Are Bubble Baths Safe For Girls, Or Do They Cause UTIs?

Got another great question recently (keep them coming, readers; I love answering these!):

I’ve heard that girls shouldn’t take bubble baths because they can get urinary tract infections. I have some around the house, though, and in a moment of weakness, I let my toddler use it. Now she wants a bubble bath all the time! The package says it’s “safe for girls” but I am not sure what chemical it is that gives them UTIs so I find the whole thing confusing. Is it safe to use bubble bath for a girl?

This is an interesting case of some old and erroneous research that’s been propagated in the medical field (and among women) for several decades. Back in the 1960s and 70s, a few studies suggested that bubble baths caused urinary tract infections (UTIs) in girls (see, for example, Neumann et al). This belief has continued to show up in more recent journal articles for medical professionals. The truth is that while it’s certainly possible for soaps, fragrances, and other chemicals in bubble bath to irritate the vulva (Modgil et al) and urethra (see, for example, Johnson et al, Santen et al), there isn’t any scientific support for them causing UTI.

A study of college-age women examined a number of potential risk factors for UTI (including bubble baths, diaphragm use, tampon use, sexual activity, and various hygiene practices), and concluded that only diaphragm use was reasonably correlated with increased urinary infection risk (Strom et al). A 2006 meta-analysis (study of studies) revealed that while many pediatricians advise parents to avoid bubble baths for female children, there is no reasonable scientific support for the notion of a connection between the two (Modgil et al). Indeed, despite the lack of scientific evidence, a survey of health care professionals and women noted that both groups believed there was a link between bubble baths and UTIs (Rink).

It’s possible that the mistaken belief about bubble baths and urinary infections comes from the tendency of some healthcare practitioners and researchers to view children as “little adults” (Todd). In fact, however, signs and symptoms of UTIs are not the same in little girls as they are in adult women; one of the most notable differences is that while adult women often experience dysuria (painful urination) with UTI, most girls do not (Santen et al). The ability of frequent bubble baths to cause urethral or vulvar irritation in some girls and women, which can in turn lead to painful urination, combines with the mistaken belief that painful urination typically indicates a UTI in a young girl to produce the erroneous notion of a bubble bath/UTI link. In the end, however, with no reasonable scientific support for a link, Modgil et al sum up the risk-to-benefit analysis nicely, in saying:

We believe that the enjoyment of bubble baths outweighs the limited evidence of their proposed harm.

There is, of course, the question of whether some bubble bath products might produce less skin, vulvar, and urethral irritation than others. Very sensitive children and those with allergies to specific chemicals may be more likely to react to any given product. Still, some bubble baths are milder than others, with fragrance-free varieties almost always ranking milder than those containing fragrance. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a somewhat reactionary organization that likely overestimates the toxicity of and risk associated with chemicals, as I discuss in this post. Still, they provide a nice guide to various personal care products — bubble bath included — that at the very least can be used to determine which of the bubble baths on the market are most mild.

Science Bottom Line:* There is simply no scientific evidence to support the notion that bubble baths increase a girl’s risk of urinary tract infection. Children with sensitivities may do better with a milder product, however, as well as less frequent use. Because bubble baths can cause irritation to the skin and female genitals, it may be reasonable to consider rinsing with plain water after a bubble bath.

 

Do you let your little girl take bubble baths? What’s your favorite type?

 

References:

Johnson et al. New advances in childhood urinary tract infections. Pediatr Rev. 1999 Oct;20(10):335-42; quiz 343.

Modgil et al. Should bubble baths be avoided in children with urinary tract infections? Arch Dis Child. 2006 Oct;91(10):863-5.

Neumann et al. Constipation and urinary tract infection. Pediatrics. 1973 Aug;52(2):241-5.

Rink, E. Risk factors for urinary tract symptoms in women: beliefs among general practitioners and women and the effect on patient management. Br J Gen Pract. 1998 Apr;48(429):1155-8.

Santen et al. Pediatric urinary tract infection. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2001 Aug;19(3):675-90.

Strom et al. Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and other risk factors for symptomatic and asymptomatic bacteriuria. A case-control study. Ann Intern Med. 1987 Dec;107(6):816-23.

Todd, J. Management of urinary tract infections: children are different. Pediatr Rev. 1995 May;16(5):190-6.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Penny
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 00:09:17

    I used to take bubble baths all the time. I used kids bubble bath, made for extra bubbles 🙂 But when my aunt gave me some adult, scented bubble bath I got a yest infection.

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Apr 08, 2013 @ 08:11:19

      Could be a coincidence, but in general, scented products are going to be more irritating to delicate tissue, which can cause inflammation that can feel like a yeast infection.

      Reply

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