The Hidden Threat in Your Shampoo

Johnson & Johnson is under fire for using cancer-causing ingredients in its namesake baby shampoo—which, some doctors say, you don't really need anyway.

November 2, 2011

Dangerous ingredients may be lurking in baby shampoo, but the stuff adults use isn't any safer.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Whether you use baby shampoo on a baby or to detangle or soften your own hair, you probably assume that it's gentler, safer, and less likely to have toxic ingredients than all the other shampoos on a drugstore shelf. But that's not the case, according to a new report. The report, authored by the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, takes megacorporation Johnson & Johnson to task for refusing to take ingredients known to cause cancer out of its namesake baby shampoo.

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In its new report, titled "Baby's Tub Is Still Toxic," the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics purchased samples of Johnson's Baby Shampoo from 13 different countries and tested them all for the presence of a preservative called quaternium-15, which releases small amounts of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and a skin irritant as it breaks down. They found the chemical in all the samples purchased in the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, and Indonesia but not in shampoos sold in Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and the UK.

Although one of the largest baby shampoo manufacturers out there, Johnson & Johnson is certainly not the only company using quaternium-15 in its products. Back in 2009, the same group sampled a variety of baby shampoos purchased from drugstores in the U.S. and found the same formaldehyde-releasing preservative, as well as dioxane, another cancer-causing ingredient, in nearly all of them. Among the brands tested at that point in time were Sesame Street, American Girl, Aveeno, and Huggies baby wash formulas.

So why slam Johnson & Johnson? "It's such an iconic brand, and so many people believe it to be the pure, gentle product it claims to be," says Stacy Malkan, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society, 2007). She says her group, along with the American Nurses Association, has been trying to get Johnson & Johnson to eliminate formaldehyde and dioxane from its product line ever since the 2009 report. But after two years of meetings, their efforts have produced no change, so they released this new investigation.

For its part, Johnson & Johnson announced a global phase-out of quaternium-15 (but not dioxane) after the report was issued, and although the company didn't say when that would happen, Malkan called it "a positive step forward." "Obviously, they have the capability to change their formulations," she adds.

Of course, that doesn't let other shampoo makers off the hook. "We looked at baby shampoos because that's a more vulnerable population," Malkan says. "But it's true that a lot of adult shampoos have the same harmful ingredients." And that's particularly concerning if exposures are happening to pregnant women, she adds. "If we're going to really protect children, we need to protect women at the most vulnerable time of a child's development, during pregnancy."

Regardless of whether you're shopping for baby or adult shampoos, keep an eye out for hazardous chemicals, which involves reading closely:

• Don’t always trust the label. "All natural" doesn’t mean anything on a shampoo bottle. Instead of focusing on claims on a label, turn the bottle around and investigate the ingredients listed.

• Know the usual suspects. To avoid formaldehyde, avoid quaternium-15 as well as formalin and methyl aldehyde, both of which degrade into the harmful chemical. Nix dioxane from shampoos by ditching products that contain any chemical with the letters "-eth" in the name, for example, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol (sometimes listed as just PEG), polyoxyethylene, polyethoxyethylene, or polyoxynolethylene. Those ingredients could be contaminated with dioxane.

• Tell Congress to clean up chemical contamination in personal care products. A new bill, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, would eliminate problem ingredients like formaldehyde and dioxane not just in baby shampoos, but in the products moms and dads use, too. Tell your senators and representatives to support the bill.