A study released by Northwestern University found that food allergies among children increased by roughly 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states food allergies rose another 5 percent from 2009 to 2011.
Today, the CDC estimates that as many as 6 percent of children in the United States are affected by a food allergy.
So, what’s causing this increase?
It turns out it could be from a variety of sources, including — of all things — baby wipes.
The results of a new study out of Northwestern University sheds some light on how food allergies might indeed develop.
The study is one of the first ever to establish what “combination of exposures” need to be prevalent to develop food allergies, said Joan Cook-Mills, PhD, lead author of the study and a professor of allergy-immunology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the study on infant mice discovered the costimulation of four exposures required to induce a food allergy, which gives important new insights into how such reactions may come about in humans.
How to induce a food allergy
The first exposure was a genetic factor — a mutation for eczema, which is similar to one prevalent in humans.
This mutation changes the skin barrier, which is how the skin absorbs substances. That includes irritants that lead to eczema.
Cook-Mills said that the researchers exposed the mice under study to the various exposures before “any visible evidence of problems with the skin.”
The second exposure was a common household environmental allergen, either house dust mites or a mold called Alternaria alternata.
“Both of those are ubiquitous in the environment and are found in house dust,” explained Cook-Mills.
In other words, babies are likely to be exposed to these environmental allergens.
The third exposure was a common food allergen. In this case, Northwestern researchers used peanuts or ovalbumin, the protein from a chicken’s egg. These two foods are among the top eight food allergens that comprise 90 percent of all food allergies.
Researchers added the peanut or ovalbumin to a saline solution and it absorbed into the mice’s skin.
In humans, these food allergens would hypothetically be passed along by a caregiver who had the substances on their hands.
The fourth exposure is soap that’s left on the skin. While Cook-Mills noted that there are several products that leave soap on a person’s skin, the most applicable substance to infants is baby wipes.
The soap left on the skin was particularly important, she explained, because it works as a conduit.
“[Soap] helps absorption of the environmental and the food allergens so the skin can take up the allergen more readily,” she explained.
After the mice in the study had all four exposures, they were given one of the food allergens “and it induced a food allergic reaction,” Cook-Mills said.
She underscored how “food on its own does not induce food allergy on the skin. You have to have the genetic mutation, the environmental factor or allergen, the food allergen, and the soap that stays on the skin.”
Should you not use baby wipes?
It’s the fourth exposure — baby wipes — which has garnered a lot of media attention.
Baby wipes alone, however, aren’t inducing food allergies.
Researchers say the four factors need to coexist, or be costimulated, together.
“The bottom line is there are four factors that we require to induce the food allergy,” Cook-Mills emphasized. “If we locked any of the four factors out, then it did not induce food allergy.”
It’s also important to underscore that the test subjects were mice, not humans.
“The exposures are ones that would be in a household and therefore may be applicable to humans, although for human studies we need further studies,” Cook-Mills said.
Nevertheless, given the impact that common food allergies can have on a child’s life, parents may understandably want to take preventive measures and think more carefully about using baby wipes.
In an email to Healthline, Dr. Erica Sonnenburg, a senior research scientist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, suggested that parents might consider cleaning their baby with water after using a wipe.
“Before this study there did not appear to be a cost to leave soap on the baby, but this study questions that assumption,” Sonnenburg said.
Now the question is “can a wet cloth or a subsequent water wash after using wipes provide the same benefit without the cost of potential autoimmune issues down the road — which is a very high cost, in my opinion,” Sonnenburg wrote.
While wipes are ubiquitous, like a lot of products geared toward babies and toddlers, they’re more convenient than necessary.
“Plenty of people around the world survive without baby wipes,” Sonnenburg continued.
A 2016 report on the global market for baby wipes stated that they’re primarily used in the United States and in European countries.
“[Wipes] are convenient but they may not be worth the convenience given the potential downside,” Sonnenburg noted.
Something else to keep in mind are the other possible environmental factors still being studied that may contribute to the increase in food allergies in children.
“The whole population can’t have changed in genetics in just 50 years, so it has to be an environmental exposure [that’s leading to more allergies],” Cook-Milles said.
Those environmental factors haven’t been “fully studied yet,” she said.