Create an Eco-Chic Nursery

From toys to cribs, harmful toxins lurk in some of the most popular products for children. Here’s what you need to know to keep your baby safe.
By Jodi Helmer

Pick the right paint
Choose paint with low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to protect your baby from breathing in these harmful chemicals, which are commonly found in regular paint. If you opt for a low-VOC paint, choose one with a VOC level of less than 10 mg per liter.

Know your flooring
Carpet backing is treated with flame-retardant chemicals, which end up in the dust particles in the room. Carpet also off-gasses carcinogens like xylene and benzene, which can trigger allergies and other respiratory problems. Opt for hardwood floors instead. If you do use carpeting, choose a vacuum with a HEPA filter to help keep exposure to dust mites and other allergens to a minimum. Also, use nontoxic cleansers so harmful residues don’t make their way into your baby’s lungs.

Find the safest furniture
Changing tables, dressers, and rocking chairs made from plywood, laminated wood, chipboard, or particleboard contain high levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen that causes headaches, respiratory irritation, and skin rashes in both adults and kids. Choose solid-wood furniture with no- or low-VOC paints and finishes, or buy unfinished furniture and coat it yourself with water-based sealers.

Avoid toxic toys
The iconic rubber ducky gets up to 50 percent of its weight from phthalates, chemicals linked to cancer and obesity. Phthalates are also known endocrine disrupters, which means they can interfere with the hormones that regulate masculinity and femininity. Many plastic toys contain heavy metals as well, so choose phthalate- and BPA-free plastic toys, or ones made from wood or organic cotton.

Buy BPA-free bottles
Plastic bottles, sippy cups, and plastic-lined formula cans contain bisphenol-A (BPA), which makes plastic clear and shatterproof. BPA has been linked to birth defects, cancer, abnormal genital development, and early onset of puberty. Glass bottles contain no harmful chemicals, making them the best option for your baby. If you prefer plastic, look for bottles that are labeled phthalate- and BPA-free, such as the Adiri Natural Nurser or BornFree brands.

Choose the right car seat
Car seats often contain heavy metals, formaldehyde, and chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that are known carcinogens and allergens. While some of these products are unavoidable—for example, a car seat that doesn’t contain PVC isn’t going to be safe—less-toxic alternatives do exist. Ecology Center, an environmental group in Michigan, tested 62 different infant car seats and two emerged as clear, toxin-free winners: the Graco SnugRide and the EvenFlo Discovery.

Select the best crib mattress
Until recently, all crib mattresses contained chemical-based fire retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in order to meet safety standards. Unfortunately, these materials can give off potentially harmful chemicals that at high levels can harm a child’s development. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued new standards so that crib mattresses would be made with fewer chemicals. To steer clear of toxins completely, go for a crib mattress made entirely from natural and organic raw materials like coconut fibers, lambswool, or organic cotton.

Decide what diapers you’ll use
When it comes to diapering, the war between disposable and cloth rages on. Landfill-clogging disposables contain chemicals and absorptive gels that may release carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting toxins. Cloth diapers have their own environmental drawbacks, however, such as the fuel it takes for the diaper service to deliver them and all the water it takes to clean them. If you choose to use disposable diapers, try chlorine-free varieties from companies like gDiaper and Seventh Generation.

Baby your baby’s skin
Scented babycare products, such as shampoo, soap, lotion, and wipes, often contain phthalates (in addition to making plastic more flexible, these chemicals also bind fragrances and color in personal care products). Babycare products commonly contain parabens as well, which have been linked to certain types of cancer. Also take a pass on products containing ingredients such as sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates, propylene glycol, petroleum, and mineral oil, all of which can cause health problems ranging from skin irritation to cancer.

Baby-Proof Your Cleaning Routine
What good is bringing baby home to a beautiful, eco-friendly nursery if you’re scouring your home with harmful chemicals? In Sara Snow’s Fresh Living (Random House, 2009), the green-living expert and host of the TV shows Living Fresh and Get Fresh With Sara Snow shares her list of ingredients to avoid in cleaning products:
Alkyl phenoxy ethanols are suspected hormone disrupters common in detergents, disinfectants, and all-purpose cleaners.
Ammonia can be extremely irritating to respiratory passages. It’s a common laundry room staple.
Butyl cellosolve is a liver and kidney neurotoxin and a lung and tissue irritant. It is found in all-purpose cleaners, window cleaners, and scouring powders.
Crystalline silica is a carcinogen that can be found in scouring powders and all-purpose cleaners.
Dioxane is a carcinogen and immunosuppressant found in detergents, soaps, and window cleaners.
Ethylene glycol is a neurotoxin found in all-purpose cleaners.
Glycol ethers are a group of solvents that are reproductive toxins and liver and kidney neurotoxins. This solvent group is often in window cleaners, all-purpose sprays, and scouring powders.
Sodium lauryl and laureth sulfates are skin irritants that can lead to dermatitis. Both are common sudsing agents found in many soaps and detergents.
Synthetic fragrances are especially bad because they contain toxic phthalates, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and asthma.

Greener Cleaners We Love
No time to decipher labels? Here are 5 trusted nontoxic cleansers:
1. Clorox Green Works Natural Biodegradable Cleaning Wipes. These disposable cloths are made with natural cleansers—a great solution to inevitable kid spills. $5.99, 62-count canister;
2. Ecover Hand Soap. Being a parent means washing your hands—a lot—and this plant-based formula containing aloe vera makes it that much more easier on our skin. $6.50, 8.4 oz;
3. EcoDiscoveries Nursery Gentle Cleanser. This pH-balanced formula is much gentler than most all-purpose cleansers. Even better, the starter pack is a just-add-water 32-ounce empty bottle, with a 2-ounce bottle of concentrated cleaner, making the packaging gentle on the planet, too. $6.99 for starter pack;
4. Earth Friendly Products Baby Liquid Laundry Soap. Specially formulated for sensitive skin, this detergent is a hypoallergenic, neutral pH soap that still gets out the toughest stains. $6.99 for 50 oz;
5. Earth Friendly Products Everyday Stain & Odor Remover. Something you’ll want to stash in every room of your house, you can use this stain remover on everything from your couch to your carpets to your little one’s clothes. $5.59 for 22 oz;