The Real Lesson of Formaldehyde In Baby Shampoo

There has been a dismaying breakdown in consumer trust, not only in the products we buy but in the government we assume is regulating them

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The scent of childhood to me was Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. My mother used it on me when I was a baby, and I used it myself when I was a teenager; when I became a mother I cradled my babies’ tiny heads in my hands and slathered their scalps with the stuff. Johnson & Johnson’s hold on the marketplace was such that, for many of us, the mere smell of their products came to define clean children. And what exhausted new mother could resist the promise of “No More Tears”?

So when Johnson & Johnson made a stunning announcement that it was phasing certain chemicals out of its formula, it was shocking to learn that ever since it was brought to market in 1953, the “pure and gentle” shampoo has contained traces of formaldehyde, recently classified as a known carcinogen, and 1,4 dioxane, which, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen. Naturally, as a mother, my first thought was of my sons’ bath ritual. Had I been poisoning them? Not exactly. But the company’s decision underscores a dismaying breakdown in consumer trust, not only in the products we buy and the stores that sell them, but in the government agency that we assume is properly regulating them.

(MORE: Johnson & Johnson to Remove Formaldehyde, Other Chemicals from Products)

How did formaldehyde get into baby shampoo in the first place? Formaldehyde isn’t listed as an ingredient in our beauty products because it isn’t added purposefully. Rather, it is released over time — and manufacturers know and expect this — by any number of commonly used preservatives such as quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. The same is to be said for 1,4 dioxane, which is a by-product of a process used to process certain chemicals to make them less harsh.

The truth is that most leading brands of cosmetics contain small amounts of troubling — or downright toxic — ingredients. Cosmetics — any personal care products you apply to your body — are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which due to lax laws dating back to 1938, does not have the legal authority to review or regulate products before they are sold. Most of us shopping at our local Target — or at high-end Sephora — are blissfully unaware that our lipstick probably contains lead, a proven neurotoxin, and our perfumes contain phthalates, a class of chemicals linked to hormone disruption. Cosmetics companies are not even required to report to the FDA any health problems associated with their products or share any studies. What the FDA can do is conduct studies. The FDA has been measuring 1,4 dioxane levels since 1979. By 2000, it was recommending that manufacturers reduce 1,4 dioxane limits — voluntarily.

(MORE: The Ever-Increasing Hazards of the Household)

But it gets more complicated. Johnson & Johnson’s global toxicologist, Susan Nettesheim, explained that the formaldehyde in solution (as in shampoo) is not the same as the formaldehyde gas that, when breathed, is carcinogenic. “Almost all living organisms contain formaldehyde. Our cells contain formaldehyde,” she said. “The formaldehyde that occurs in our shampoo rinses off, biodegrades, and doesn’t turn into gas—shower water isn’t hot enough. There is more formaldehyde in one apple than in 14 bottles of shampoo.” But the company decided that this was simply too complicated and subtle a message to allay fears. “We know there is a great deal of conversation going on about chemical safety. We decided that it is very important for us to have a voice in that discussion.” And Johnson & Johnson is working with both houses of Congress to strengthen oversight of the FDA.

(MORE: What’s in Your Lipstick? FDA Finds Lead in 400 Shades)

Their effort to respond to their customers’ concerns is laudable—and bold, although the company has an obvious vested interest in protecting its reputation. But the problem is that we—as consumers—no longer have a sense that we are protected, or safe. Perhaps the general erosion in trust began decades ago, when we learned that the tobacco industry was covering up—and lying about—research demonstrating that smoking causes cancer.

Today, it is almost impossible for consumers to know whom to trust, and what to believe. And that feeds the sense of panic when we hear about certain chemicals in our products. We have a regulatory system in place that demands a level of proof of harm from a chemical almost impossible to provide: it requires a direct causal link between disease and chemical, when in the vast majority of cases that is impossible to establish. Diseases are complex, and multiple factors contribute to them. In many decades, only asbestos has been directly linked with a disease: asbestosis. One need only to think about the many decades it took to prove that lead exposure was dangerous—and think how many children were adversely affected during those years.

All of this makes us feel as if we are the guinea pigs for the industry, letting them try chemicals out on us—even though responsible companies regularly test the ingredients in their products. Johnson & Johnson has launched a new website that contains a great deal of information about the way it ensures the safety of its products.

(MORE: Is Your Garden Hose Toxic?)

People who remain nervous about the burden of chemicals we are absorbing into our bodies can shop carefully to avoid them, but that’s hard to do when products contain elements that are not even listed in the ingredients. It doesn’t have to be this way. While we can be smart consumers, we have to be even smarter citizens — and demand that our political representatives support strong standards for safety. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 is a more promising place to begin than your local beauty counter. Hopefully—at least in the area of personal care, anyway—we can get to a place of “No More Fears.


