UK accreditation (such as Mamamy or Water Wipes) to ensure a third party has evaluated the product.

Moisturiser: to nourish the skin while cleaning

Dr Hextall says: 'Baby wipes should contain moisturisers and humectants that help to hydrate and protect the skin barrier.'

Some wipes are more moisturising than others. 'Aveeno wipes contain several moisturisers, including oatmeal (Avena sativa), and seems to be more skin nourishing than other brands,' says Dr Olioso.

Other moisturisers in baby wipes include cetearyl isononanoate and capric triglyceride, as well the catchily named BIS-PEG/PPG-16/16 PEG/PPG-16/16 dimethicone, which is both a moisturiser and an emulsifier.

pH buffers: to ensure mildness

Nappy rash can occur when skin is exposed to urine and faeces, and the pH is knocked off balance.

Dr Hextall says: 'Maintaining the delicate acidic pH of baby skin is important and, as such, contents of baby wipes need to respect this.'

Acidic pH buffering agents help to prevent skin irritation and studies have shown that baby wipes with sufficient pH buffering capacity help to restore the pH balance of the skin to what it should be when it is clean.