Despite its notorious "No More Tears" tagline, anyone following Johnson & Johnson’s brouhaha with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics knows that its baby formulas contain some pretty sob-worthy ingredients, including carcinogens 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde. But the latest developments warrant tears of joy for those who have been fighting the personal care powerhouse for years.

Johnson & Johnson finally announced it will reformulate its baby products, removing quaternium-15 and other formaldehyde-releasing preservatives within two years and reducing 1,4-dioxane in all of its baby products to less than 4 parts per million (ppm). 

“This has the potential to shift the whole industry and that’s certainly what we’re working toward,” said Stacy Malkan, founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the Campaign’s new report Baby’s Tub Is Still Toxic.

According to the analysis released earlier this month, international Johnson & Johnson products have different formulations. Bad news for the United States, Canada and China, where products still contain formaldehyde-releasing chemicals (thousands of stores in China pulled products off shelves and the Chinese government publicly chastised Johnson & Johnson). In Sweden and Japan, countries that have banned such chemicals, products did not contain formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. In addition to countries’ regulations, Malkan said the discrepancies likely resulted from the availability of certain chemicals.  

In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said: “Since 2009, the Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies have taken significant steps to reformulate our extensive product line to provide additional offerings that meet the changing needs of our consumers.”

Consumer efforts not in vain

Johnson & Johnson's reference to 2009 is no coincidence. That's when the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released its first report covering chemicals in popular kids personal care products, No More Toxic Tub, revealing that Johnson's Baby Shampoo, along with many other children's bath products, contained formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane not listed on labels.

“It’s astounding to me that companies are still using formaldehyde-releasing preservatives,” Malkan said.

And she’s not alone, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel. Since 2008, sales of children’s personal care products have plummeted, perhaps in part due to parents’ concerns over ingredients, reports Mintel.

No More Toxic Tub provided ammunition for these concerned parents. Two months after the report was released, more than 40 organizations representing 1.7 million parents, health care providers and environmental health advocates voiced concerns about potentially unsafe ingredients.

Increasing pressures over the next two years, culminating with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ new report, ultimately pushed Johnson & Johnson to make both short- and long-term formulation changes.  

Industry-wide effects and the sweet smell of victory

Reformulation takes time, often requiring manufacturers to build a product from the ground up, rather than simply swapping out an ingredient. That’s why, for now, Johnson & Johnson has agreed to keep 1,4-dioxane levels below 4 ppm (a fairly easy fix, Malkan said). But in the long term, the company indicated it will replace the chemical process, called ethoxylation, that results in 1,4-dioxane contamination.

This change would require a new technology and process.

Big business investing in sustainable technology and chemistry will make these green resources available and cheaper for everyone—including naturals—right? Not that simple, according to Malkan, who said Johnson & Johnson will likely patent any significant advancements. However, the company’s actions will still have a large impact on the industry.   

“I think they’re setting a new bar for conventional products that other companies will have to meet,” said Malkan.

Of course, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ plan to next target other brands found to contain toxic ingredients, including Sesame Street, Huggies and Grins and Giggles, can expedite industry wide-improvements.  

As for future reformulations, Malkan said the fragrance conversation is on the table, but in its infancy. One of the biggest cosmetic industry concerns is that “fragrance” on labels can mean just about anything, including a cocktail of chemicals, which personal care manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson still refuse to reveal. But as the topic develops, its immense potential to shift the personal care supply chain becomes clear. And this reformulation seems to be a strong first step. 

“Johnson & Johnson said that they’re paying attention to the issue of fragrance, but that it’s an entire industry issue—they have to deal with stakeholders and the huge fragrance houses,” said Malkan.