Thinkbaby’s Kevin Brodwick on BPA & Sunscreen

As any first time mom would attest, we are nervous about everything. From germs, to chemicals, to food, you want to do everything right.  When it came time to pick a bottle for my son, I knew there was no other choice but thinkbaby.  I met Kevin Brodwick, the founder of thinkbaby, on one of his California tours. I was so taken in by his passion for his product and his impressive knowledge about all the up to date studies.  Like me, much of his inspiration came from his father.  He was concerned about the chemicals that were being used in baby bottles and was committed to creating the purest bottle option that was accessible and affordable to everyone. Creating the safest bottle for our children fueled his mission. When I decided to start this Behind the Product series, I knew he would be the first of our vendors that I would want you to meet.  In spite of being in the middle of a new product launch, Kevin was nice enough to sit down and answer some of my questions, as well as some of the most frequently asked questions we get asked at Sprout San Francisco.  I know you will be impressed by his background and the inspiring, honest approach that made me trust and stand by thinkbaby bottles. I hope Kevin’s commentary will encourage you try thinkbaby as well!

Kevin Brodwick – thinkbaby

Please introduce yourself and tell me about your background.  Why were you drawn to this industry?  Where did you work before? How and why did you start thinkbaby?

I started thinkbaby and thinksport in January of 2007.  Prior to launching the company, I worked for a laboratory funded by the National Institutes of Health.  We examined consumer products from all over the world to determine if they were leaching estrogenic activity, which is the largest form of endocrine disruption.   It didn’t matter if the products were made in the US, Switzerland, Canada or China, the issue was everywhere.  After unsuccessfully trying to convince major baby bottle companies to seek alternatives, I decided to launch thinkbaby and thinksport.  However, my love for science started much earlier.  My mother is an epidemiologist and my father was a neuro-scientist.  In addition to teaching medical school and conducting science all over the world, my father taught art history, music theory, and taught himself Japanese.  He actually became fluent enough to give lectures in Japan in Japanese.  Growing up, we continually had famous scientists and artists visiting. Needless to say, most dinner conversations were over my head.  I once had a Nobel Prize winner tell me, “Your father forgets more than I know when he sleeps.” thinkbaby and thinksport was my way of bringing relevant science into products that we engage with everyday.  As such, we are committed to following the lead of real scientists.   There are over 80,000 chemicals in current use.  Most of these chemicals have not been fully vetted for their carcinogenic, reproductive or neuro toxicity.  So consumers inadvertently become a part of a chemical experiment.  Unfortunately, we aren’t made aware of potential hazards until some part of the population or environment is effected by the use of these chemicals.   

What is the history of BPA?  Hasn't it been around for a while?  I am sure we all grew up around it, so why all the recent fuss?  What are the latest findings?

BPA has been around for over 100 years.  The research on the effects of BPA has linked it to everything from increased cancer potential to infertility, obesity, Type II diabetes, and neurological disorders.  There have been over a 100 studies conducted by scientists across the world.  There have been a dozen or so industry funded studies that show no effect.  One of the hardest things about doing reliable studies around chemicals is that nobody is going to willingly offer up their child to see if the chemicals have some effect.  In the case of hormone disrupting chemicals, it is possible for the effect not to be seen in the child but appear in the child’s offspring. While these studies have been repeated in animal studies, it is incredibly difficult to conduct multi-generational studies involving humans. 

We post on our Facebook page the latest relevant science from BPA concerns to breakthroughs in novel medicine.  To be clear, thinkbaby and thinksport does not conduct science.  We pay close attention to research studies and the efficacy of those studies.  We also think it is important to understand who is sponsoring the study and if there are any conflicts of interest. 

There are certainly two schools out there.  Some folks like to stay very connected to the latest science and health information.  However, with the speed that everyone is working these days, it is not always possible to stay ahead of the latest health information. This is one of the reasons that places like Whole Foods markets have taken off.   Consumers have confidence that Whole Foods is working hard to make sure that their products adhere to strict quality standards.  And having worked directly with their science team, I can assure you they are continually on the case.  We hope that thinkbaby and thinksport also provide consumers with the same level of confidence.  But we didn’t want to earn people’s trust through scaring them into buying our product.  We simply want to be an alternative. If someone wants more of the science, it is available on our site, but it’s not something that we lead with.

What does BPA free really mean? Is there a percentage or criteria that something must abide by to qualify as BPA FREE?

To date, there hasn’t been a defined number for what BPA free means.  Hopefully this will change very soon with the legislation contained in The Safe Chemicals Act which will begin defining this further. We have also noted that there needs to be further definition of “Lead free” as well.  The US and EU standards still allow for particulates of lead in paint.  When you ask consumers about lead in paint everyone seems to think that it doesn’t exist in paint anymore.  It took us two years to find lead free paint so that we could offer colored sports bottles.   The test protocols would make it easy for companies to mask the true amounts of lead in their paint.  As an example, we don’t test the paint on the product to see what leaches off, which is the testing standard.  We test the paint in its “wet” format.  So the concentrations are extremely high and don’t rely on something coming off the bottle.

When it comes to plastics why is yours the safest? 

In 2009 the Government of Canada (Health Canada) pulled  “BPA free” baby bottles off the shelf to see if they were actually BPA free.  None of the manufacturers were aware of the test until it was made public.  Initially the government didn’t release the names of the companies that were tested.  They were simply trying to make the point that not all BPA free bottles were actually BPA free.  The Canadian public demanded the release of the results, and Health Canada released the results a week later.  Thinkbaby was the only bottle to be 100% BPA free.  The results of the testing can be found here.  Interestingly, we field questions about why we produce some of our products overseas as there is an assumption if it were made in the US it would be safer, but in Health Canada’s study, the bottle made in the U.S. posted the highest level of BPA. 

Your bottles are now made out of polypropylene.  So all plastic must not be bad.  However they did start out as PES. Was there a problem with it or were you just cutting costs to create an affordable safe bottle?

The bottles started out PES.  We were concerned that parents would associate milky plastics as not being pure or safe.  So we launched with a high end medical grade plastic called PES.  Many companies followed our lead from Avent to Born free.  Our mission though is to produce products that are accessible to all demographics.  In fact, lower socio-economic groups carry a larger chemical burden as they cannot afford to purchase organic foods or products that have not been heavily processed.   We launched the polypropylene version of our line approximately 3 years ago.  The formulation is not only safe and affordable, but can be easily recycled after use.  Our Starter Set is one of the most economical fully featured sets on the market.

In terms of safety how does your plastic bottle compare to using glass bottles?  One would assume that by using glass we would be avoiding the possibility of BPA all together.  Why did you choose to make a plastic bottle instead of glass?

We did consider having a glass option.  But there were two things keeping us from making the move. First, it was brought to our attention by Dr. Theo Colborn (the author of Our Stolen Future), that some forms of glass contain BPA.   BPA is often used as a clarifier.  Glass baby bottle companies should be testing for BPA in glass and not making assumptions.  The other major reason is that glass solutions have to be particularly thick to be able to pass testing requirements.  We didn’t think children would like handling heavy solutions.    Since we have a safe plastic, which is lightweight and economical, we think we have a combination that most parents are looking for.

Where is thinkbaby made?

Thinkbaby’s products are made in a number of countries actually. We have carefully selected facilities that would agree to adhere to our chemical standards policy.  Our baby bottles are made in Taiwan.  Feeding Sets are made in South Korea (except the spoon and fork) and we produce the sunscreen in the US.  We use third party audit firms and testing firms to ensure that the facilities produce to our specs.  What tends to get companies in trouble is that they don’t pay attention to the output.  While we would like to produce the products here in the States, we were dismayed by both the technology available in the US and the extreme push back we received in trying to get manufacturers to agree to meet to our standards.  It was not a surprise to us that the one bottle in the Health Canada study that tested the highest for BPA was actually made in the USA.  Sadly, the US is behind in the creation of strict standards.  Even China has banned BPA and has shut down over a dozen facilities producing products with the chemical.

Why did you think there was a need for another bottle?  What did you feel was not out there that was necessary and that you could do better?

While I worked for the National Institutes of Health funded lab, I reached out to the major baby bottle companies to attempt to convince them to seek alternatives.  With cigarettes there is no safe cigarette, but the case is simply not the case with plastics. There are alternative plastics that are safe.  So it wasn’t that we were telling them that they would have to stop producing product or even have to use something more expensive.  Since we received push back, I took it upon myself to develop a company that was singularly focused on the issue.   In the span of 4 years the BPA Free baby bottle world went from a couple of producers to almost 40 baby bottle companies.  Since then a large number of the companies have folded under the competition.   We have specialized in working with smaller retail stores and chains.  We feel that boutiques and specialty stores have a unique opportunity to provide a very valuable service in providing consumers with information.  Consumers that simply buy products from discounters are doing themselves a big disservice actually.  It limits the ability for companies like thinkbaby to bring unique and important solutions to market.

Your bottles don't have a lot of pieces. Do they still have all the venting to be used for a baby with colic?

We listened to the complaints of parents closely. There seemed to be a lot of frustration with bottle lines having a bunch of pieces in their venting systems.  Venting systems have been shown to reduce the incidence of gas and spit up.  There has also been research showing reduction in middle ear infections.  Most modern baby lines have some sort of venting systems.  Venting systems allow air to flow back into the baby bottle to reduce vacuum pressure created during feeding. In the absence of venting, the bottles would generate a lot of vacuum pressure making it difficult for babies to take in fluid.  With our unique one piece system, there is a little tube that hangs down from the bottom of the nipple.  It provides a pathway for air to travel back into the bottle.  When your little one is using the bottle, you will see little air bubbles flowing into the bottle.  We do recommend not over tightening the collar, as it will restrict air flow.   We have recently redesigned our nipples to not only increase air flow into the bottle, but to reduce the number of nipple types that parents have to concern themselves with.  We now offer Stage A (0 to 6 months) and Stage B (6 to 12 months).  Our nipple features a cross cut opening, which also reduces the chance of spillage during use or travel.  According to lactation specialists that we work with, the cross cut design is preferred as it mimics natural feeding behaviors.  The cross cut design requires that your child actually nurse in order to get fluid, as opposed to single hole nipples which provide a continuous flow.  By moving to a two stage design, it is also easier for parents to align their children with the correct flow rate based on their little one’s age.  As with all lines, these recommendations are based on general use.  Not all children feed at the same rates.  Finally, we have received a lot of great emails from parents with children with colic thanking us for a good night’s sleep.

Your second product launch was sunscreen.  Why was that the natural next step?

We began targeting sunscreen not long after we launched thinkbaby.  We were aware of some of the concerns relating to ingredients in sunscreen.  But simply knowing safe alternatives is not always enough information.  Putting a sunscreen together was complex.  In the first year, the demand for the sunscreen was off the charts.  We went through 6 productions of sunscreen in hours of each release.  But we felt like we could do better than the formulation that we had.  The original formula was very white on the skin and had a fairly oily feel to it.  We are always tinkering and perfecting our products.  While chasing perfection is unattainable, we would prefer to continually improve our line, while also bringing novel solutions to market.   The moment we launched thinkbaby’s line of safe baby bottles, we received a ton of requests from parents for an alternative sports bottle that was BPA Free.  We anticipated this, so we were able to launch thinksport’s line of insulated sports bottles shortly after.  We then began expanding the baby line to include our award winning sippy cups, highly sustainable feeding sets, and recently our straw version of our sippy cup – the thinkster.  We also launched our line of safe yoga mats.  The yoga industry was fraught with PVC based yoga mats.  PVC is one of the worst materials out there from i
s initial production all the way to its disposal.  In general, thinkbaby and thinksport target consumer product areas that we believe need alternatives.  We were the first to offer a 100% BPA Free baby bottle, the first to offer a BPA free insulated sports bottle and the first sunscreen to pass Whole Foods’ premium care requirements.  Consumers are beginning to understand our company’s focus and determination.   In some cases, we have been successful in convincing the incumbent company to make changes to their products, which is great.  In a perfect world, thinkbaby and thinksport don’t exist because companies are just naturally creating all of their products with strict policies. 

What makes your sunscreen different and in your assessment superior?

