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

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Firth / BIPs / Getty Images

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.