Reports are appearing that suggests that baby wet wipes are associated with food allergy developments in babies. The underlying research is a bit more complicated than that, and it comes with some important caveats.
A team, led by Northwestern University, note that food allergies often crop up earlier in life, but the mechanisms that trigger food allergies aren’t all that clear. Certainly, they’re erroneous reactions to your immune system as it encounters harmless proteins – which it recognizes as threats – and those who already have other allergic conditions, like asthma, are more likely to develop food allergies, as are those with a family history of them.
Plenty, however, remains enigmatic. This new study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, attempted to find out what these underlying initiation mechanisms may be. To do that, it zeroed in on the skin barrier.
It’s generally thought that anything that compromises the integrity of the skin barrier and allows multiple allergens through perpetuates inflammation, and leads to atopic dermatitis, commonly known as eczema. This includes, but isn’t limited to, mutations in skin barrier genes.
The authors of the new study note that patients with eczema are often more reactive to various other allergies, including skin yeast and house dust mite allergens, perhaps because potential allergens are better able to pass through the skin. Dermatologists have previously suggested that eczema is a “strong precursor” to food allergies, so do skin barrier mutations contribute to the development of food allergies too?
In order to find out for themselves, the team turned to neonatal (newborn) mice, those with detrimental skin barrier mutations. Simply exposing their skin to various food allergens, including peanuts, however, didn’t seem to induce any noticeable effect.
The team then happened upon the idea of using techniques that resemble cleansing wipes used on human infants. Although good at annihilating surficial pathogens, the sodium lauryl sulfate in said wipes disrupt the fat-based segments of the skin barrier.
Replicating this effect with baby mice, the team then exposed them to various allergen particles, including those found in various foodstuffs, like eggs and peanuts, along with dust-borne allergens. After several weeks, they were given eggs or peanuts to eat, and quickly experienced mild to severe allergic reactions at the site of skin exposure, and within the gut.
The study concludes “that changes in barrier function drive development of anaphylaxis [severe allergic reactions] to food allergen.” So does this mean that human babies also get food allergies through a potential overuse of wet wipes? Well, we can’t say for sure at present.
What this study shows is that they seem to play an important role in breaking down the skin barrier in mice with already existing skin barrier mutations, but it’s not clear how comparable this is to human skin barrier mutations.
It’s also worth noting that mutations and exposure to dust-borne allergens were both required to engender allergic reactions, which complicates matters further: You can’t simply say wet wipes are dangerous. Additionally, offspring of allergic mothers had elevated allergic response, which adds credence to the hereditary idea.
In short, plenty more research is required. In the meantime, this study’s lead author suggested via press release that we should limit the use of infant wipes that leave soap lingering on the skin, just in case.