Dr. Greene’s Answer:
I’ve heard this from doctors, grandparents, neighbors, and friends. I’ve read it in patient handouts and heard it on the radio. Are those innocent-looking white bubbles really so dastardly? Does this mean no more towering bubble hairdos? No more foamy-white bubble sculptures? No more under-bubble adventures?
Bubbles and troubles were linked in dire rhyme by the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Are they linked in other ways as well?
- Bubble baths can cause frequent urination and a burning sensation during urination in some children.
- Urinary tract infections can cause frequent urination and burning with urination in some children.
I’m not surprised that suspicions would lead to guilt-by-association. But I’ve seen no credible evidence that bubble baths cause urinary tract infections – or that urinary tract infections cause bubble baths!
Instead, bacteria and bubbles can irritate the glistening lining of the urethra – as can soaps, shampoos, dyes, fragrances, skin products, fabric softeners, and chlorinated pool water.
Irritation of the urethra triggers frequent urination as part of the body’s effort to cleanse and protect itself. This is especially important, because the burning sensation caused by urine flowing over inflamed tissue might otherwise lead children to “hold it in” until the last possible moment – or beyond.
“There is no substantiation for the hypothesis… that tub bathing or bubble bath are causes of urinary tract infection. Bubble bath and other harsh detergents certainly can cause dysuria [discomfort during urination], but not infection.”1
Toxic bubbles? Poison control centers get thousands of calls a year about children who swallow “bath oils or bubble bath”. In 1998 there were 9,124 calls. Two of these were significant. No one died. Even if all the calls had been about bath bubbles rather than bath oils, this would put bubble bath safer than soap, shampoo, or sunscreen.2
Bubble bath certainly can irritate the skin of some children, especially those with the sensitive skin of atopic dermatitis (eczema). The skin of the genital area is often the most sensitive. But bubble bath is not the only culprit. Foods, pets, house dust, wet bathing suits, and summer heat can be at least as irritating.
If a child has frequent urination, vaginal burning or itching, vaginal discharge, labial adhesions, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, or eczema, I do recommend considering a bubble bath embargo (and/or changing soaps etc.) to reduce possible irritation.
But for happy children with healthy skin, I see no reason to forgo fresh strawberries, moist-nosed puppies, thick carpets, hot summer fun, or the delights of bubble baths.
I see no reason to throw out the bathwater. Now, what’s the story about eye of newt and toe of frog?
1New Advances in Childhood Urinary Tract Infections. Pediatrics in Review Volume 20 • Number 10 • October 1999
21998 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers Toxic Exposure Surveillance System. American Journal of Emergency Medicine Volume 17 • Number 5 • September 1999