A Florida mom has caused an online firestorm after linking her daughter's seizures to ingredients in sunscreen — a claim that went viral, but which experts told BuzzFeed News has no scientific backing.
The post by Alyssa Rackley in a private Facebook group for moms — in which she theorized that her baby daughter's seizures could be a reaction to chemicals in Babyganics sunscreen — has led to an outpouring of concern from parents online. They are flooding the brand's social media pages with messages and posting warnings to other parents against using its products.
The firestorm reached such a tipping point that the company issued a statement in response to the allegations last week, telling customers the ingredients it uses are "safe and effective" according to the FDA.
"We take this extremely seriously as no ingredient in our formulas has been shown to cause seizures, and we sincerely hope the parent will get in touch with us directly so we can better understand the story and help in any way we can," a spokesperson for the brand told BuzzFeed News.
Experts told BuzzFeed News that despite the concerns over the two ingredients Rackley mentioned, octisalate and octinoxate, there is no scientific evidence that the chemicals have ever had any negative effect on children. Furthermore, the company said it recently stopped using one of the chemicals, octinoxate, in its sunscreen. But the brand said it made this change due to concerns about the chemical's effects on ocean reefs rather than the safety of children.
"Both octinoxate and octisalate have long histories as sunscreen ingredients and are approved for use by the FDA," the company spokesperson said.
The online outrage against the company began when Rackley, a hairstylist and aesthetician from Florida, shared her experience online.
Rackley told BuzzFeed News she had spent two days at the pool with her 7-month-old baby, and afterward she noticed her child "spacing out a little." After noticing her daughter spacing out again and her hands tremoring over the weekend, she said, she brought her baby to a doctor who asked if they had used sunscreen.
Rackley said she began researching octisalate and octinoxate, the chemicals in the Babyganics sunscreen she had put on her child. She said she found "evidence of neurotoxic and endotoxic symptoms from the exposure to those chemicals," which she added are present in other sunscreens as well. She wrote online that she read that once "chemical sunscreen" is absorbed into a child's bloodstream in large amounts, it can be "neurotoxic," which, as she wrote, "could possibly have caused my daughter to have Petit Mal seizures, also called absence seizures."
"Babies are so pure, everything we put on them affects them so much more than us," she said.
Her baby underwent an EEG to check her brain activity for any medical disorders, which came back normal. Rackley said she chose not to do a toxicology test because she didn't want to "subject her to more poking and prodding than I believed she needed."
However, she did post about her experience on Facebook. Initially, she shared it to a private group for moms but later agreed to be tagged in a public post about it once it gained traction in the group.
"Please pay attention to what you are putting on your babies! I thought I was making one of the best choices picking Babyganics but I was sadly mistaken. I in no way am trying to bash Babyganics but I just wanted to share my experience in hopes of preventing this from happening to another baby," she wrote.
She added: "I’m not claiming Babyganics caused my daughter's issues, but in the midst of our research to find the cause we came across the toxicity of these ingredients and wanted to share with other parents."
A woman named Paige Harris, who didn't return a request for comment from BuzzFeed News, reshared Rackley's message in a public post on Facebook. She wrote that she wanted to share publicly on her page to "get the word out to family and friends" and noted, like Rackley, that octisalate and octinoxate are used in many sunscreens besides Babyganics.
Harris also wrote, "Please don’t assume these chemicals are the cause of any symptoms without further testing."
Harris deleted her post this week, but it had already spread like wildfire. Her post caused a frenzy among people on Facebook, and it has been shared more than 84,000 times. The more than 34,000 comments are filled with women tagging their friends and family, apparently to inform or warn them about the chemicals.
"Maybe this is why Mathias has been so werid [sic] lately? I’m buying different sunscreen in the morning," one person wrote.
"I’ve been using this head to toe all week at the river and I am SO sick, I wonder if it messed up my immune system.. what a bummer. Throwing it in the trash for sure," wrote another.
The controversy soon made its way to Instagram, where more people started to post against the brand.
However, scientists told BuzzFeed News that the claims Rackley makes in the post have no scientific backing and that neither ingredient has ever been linked to seizures or any issue with children.
Dr. Henry W. Lim, an expert on sunscreen ingredients with the American Academy of Dermatology, told BuzzFeed News that both octisalate and octinoxate are both FDA-approved ultraviolet light filters that are used in many sunscreens in the US.
Lim said neither chemical has ever caused any "known problem or danger" in children, nor has either ingredient been associated with any reported neurological side effect. He said both are commonly used in the US "without any reported internal side effects." According to Lim, recent studies have found that these chemicals "could be detected in blood after application on skin," but there is no information yet on what that exactly means.
"FDA considers these to be safe and effective based on current information," he said.
Lim said that the current recommendation is for parents to not use sunscreen on babies under the age of 6 months, but rather dress them in clothing that covers them while outside. The FDA recommends that parents keep infants this young out of the sun as an "infant’s exposure to the chemicals in sunscreens may be much greater, increasing the risk of side effects from the sunscreen.”
Other people online also began to try to debunk the claims. Erin, who blogs at Food Science Babe, began posting on Instagram about why the claims were false to her more than 75,000 followers. Erin, who asked to be identified by her first name in this story, told BuzzFeed News she decided to speak out against it after getting messages about it from multiple followers.
"My first reaction was, wow, I can't believe this is going viral and that so many people are just believing a single anecdote based on no scientific evidence whatsoever," she said.
Erin has a degree in chemical engineering and has worked in the food industry for over a decade as a food scientist and engineer. Her account mainly focuses on misinformation surrounding food and the food industry, but she decided to tackle the sunscreen post because she "didn't see anyone debunking this one, so I decided to do so before it got too out of hand."
Erin said she wants her followers, and any parent worried after reading Rackley's post, to know that one anecdotal account is not scientific evidence.
"There is no evidence that these ingredients are harmful at the amounts used in sunscreen as well as no evidence that they cause seizures, either," she said. "Sunscreens are regulated by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug and are subject to extensive regulations — even more so than cosmetics and most skincare products."
The spokesperson for Babyganics told BuzzFeed News that the company has been working to get in touch with those who posted the allegations, but "we appear to be blocked." The company is asking Rackley to get in touch with it directly.
"We take this extremely seriously as no ingredient in our formulas has been shown to cause seizures," the spokesperson said.
Babyganics said it uses "both mineral/physical and chemical active sunscreen ingredients" in its formulations and reiterated that its sunscreens followed all FDA guidelines.
"We make sure all our products (and each and every ingredient that goes into them) are the kind of products that we would use on our own children," the spokesperson said. "We want to reassure our community that the safety of our products and the little ones who use them is our number one priority."
In the comments of her post, Rackley shared a kids bath products brand she uses called Tubby Todd and provided a discount code for others to try it. However, she told BuzzFeed News she has no formal partnership with the company and only shared the code, which any customer can get, because she liked the brand.
"The mommy shaming got intense, as many people called me a liar and said I was trying to sell another product," Rackley said of the comments on Facebook, "so I decided to turn off notifications for the post and just let it go."
She said, "[If] my post helped even just one family, that’s enough for me."
She added, "The US allows thousands of ingredients to be used in our health and beauty products that are banned in many other countries. We as individuals need to do our due diligence before we put things on our children and ourselves as some of the harmful chemicals have even been found in breastmilk. I believe this is a much bigger concern than just sunscreen."
On her Facebook page for Food Science Babe, Erin implored her followers to not share misinformation online. She wrote that even if people do not mean to, sharing their personal anecdotes can lead to confusion and misinformation once it goes viral.
"We have enough to worry about right now, please don’t add to it with false information and scare stories," she wrote.