POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 18, 2014
SKILLMAN, N.J. » The only hint that something is different inside millions of bottles of Johnson's Baby Shampoo arriving on store shelves are two words: "Improved Formula."
The shampoo has the same amber hue, the same sudsy lather and — perhaps most important — the same familiar smell that, for generations of Americans, still conjures memories of childhood bath time.
What's different about the shampoo, and 100 other baby products sold by Johnson & Johnson, isn't so much about what's been added; it's what's missing. The products no longer contain two potentially harmful chemicals, formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, that have come under increasing scrutiny by consumers and environmental groups in recent years. In response to consumer pressure two years ago, the company pledged to remove both chemicals from its baby products by the end of 2013, and this month, it said that it had achieved that goal. The reformulated products are making their way to store shelves around the world and will replace existing products over the next several months.
The move is the first step in a companywide effort to remove an array of increasingly unpopular chemicals from its personal care products, and is the biggest yet by a major consumer products manufacturer. Johnson & Johnson has also promised to remove such chemicals, and others, from all of its consumer products by 2015, including popular brands like Neutrogena and Clean & Clear.
In doing so, the company is navigating a precarious path, investing tens of millions of dollars to remove the chemicals while at the same time insisting that they are safe. The company is responding, executives said, to a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, as an increasingly informed public demands that companies be more responsive to their concerns, especially when it comes to the ingredients in their products. The complex effort carries both risks and rewards for the health care giant — it requires difficult re-engineering of some of Johnson & Johnson's most beloved brands, but success in the marketplace could serve as a much-needed boost to a company that has been battered by a series of embarrassing quality lapses and product recalls.
Cathy Salerno, vice president of research and development for the company's consumer products division in North America, said she had seen consumer attitudes change significantly over the past decade. When Johnson & Johnson acquired Aveeno, the natural skin care company, in 1999, it polled customers about their interest in the brand's ingredients. The answer demonstrated little consumer concern about the details — customers wanted the company to keep it simple. "They're telling us the opposite now," she said.
Other manufacturers are also responding to these concerns. This fall, Wal-Mart announced that it would eventually require suppliers to reduce or eliminate 10 chemicals from cleaning and personal care products. Target has said it would monitor suppliers' use of potentially harmful chemicals, then give incentives to companies that use safer chemicals. Procter & Gamble has promised to eliminate phthalates and triclosan, whose safety has also been questioned, from its products by the end of this year.
Environmental groups disagree with the safety claims that Johnson & Johnson makes about the chemicals it is removing, and say they wish the company would be more forthright about the hazards. Nevertheless, they praised the company for keeping its commitment. "A lot of companies say they're going to do something, but in this case Johnson & Johnson actually did what they were going to do," said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund and the co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which pushed Johnson & Johnson to remove the chemicals.
Even before its removal, customers would not have found formaldehyde or 1,4-dioxane listed on the back of because they aren't technically ingredients. Formaldehyde, which has been identified by government scientists as a carcinogen, is released over time by preservatives, like quaternium-15. And 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer in animal studies, is created during a process used to make other ingredients mild — important for a company that has sold billions of bottles of baby shampoo on its "No More Tears" claim. Johnson & Johnson has removed the preservatives that release formaldehyde, and said it has reduced the levels of 1,4-dioxane to very limited trace amounts, from one to four parts per million.
Johnson & Johnson executives are quick to note that formaldehyde occurs naturally in many products — a person's exposure to formaldehyde in a single apple, they claim, is greater than it is in 15 bottles of baby shampoo. And 1,4-dioxane is found in their products at levels low enough to be safe. An outside analysis by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics published in 2009 found that the levels of 1,4-dioxane in many of the company's baby products were at the target levels.
But Heather White, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, a part of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said there was not enough information to know the long-term effects of these chemicals, and there was mounting evidence that cumulative exposure can be dangerous. "Will a kid get cancer because there's formaldehyde in their shampoo?" White asked. "We don't know the answer to that. But why is there a carcinogen in their shampoo? When in doubt, take it out."
Taking it out, however, has not been simple. In remaking its baby products, Johnson & Johnson's scientists had a delicate task before them: how to remove the chemicals in question without compromising some of the company's most iconic brands.
"There was a lot of angst about it," recalled Salerno, who was one of the executives who oversaw the team of close to 200 people who worked for two years on the project. "Our people in the marketing department were adamant that they wanted the exact same product."
But as the scientists set to work, they discovered that replacing the problem ingredients often led to a chain reaction of unintended consequences. One new preservative led to a snow-globe effect, with particles settling at the bottom of the bottle. But the fix for that turned the shampoo from a golden honey color to a dull brown. Another change turned the consistency to water.
The team thought it had successfully reformulated the Head-to-Toe wash and even held a dinner to celebrate. But their hopes were dashed when the normally clear wash turned cloudy, and they were forced to start over. "I remember the shrimp was great," