Behind the Label: Johnson’s Baby Shampoo

No more tears… but at what cost?

For many Americans, the lightly floral scent of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo brings to mind the cherubic purity of a newborn baby.

That’s why it was shocking to find that Johnson & Johnson’s popular line of baby care products contains trace amounts of known and probable carcinogens – chemicals that have been linked with cancer.

The information was brought to light by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has been calling on Johnson & Johnson to remove these chemicals from their baby products since 2009. In 2011, the Campaign organized a media blitz and boycott, which ended a few weeks later with a promise by Johnson & Johnson to phase out suspect chemicals by 2013. Then, last fall, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would be phasing out suspected carcinogens from all of its cosmetics products – a major commitment from a corporation that huge.

While the announcement is certainly a victory, it has come with its drawbacks. In being open and transparent about its efforts, Johnson & Johnson has also brought attention to the fact that its products contained potentially toxic ingredients in the first place – a fact that many consumers were previously unaware of. This week’s Behind the Label takes a look at the Johnson & Johnson’s controversy, but also at the risks involved in taking corporate social responsibility public.

The Good

With 250 subsidiaries and operations in 175 countries, Johnson & Johnson is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Its products are a roll call of household names: Band-Aids, Tylenol, Neutrogena, and, of course, Johnson’s baby products.

That’s why the news that Johnson & Johnson is removing suspected toxins from all of its cosmetics products is significant. It’s the first major commitment by a multinational pharmaceuticals corporation to remove commonly used but potentially toxic chemicals from products on a large scale.

The new policy will extend to Johnson products that are classified as “cosmetics,” with the addition of sunscreen and acne medication, and will encompass popular brands like Aveeno, Clean & Clear, Johnson’s, Lubriderm, Neutrogena, and RoC.

According to the New York Times, Johnson’s also intends to phase out other toxins and irritants, including phthalates, triclosan, and synthetic fragrances. All parabens will be removed from baby products, and some parabens will be removed from adult products.

Publicizing this new initiative was bold, but also risky. As the New York Times noted:

Johnson & Johnson’s decision requires the company to navigate a public relations tightrope, by portraying itself as willing to make extensive changes while simultaneously reassuring consumers that its existing products are safe.

Seventh Generation, which has a competing line of natural baby products, applauded Johnson & Johnson’s efforts, but noted that more needs to be done. “Johnson & Johnson’s announcement represents a start, but it’s clear that the need for sweeping systemic change that would remove all hazards from all products remains,” read a company press release. “We urge Johnson & Johnson, and all personal care and cosmetic companies, to follow the Precautionary Principle and do just that.”

The Bad

While Johnson & Johnson’s announcement was a significant step forward, it also highlighted the fact that the company’s baby products contained potentially harmful chemicals in the first place. While Johnson’s insists that all of its products undergo a five-level safety assurance process, and that these chemicals are not harmful in small doses, the news still raised a major red flag among parents.

Specifically, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo was found to contain two chemicals suspected of contributing to cancer. One is quaternium-15, a preservative that acts as a formaldehyde-releaser. Formaldehyde, also found in disinfectants and cigarette smoke, was declared a known human carcinogen by the U.S. National Toxicology Program in June 2011, though it has been listed as an “anticipated human carcinogen” since 1981.

According to the Associated Press, quaternium-15 is not present in Johnson’s baby products sold in at least eight other countries, including the U.K., Denmark, Japan, and South Africa, but it remains in Johnson’s baby products sold in the U.S., Canada, China, Indonesia, and Australia.

The second suspect ingredient is 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen that is generated during the ethoxylation process, which, ironically, is used to make other chemicals less harsh on the skin. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, it is highly unlikely that one product containing 1,4-dioxane will cause harm on its own. However,

… repeated exposures from many different products add up. The same baby could be exposed to 1,4-dioxane from baby shampoo, bath bubbles and body wash in a single bath, as well as from other contaminated personal care products today, tomorrow and the next day. Repeated exposures to a single carcinogen, synergistic effects from exposures to multiple carcinogenic and mutagenic ingredients, and concerns about exposures at key points in development (such as pregnancy, infancy and puberty) are cause for concern even though little risk is evident from a single small exposure.

According to the Campaign, the presence of 1,4-dioxane is preventable by using “vacuum-stripping” to remove the chemical from an ethoxylated product, or by simply using less-harsh ingredients, like organic ones, to begin with.

The Questionable

This controversy was clearly preventable. Johnson & Johnson has long been formulating carcinogen-free baby products for European and foreign markets. So why did it take years of political pressure from advocacy groups for Johnson to make the same commitment in the U.S.?

Susan Nettesheim, who heads up Johnson’s evaluation of product chemicals and safety, told the Associated Press that the decision to produce different formulas in different countries is “based on the availability of raw materials, development of formulas that were done in many cases years ago and consumer preferences” for the look and feel of products. Though Johnson & Johnson says that it is “working with global suppliers” to reduce chemicals like 1,4-dioxane to less than four parts per million, it won’t completely phase out the chemicals in U.S. baby products until 2013.

Seventh Generation points out that Johnson’s Natural product line and healthier overseas formulations are proof that Johnson’s is capable of taking much stronger and more comprehensive steps quickly and easily. “Eliminating a handful of the harmful ingredients from a formula while allowing others to remain and taking years to fully implement this is a half-measure and ultimately accomplishes little. It compels the question: is this about protecting public relations or public health?”

The news has also created suspicion among consumers, particularly moms who were shocked to learn that the baby products they had assumed were safe might not be.

“In my household, we never use J&J baby products because they contain a number of potentially harmful chemicals,” mommy blogger Jennifer Taggart told the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “If they can produce for Europe a product that doesn’t contain carcinogens, why can’t they produce it for (American) babies?”


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Read more Behind the Label here.

Images: Greg Tee

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.