A recent study from Northwestern University adds to the evidence that exposures to allergenic foods through the skin may be a factor in the development of food allergy in some infants. But that information isn’t what has been making headlines around the globe.
Instead, the media have focused on quotes from the university’s press release, which took one piece of information out of the study’s context and has news organizations jumping to the conclusion that the use of baby wipes actually cause food allergy.
“Baby Wet Wipes ‘Cause Food Allergy,’ New Study Warns,” wrote The Telegraph, while Tech Times said “Food Allergies in Children Are Being Caused by Baby Wipes Due to Skin Exposure.” Those headlines, and numerous others, published since the release of the study on April 6, are misleading.
To help understand the important takeaways of the study and to debunk what’s not backed by science, Allergic Living spoke to New York allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer and the study’s lead author Joan Cook-Mills.
For the study, Cook-Mills and colleagues mimicked skin barrier mutations in mice. Much like infants with eczema, the animals developed dry, itchy skin after a few months of being born. When the mice were exposed to just peanut, there was no allergic reaction.
But after exposing the animals to soap (through baby wipes), dust and food allergens, the mice experienced symptoms of anaphylaxis when they were fed egg or peanut. The authors concluded that the combination of genetics that influence the onset of eczema (atopic dermatitis) along with exposure to environmental allergens and food allergens could lead to the development of food allergy.
Though he finds this a comprehensive study, “it’s not a new conclusion,” says Sicherer, who is the director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai. “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.”
He and fellow pediatric allergist Dr. David Stukus stress that this is a study based on mice. “This study conducted in lab rats does not remotely equate to baby wipes ‘causing’ food allergy,” Stukus wrote in a tweet.
When asked if parents should eliminate or limit the use of baby wipes, Sicherer isn’t sure what advice to give. “I would say I don’t know – because I’m not aware of a specific study [about baby wipes and food allergy].”
Addressing the overstated headlines about the study, Cook-Mills says, “I wouldn’t say don’t use baby wipes, I was hoping nobody went down that road.” She suggests that parents should rinse the soap off whether using baby wipes or soap and water on infants.
However, Sicherer says more research is needed before saying for certain what food allergy parents should limit from their daily routine.
“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.”
The exact causes of food allergy are unknown, but theories suggest they develop from a mix of multiple environmental and genetic factors. It’s also known that having eczema could increase the chance of developing food allergy.
“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.”
His advice: that you want to keep your baby clean and use appropriate skin care, being careful not to “scrub” that delicate skin.
The takeaway: Beware the sensational headlines that say the study links food allergy to the use of baby wipes. That has not been proved.
This study was published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
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