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Controversy Over Toxic Ingredients in Baby Products: Shocker.

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This week was a baby kind of week for me. I got to meet my new little honorary nephew (my best friend’s baby) for the first time, which was super fun for me. It was nice to get to hold a newborn for a little while. 


As I was looking down at his soft, pink skin, I was reminded of how different a baby’s skin is compared to an adult’s. A newborn baby’s skin is used to being in a consistently warm, moist, and nutritive environment from its time in the womb. Therefore, the skin is extremely delicate and has not completely finished developing. It is significantly thinner than an adult’s skin, and its protective barrier layer has not yet become as strong as it needs to be. Because of these factors, babies sometimes need their parents’ help keeping their body temperatures regulated, and keeping their skin protected from external elements. Because of this need, the market for newborn and infant care skin and body care products has become a gazillion dollar industry.

When I got home, I checked my email and saw something from The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics regarding a double standard in the safety of the ingredients in Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J’s) baby products. Since my mind was already in baby mode, I read the email immediately.

The controversy over Johnson & Johnson’s baby products

The email from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as well as an article I later saw and shared on Facebook from MSNBC was about how J& J manufactures their baby products in several countries (including ours) with the formaldehyde-releasing ingredient quaternium-15 and the very toxic and potentially carcinogenic 1,4 dioxane; but they manufacture the same products in several other countries without them. Everyone was up in arms about this shocking news and demanded that consumers boycott J & J until they agree to remove these ingredients from all of their products.  

The Campaign for Safe cosmetics then delved into the issue surrounding this double standard: even though different countries have different regulations regarding ingredient safety and product labeling, doesn’t every baby deserve to have products free of these harmful ingredients, even in trace amounts?

J & J’s response:

Of course J & J responded with a very generic, PR-ish, glazed-over statement about how much they care about the safety of their ingredients and how their ingredients have been proven to be safe in study after study by the FDA and other regulatory agencies worldwide. Even so, because they are so sensitive to their customers’ “changing needs” (meaning they realize that people are starting to become educated about the risks of using products containing even trace amounts of toxic ingredients), they are already phasing out any and all products containing quaternium-15 and 1,4 dioxane. 

Furthermore, they state with confidence that parents (especially tree huggers on a budget) always have the choice to use their Johnson’s Natural range, where the trademarked phrase “98% Natural” immediately jumps out at you. If you look a little closer, you see that this actually means that the products contain 98% “naturally derived” ingredients. This is not the same as “natural'”. This range is priced inexpensively compared when compared with “boutique” natural baby brands.

By the way, these product labels still state the warning “keep out of reach of children.” They also contain “fragrance”, which they say is plant-sourced. If that was completely true then they would be required to state the plants’ botanical names and whether it is an extract, essential oil, what have you. The term “fragrance” can really mean anything at all and at this time, manufacturers are not required to state what chemicals comprise these “fragrances”.

Since they offer this naturally-derived product range and are now phasing out all products with quaternium-15 and 1,4 dioxane since consumers have demanded it; that relieves them of all responsibility and accountability, right? I don’t think so.

What’s the problem?


The majority of the products under the Johnson & Johnson umbrella (including those labeled for use on sensitive skin or skin prone to irritant reactions) contain several other chemical ingredients that are known toxins, potential carcinogens, and are known to cause contact dermatitis and other allergic and irritant skin reactions. Just check out their product listings on the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database. You’ll see.

So, while it’s great that they are removing two of these ingredients from all products, what will they do about the rest of them? What about the PEGs, sulfates, synthetic fragrances, parabens, petrochemicals like propylene glycol, and toxic silicones that these products still contain? And for the record, you can’t just take out a preservative in a mass-produced commercial product and not replace it with something equal in microorganism-killing strength. 

So what will they replace them with? Will people even notice? Will they take the time to read the label to see how safe or unsafe the replacement ingredients are before they put the “newly formulated” products on their newborns’ skin? I’m thinking that most emotional, overwhelmed, and exhausted new mommies will not take the time. And my guess is that J & J knows this too and is banking on it.

Why are the richest companies so cheap?

Johnson & Johnson is a huge pharmaceutical company that manufactures many different products in several different categories. They are not a small natural company, nor have they ever claimed to be. They produce their products in massive quantities using the cheapest ingredients they can, making various safety claims obtained from studies they funded. It’s no secret that the FDA has a lot of work to do in terms of re-evaluating the safety of chemicals used in skin and body care products, but people who are not up-to-date on all the activism and legislation happening in this field are not aware of this. 

They trust their government to keep them safe, and since J & J makes products for babies and consults with doctors and experts from around the world, these people just don’t question the safety of their products. J & J knows this too, and will continue to manufacture their products and market them to vulnerable new parents who are also budget-conscious. They will do so until they are forced to stop.

I’m not just picking on J & J here…they happen to be the focus of this article because of the recent news. But several other baby product companies are just as much to blame.

It’s all about the bottom line…

Manufacturing products with higher quality ingredients in smaller batches requiring less preservatives costs companies more. As much as these companies want parents to believe they care about your baby’s skin and health, the truth is that they exist for one reason: to make money. Lots, and lots of money. While offering the natural product range and removing the ingredients that people got angry about may seem like a big step in the right direction, it really isn’t. They are just trying to appease the tree huggers and conspiracy theorists; and at the same time, reinforce their image to the general public.

As always, I encourage all consumers to become educated about product ingredients. If you are a tired new mom, assign the task to someone else (like grandma). If you don’t like what you see, change your buying habits. If you are really ticked off about what you see, start spreading the word.

For more information, visit The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database.

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About Rachael Pontillo