This article was produced for SC Johnson by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine's board of editors.
A Clear View on Allergens
The current disclosure of dermal allergens is inconsistent at best and inadequate at worst, leaving those with contact allergies to guess which products might be right for them. SC Johnson is taking a new direction.
Most people are familiar with contact allergies—those uncomfortable reactions that follow exposure to certain ingredients. But, beyond a straightforward case of poison ivy, identifying allergens responsible for reactions can be difficult. Dermal allergies do not develop solely because a certain allergen is present. Responses depend on a dermal allergen’s concentration or dose and an individual’s previous history of exposure. Such ambiguity can put skin allergy sufferers in the frustrating position of wondering about everything they touch.
This spring, SC Johnson, the maker of brands such as Glade®, Pledge®, Windex® and OFF!®, committed to disclose more than 368 dermal, or contact, allergens potentially contained in its products—a significantly more robust disclosure going beyond the industry standard. Such transparency is unusual in an industry where formulations are guarded like software designs in Silicon Valley and disclosure regulations are uneven at best.
“For us, transparency is a matter of principle. We‘re interested in helping people make the best choices for their families,” says Fisk Johnson, Chairman and CEO of SC Johnson. “Just like when we started listing preservatives, dyes and fragrances, we didn’t stop with the industry standard. We want to tell the whole story. This is just the next step in our journey to be more and more transparent.” Other companies use similar ingredients. SC Johnson considers it important to disclose these ingredients particularly for people with pre-existing sensitivity.
Some background on the disclosure regulations for dermal allergens: Currently, the European Union requires that companies disclose any of 26 known dermal allergens if they are included in products. The U.S. has no standard. Most firms adopt the ‘EU 26’ as a standard, but work with an array of up to 3,000 fragrance chemicals, which almost certainly includes other undisclosed dermal allergens. Various advocacy groups have called on the industry to broaden the disclosure list, but progress is slow and scientific consensus on how to define an allergen remains elusive.
SC Johnson has a history of going beyond commercial disclosure requirements because consumers want to know what’s inside their products. In 2009, the company launched its U.S. ingredient website and disclosed the use of specific dyes. The company disclosed the use of specific preservatives in 2011 and its full list of fragrance ingredients in 2012. In 2016, it launched product-specific fragrance disclosure up to 99.9 percent of most products and launched Glade® Fresh Citrus Blossoms the industry’s first-ever collection with 100 percent fragrance transparency.
The company saw disclosing all known dermal allergens in its products as an important next step. Rather than follow existing criteria, scientists at SC Johnson analyzed more than 3,000 public and industry data sets for potential skin allergens and began to develop an evidence-based method to identify them. Data came from various country regulatory lists, fragrance industry lists, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety inputs, dermatology clinics, and individual supplier safety data sheets. The methodology was vetted by independent experts in dermatology, immuno-toxicology, fragrance toxicology and allergens.
The result is a list of more than 368, announced on May 25. By 2018, those dermal allergens — which include the EU 26 — will be identified within products on SC Johnson’s WhatsInsideSCJohnson.com website.
The move is a benefit for certain consumers. “It’s like in the food industry,” says Kelly Semrau, Senior Vice President - Global Corporate Affairs, Communication and Sustainability at SC Johnson. “If you’re sensitive to gluten, you’re looking for the gluten disclosure. If you already have a pre-existing dermal allergic sensitivity, you can now keep an eye out for it.”
The announcement is also quite bold for a company. SC Johnson evaluates all of its ingredients for human safety and environmental effects. If a potential ingredient is identified as a possible skin allergen, the company allows its use only at a level low enough that it would not be expected to cause an allergy to develop. Nonetheless, competitors that disclose only the EU 26 could exploit public misconceptions around additional disclosed skin allergens, even though they may use the same ingredients in their products.
To CEO Fisk Johnson, a Ph.D. physicist with an additional degree in chemistry, transparency is a risk worth taking. “We understand that other companies might choose not to do the work to communicate low levels of potential skin allergens in their products. For SC Johnson, with our decades-long commitment to being more and more transparent, we are continuing on a path to provide more and more information to the people who buy our products so they can make choices that are best for them and their families,” he says.
Others agree. “By taking these steps, SC Johnson will help millions of consumers be smarter about chemicals in cleaning products that have the potential to cause allergic skin responses,” says Ken Cook, President and Co-Founder of Environmental Working Group.
There is still more work to be done. The 368-plus skin allergens on SC Johnson’s list are drawn only from the 1,300 approved chemicals in the company’s exclusive chemical palette. Other companies with larger fragrance palettes almost certainly use additional, undisclosed chemicals that could trigger a dermal allergy. In that regard, SC Johnson’s announcement is more than a step forward in transparency. It is a clear challenge for others in the industry to follow suit.