Speaking of informed, checkout Beautycounter, a company with a mission to get SAFE products into the homes of EVERYONE.


Loki_L is absolutely correct. Part of being an 'even smarter citizen', as Ms. Browning wants us all to be, must include having at least some scientific literacy in the 21st century. Ignorance is not bliss, and skill at prose doesn't imply the writer has a clue. There are already far too many educated idiots in this country who would be terrified if a manufacturer listed di-hydrogen monoxide (H20) as an ingredient, and expect the government (filled with still more educated idiots) to magically do their thinking for them so they don't have to. Study, learn, understand, sheeple.


I recommend parents use the pro naturals shampoo and conditioner for theiur babies. Both are sulfate-free and have no alcohol!


Those of you worried about the topical application of formaldehyde, are you also worried about it being in vaccines that are injected directly into your children's tissues?  


The time for the product to produce a harmful level would be over 10 years of not being opened. Talk about overreaction and this is what we call fear mongering.


On a related note, I have to point out that California's Prop 65 labeling requirements are inane.  I bought a pair of decorative planters several years ago that came with a warning label stating the flower pots contained lead.  It seems to me that lead in pottery is only a problem if you eat it or pulverize and snort it.  I want smart warning labels that tell me when I need to be concerned, not stupid warning labels that worry me over nothing.


Great article!  While it's true that most products only contain trace amounts of harmful chemicals, the average consumer is not a toxicologist.  We don't know which substances are harmful and in which concentrations and over what period of time, and honestly we shouldn't have to know.  We have better things to do with our time.  Given the increasing prevalence of obesity, cancer, and childhood developmental disorders, our paranoia is entirely justified.


Jamp;J's announcement will hopefully be the beginning of a revolution in the manufacture of personal care products. It has taken years for a big player in the industry to finally fess up to the questionable ingredients in their products.

 See for free reports on how to

recognise and avoid the chemicals and contaminants in the skin care products

you use.


those who joke that "expensive" organic products are for liberal hippies can laugh their butts off all the way to the cancer ward. That is all. 


 ' While we can be smart consumers, we have to be even smarter citizens —

and demand that our political representatives support strong standards

for safety.'

See, I have an issue with this. I have a degree in

Biochemistry and work in the chemical industry, and I know firsthand

some of the problems that exposure to these chemicals are causing. Maybe

being a 'smart' consumer should go beyond trying to avoid every

chemical with a negative connotation and instead trying to educate

ourselves about the implications of these chemicals with regard to the

actual concentrations that we are exposed to.

I'm sorry, but

boycotting all products that use formaldehyde regardless of the actual

concentration levels is idiotic. And demanding that companies don't use

it is irresponsible. Formaldehyde is a very basic molecule that is

everywhere, and exists as a byproduct of life. It is also a very

reactive molecule necessary to perform the chemical reactions that

synthesize products we use everyday. Therefore it is inevitable that

these products will release certain amounts of formaldehyde as they


The main cases of illnesses caused by formaldehyde

(besides smoking) are due to wood composites material like

urea-formaldehyde foam and particle board. This gives off substantial

amounts of formaldehyde, and in an enclosed space can cause the

concentration to reach unsafe levels. However, slightly more expensive

products such as phenol-formaldehyde composites give off formaldehyde

concentrations similar to that of a tomato. The latter still contains

formaldehyde, but is not dangerous.

Formaldehyde is used because

it is cheap and relatively safe to work with. When you force companies

to stop using it they have to turn to more reactive and dangerous

molecules, that are also more expensive.

This article could have been 4 sentences long.


recently stated that their shampoo released traces of formaldehyde,

similar to almost anything ever. They announced that they would phase

out the chemicals responsible for the formaldehyde emittance, likely

exchanging them for more dangerous chemicals with less public scrutiny

than formaldehyde. This is obviously a marketing ploy aimed at assuaging

the current chemical paranoia, and forcing other companies to spend

huge amounts of money to ensure that their products are 'formaldehyde

free' instead of spending that money toward making their products more

realistically safe, or enhancing safety for it's workers. If you liked

this article you might also enjoy, "Why are non-celiacs eating

non-gluten food?"


I triple posted.


I triple posted.

Jack Xiao
Jack Xiao

I think it is more depends on luck. I currently also using the Johnson and Johnson shampoo since i am a 4 years old child. And now i am still okay with it. I think that the manufacturer have their own reason to include the ingredient. Or may be is because I have the Kechara Protection Chakras ?


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