At a small ceremony in February, Johnson & Johnson executives were handed a scroll of 30,000 signatures from consumers.
But, in an unusual twist, these consumers weren’t complaining; they were thanking the company.
One of the world’s largest producers of personal care products, Johnson & Johnson has vowed to remove many chemicals from its baby products.
"Smart companies that are marketing to children are in a footrace to phase out chemicals of concern," said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental group that presented the signatures to the corporation.
The recognition of Johnson & Johnson, known for its baby shampoo, signals a change in corporate America.
Just four years ago, the company had to answer to a round of laboratory testing by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a nonprofit watchdog group. Testing revealed that its gentle, mild baby shampoo contained the carcinogen formaldehyde.
After that blast of publicity, Johnson & Johnson pledged last August to eliminate formaldehyde, parabens, triclosan and phthalates from all baby products. For adult products, it has removed triclosan and phthalates, but will keep using three parabens, and use formaldehyde in exceptional cases where other preservatives wouldn't work, according to the company’s new policy.
Driving Johnson & Johnson's initiative is the consumer. In recent years, its customers have been asking questions about chemicals in the products, said Samantha Lucas, a corporate spokeswoman, in an interview from its New Brunswick, N.J., headquarters.
"We've been replying with evidence of the science that ensures safety. Now we have to go beyond science and be responsive to our consumers because it's really about their peace of mind,” she said.
In many personal care products and cosmetics, several chemicals on government watch lists have been added typically as preservatives, or fragrances, or stabilizers. In recent years they've come under fire as laboratory studies show tumors, cellular changes or disruption of healthy development and reproduction. States are beginning to restrict them, particularly in children's products.
“We've found agreeable alternatives,” Lucas said. “We're committed to absolute transparency about what's in the product, and what's on the label. We're very involved in the complete supply chain, including holding our suppliers and our raw materials providers to our high standards.”
For example, their chemists said they reformulated products in a way that would extend shelf life and prevent the growth of bacteria without using preservatives that release the alcohol form of formaldehyde. They also eliminated parabens, which also serve as preservatives, but only in baby products; the company did not answer questions about why parabens remain in its other products.
Johnson & Johnson says it removed DEP, the phthalate most commonly used in fragrance and other cosmetics, and other phthalates from all products, and they announced that their fragrances wouldn't contain animal-derived ingredients, nitromusks and polycyclic musks, tagetes, rose crystal and diacetyl. Triclosan, once added as an anti-bacterial ingredient, also has been eliminated.
One substance, 1,4-dioxane, a solvent linked with cancer, is harder to avoid. It is an unintentional impurity in cosmetics, detergents and shampoos, manufacturers say. Johnson & Johnson claims it has reformulated about 70 percent of its baby products with new formulations that reduce 1,4-dioxane, and has pressured suppliers to reduce the compound in materials while it is searching for technologies that will eliminate it altogether, according to its website.
At this point, Johnson & Johnson won't reveal how it is accomplishing these replacements. "It's too early for us to talk about the specific replacements as we are still in the process of identifying, reformulating and testing now,” Lucas said.
Big corporations are beginning to find safer alternatives such as using grapefruit seed extract as a preservative, to reformulate the product using fewer ingredients or to choose different packaging, said Janet Nudelman, cofounder of Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the group that blew the whistle on Johnson & Johnson and now praises it.
Companies are starting to embrace the concept of avoiding chemicals of concern, she said. "Many of the big multinationals have equated safety with preventing acute reactions such as eye irritation or rash. They weren't thinking about the long-term consequences of reproductive or developmental harm or even cancer."
Disclosure requirements, such as Washington state’s groundbreaking law, can serve as a de facto ban, she said. "Companies would rather quietly reformulate their products than have consumers know there are carcinogens or reproductive toxins in the product."
Pressure on the corporations also comes from some smaller companies that already make organic or toxics-free shampoos, sunscreens, lotions and body washes, such as Aubrey Organics, Avalon Organics, Badger Co., California Baby, Dr. Bronner's, EO Products, Seventh Generation and Weleda.
"The small companies demonstrate to the big cosmetic giants that making safe products is not only possible, but it's also profitable," said Nudelman. "It's what consumers want."
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.