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It smells good. It feels good on your child's skin. And all her friends are using it. But is it the healthiest choice?

When it comes to choosing shampoos, lotions, and other personal products for your kids -- or helping them make good choices -- it's not an easy question to answer. That’s because although there’s been a great deal of attention about chemicals like phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde found in many personal care products, it's not clear what the risks are, if any.

While some manufacturers are voluntarily removing a handful of controversial chemicals from their products, you'll still find a number of chemicals in everything from moisturizer to makeup. American teens and adolescents, who tend to like to experiment with new personal care products, may be getting more chemical exposure than American women. In a 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group, 20 teenage girls used 17 products a day, five more than the average U.S. woman. The study found 16 chemicals with potentially harmful health effects in blood and urine samples of the girls, aged 14 to 19.

Many parents assume that ingredients in personal care products are safe or they wouldn’t be allowed to be used. But that’s not necessarily the case, says David Andrews, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

“Premarket safety testing is not something that’s necessarily done for cosmetics or personal care products,” says Andrews. “I know it was eye-opening for me -- the lack of information on the health and safety of the chemicals that end up in our everyday products.”

Here’s a look at three of the more common controversial chemicals and the science behind whether they could be harmful to your kids.

Phthalates

Phthalates work as softeners in personal care products such as cosmetics and shampoo, as well as flexible plastics like children’s toys. Several studies -- both in animals and humans -- have found that phthalates might have some effects on hormones.

Two phthalate studies that attracted a lot of media attention were conducted by Shanna Swan, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Both looked at how phthalates exposure in pregnant women might affect their sons.

One study showed that 3- to 6-year-old boys of women who had high levels of phthalates during pregnancy were less likely to engage in “typical male” type play such as play-fighting and playing with trucks. The other study showed that 1-year-old boys of mothers in the high-phthalates group showed signs of impaired production of testosterone, the male sex hormone.

While experts agree that more research is needed to determine whether phthalate exposure affects male fertility, Swan believes that it may affect the development of boys. “We know phthalates are in these products. We know they get in our bodies. The debate comes over how risky they are,” she says. 

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