Our formulation utilizes one active ingredient – zinc oxide.  And we use a high percentage – 20%.  While this may conjure up an image of the old lifeguard nose, we have worked with our formulation to make sure that it disperses well. So it applies very evenly and absorbs almost clear.  This is especially difficult to do without using nano particles. There is a lot of concern in the science world over nano particles and their ability to not only penetrate the skin, but have the ability to have biological effects. We’ve seen some concerning research relating to nano particle titanium dioxide. We follow the precautionary principle when we develop products.  We don’t use a material just because it is, for example, BPA Free and not understand if the new material has any biological issues.  The ingredients basically read more like a food product than a sunscreen, which was one of our goals.  We don’t use petroleum in the product, UV chemical absorbers, PABA or parabens.  Due to the amount of zinc oxide our formulation also falls into the category of broad spectrum for both UVA and UVB.  Our formulation also falls into the category of water resistant (80 minutes), which is the highest level of water resistance defined by the FDA.  Actually of all of the product areas that we are in, sun care has the most false marketing of any segment that we’ve been in.  This is largely because it faced very little in regulation. The FDA has stepped in this year and has made some significant progress.  For 2012, companies will not be allowed to market sunscreen over SPF 50+.  Consumers were being misled by super inflated SPF values.  There are also terms like water proof and sweat proof which are no longer allowed. There was a great piece in the NYTimes which illustrated the changes.  For 2012, we suspect that there is going to be even greater attention made to ingredients and safety, as the industry gets reeled back in.  One other aspect of our formulations which is totally unique is that a portion of our proceeds goes to LIVESTRONG’s fight against cancer.  To our knowledge this is the first time that a product designed to be preventative to cancer is also providing a donation stream back to the fight.  What statement could be scarier than hearing that you have just been diagnosed with cancer? We strongly believe in LIVESTRONG’s work to provide hope and real information from the newly diagnosed to survivors.  We believe in Corporate Social Responsibility.  It’s a path that Patagonia has done a tremendous amount around.  While we push for creating products for a non-toxic world, we believe it is important to give back.  We’re not a large company by any stretch, so there is no excuse for large corporations or manufacturers not being engaged.

Why is zinc so important and what makes some of the other additives of many other competitive products so dangerous? 

Zinc oxide provides natural blockage to UVA and UVB.  There are so many chemicals of concern, we could write for days.  Luckily, we don’t have to.  There is an amazing database called Skin Deep. We encourage everyone to take their lotions, cosmetics and sunscreens and punch the ingredients or the product directly into the database. The website is  EWG’s work on listing ingredients has really pushed a revolution in the cosmetic and sunscreen space. It illuminated some of the completely harmful ingredients being used by some of the most common brands.  Some companies have become savvy to the system and are creating one or two solutions that receive a “1” or “2” rating, while still offering complete lines of products that are still harmful.  They can then go out and market that they are top ranked in EWG.  We hope that consumers and advocacy groups will pick up on this.  You can’t have one foot in and one foot out.  Either you are making safe products or you’re not.  I’m not saying it is easy. There have been a number of products we wanted to create that we’ve put on hold because we couldn’t find safe alternatives. 

When do you recommend that babies should start using sunscreen and why does yours only offer SPF 30 protection?

The FDA states that sunscreen shouldn’t be worn on children before 6 months of age.  So it’s not a thinkbaby thing but an industry wide statement.  In general we always suggest sharing the ingredients of a product you are going to provide to your children (especially formulas or lotions) with your doctor.  Don’t believe claims of hypo-allergenic.  In our world, this is false marketing. There is zero chance that a company can make this claim.  The reason is that children’s allergies are on the rise. Research has linked this to the tremendous number of chemicals with which children come into contact. The increase likely starts during pregnancy and through the early years when their systems are most sensitive and quickly developing.   In regards to SPF, we were anticipating the changes by the FDA.  In doing so, we were pretty sure that they were going to move them to 30. But they only went down to 50.  The reality is that the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 100 is just a couple of percentage points.  And it doesn’t tell you anything about its ability to cover both UVA and UVB.  We tell folks that the moment that you see an SPF number above 50, it is likely a chemical based sunscreen.  The manufacturer is using UV chemicals to artificially boost the SPF numbers.