By KATIE THOMAS
Published: August 15, 2012
Johnson & Johnson, which makes a range of personal care products like baby shampoo, acne cream and antiwrinkle lotion, announced plans Wednesday to remove a host of potentially harmful chemicals, like formaldehyde, from its line of consumer products by the end of 2015, becoming the first major consumer products company to make such a widespread commitment.
The company had already pledged to remove certain chemicals from its baby products by 2013, but the latest announcement extended the program to its adult products, including well-known drugstore brands like Neutrogena, Aveeno and Clean & Clear.
“There’s a very lively public discussion going on about the safety of ingredients in personal care products,” said Susan Nettesheim, vice president for product stewardship and toxicology for the company’s consumer health brands. “It was really important that we had a voice in that.”
Environmental and consumer groups have for years pressured Johnson & Johnson and its competitors to remove questionable ingredients from their products.
“We’ve never really seen a major personal care product company take the kind of move that they’re taking with this,” said Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, one of the organizations that has been negotiating with company officials to change their practices. “Not really even anything in the ballpark.”
In 2009, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition that includes the Environmental Working Group, analyzed the contents of dozens of products for children and found that many items contained two substances of particular concern: formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane. Consumers won’t find either listed on the back of their shampoos or lotions because neither is technically an ingredient.
Formaldehyde, which last year was identified by government scientists as a carcinogen, is released over time by common preservatives like quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin, which do appear on labels. And 1,4 dioxane, which has been linked to cancer in animal studies, is created during a process commonly used to make other ingredients gentler on the skin.
The company also plans to phase out other ingredients that have been linked to health problems, including phthalates, which have a variety of uses, like lessening the stiffening effects of hair spray; several fragrance ingredients; and triclosan, an antibacterial substance used in soaps. Johnson & Johnson will remove all parabens, a type of preservative, from baby products and some other parabens from its adult products.
Ms. Nettesheim said the project was a major undertaking and would require extensive spending on research and development to find suitable alternatives to the ingredients, most of which are common in the industry. She said new suppliers needed to be located and vetted, and testing was needed to ensure the replacements were also safe. The company declined to say how much the project would cost.
Then there’s the delicate task of tinkering with products that have been popular for generations. The company’s baby shampoo, for example, has been marketed for more than 50 years.
“Consumer acceptance is really important,” Ms. Nettesheim said. “It really doesn’t help you if you reformulate products and people don’t like it.”
Lisa Archer, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said her group would continue to press other cosmetics and consumer-goods companies to follow Johnson & Johnson, including the Estée Lauder Companies, Procter & Gamble, Avon and L’Oreal.
In 2010, Procter & Gamble reformulated its Herbal Essences shampoos to limit the amount of 1,4 dioxane to only trace amounts, and its Tide laundry detergent came under scrutiny from some of the same groups because it contains small amounts of the chemical.
Tim Long, a senior science fellow at P.& G., said the company communicates openly with consumers about the ingredients it uses. All of its products meet regulatory requirements, he said.
In a statement, Estée Lauder said it adheres to stringent safety standards for all of its products and complies with regulations in every country in which its products are sold.
Johnson & Johnson’s decision requires the company to navigate a public relations tightrope, by portraying itself as willing to make extensive changes while simultaneously reassuring consumers that its existing products are safe. The endeavor’s success is even more critical because the company has experienced serious recalls and quality lapses in recent years. On a new Web site that explains the changes to consumers, the company calls it “moving beyond safety.”
“Even though as a scientist I will sit here and tell you these things are perfectly safe,” consumers are worried about reports that call her conclusions into question, Ms. Nettesheim said. “I understand that and we can’t ignore that.”
Mr. Cook, of the Environmental Working Group, disagrees about the safety of the chemicals. But he agreed that there is avid interest in the ingredients on a shampoo bottle, noting that his group maintains a product safety database that has received hundreds of millions of page views. “This is them placing a bet that if they get out in front of this consumer interest, they’re going to win the marketplace,” he said.