Every day public health officials and researchers confront the challenge of trying to help individuals make better choices to improve individual, family, and public health. We try to make messages like “wash your hands,” “don’t smoke,” “wear your seat belt,” “get exercise,” “eat a healthy diet,” and “never leave a child unattended in the bathtub,” both interesting and newsworthy, because we know from careful studies that these actions save lives and improve health, and yet not everyone does them. Most of the time we focus on alerting consumers about big risks that are not getting enough attention, but sometimes we also weigh in when people are getting distracted from the real risks by bad information, as appears to be happening now with the Pampers Dry Max diaper rash scare.
Of course if you are a parent to one of the estimated 2 million American children currently experiencing skin irritation in the diaper area - a diaper rash - or in the unlucky subset of parents of the over 200,000 children estimated to currently have a severe rash, then diaper rash is no small problem. Anything that irritates your child can ruin your day (or night!) and lead to hours of worry. You need to get good information about what to do, and if it is your first experience with a diaper rash, then while dealing with a cranky child you will also inevitably have to deal with at least a little parental guilt about whether you might have done something to cause the problem. Diaper rash is real, emotional, and it makes most parents feel bad. As a parent who works in public health, I was horrified and felt embarrassed when in spite of all of my efforts to do everything right even my kids suffered from an occasional diaper rash. The strategy that I used to find solutions the first time my child got a rash was the old tried-and-true phone call to the pediatrician, which led to the answers that I expected and needed, but more importantly also provided reassurance that diaper rash happens and I wasn’t a bad parent.
With the ability to connect on the Internet, I expected that social media would lead parents to reassure each other and share insights and solutions for common problems like diaper rash on-line, and that seems to happen. But another phenomenon also happens, which is that sometimes parents skip the call to the pediatrician and make diagnoses based on information that they get on the Internet. Sometimes they speculate about causes of a bad outcome, decide that they have identified the problem, share their hypothesis with others as if it is well-known fact, and then look for others to provide confirmation. Although individual observations are great for generating hypotheses, determining a real causal connection requires actually carefully testing the hypothesis, particularly for a problem as common as diaper rash. No one can deny the actual experience of a parent and my heart goes out to any parent whose child is suffering. As a parent you are in the best position to observe your child’s experiences and make the very best choices for your child. But when it comes to public health and product development decisions that impact large numbers of people, we need to make informed decisions based on careful study.
The companies that make diapers know that they need solid data to inform their choices about what products to put onto the market. Given my long history of working with P&G as a member of its external advisory boards on product safety and sustainability and my expertise as a children's health risk researcher, Pampers asked me to review its safety data and expert opinions for Pampers Dry Max and offer a statement. I was happy to do so, because I am confident that Pampers Dry Max diapers are safe.
Consumers express their preferences with their dollars, so before a major brand like Pampers makes a big investment in its diaper technology to improve its value for its consumers, the product development team tests the product extensively. For example, the new Pampers went through numerous internal safety and quality tests before then undergoing extensive consumer tests involving hundreds of thousands of diaper changes to look for any evidence of a change in diaper rash experiences. In comparisons between the new diaper and the old one, the experience with diaper rash was the same - no differences in the types or numbers or severity of rashes between the two groups after carefully looking. Parents who actually used the new diapers overwhelmingly preferred them to the old ones. Although the new diapers may not be better for every child, they appear to me much better for most based on the evidence.
So, you might be wondering, if the new diapers actually are an improvement, then why might people be concerned?
First, anything new raises concerns, because new means unknown, and that may seem scary. For a product as simple as a diaper, the easiest and best way to deal with uncertainty is to gain some first-hand experience. As annoying as a diaper rash can be for your child and your family, its common, easily treated, and temporary. In the scheme of things, the stakes are relatively small, and if you have a bad experience then get your money back, let the company know about it, and express your preferences by buying other products in the market.
Second, rumors have a tendency to spread, particularly if they include scary words and play on your emotions. In the case of this diaper scare, we are hearing scary words like “chemical burn” and seeing photos of irritated baby skin – what parent would not be afraid? We all need to be good consumers of health information and make sure that we get the facts, take charge of health information, and ask questions.
Third, some of the news reports suggest that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has received so many complaints that it has opened an “investigation,” but other news stories reveal that the CPSC has received only a handful of complaints. Yet anyone seeking information will not be able to find anything about this mysterious investigation on the CPSC’s website. This adds more uncertainty, since consumers are left to wonder why this important federal agency is spending taxpayer dollars investigating diaper rash. What does the CPSC know that it is not telling consumers? We are all left to wonder who we can trust, which leads to the demand for more information and more fear.
Here are some insights to consider as you sift through the information and make your own decisions: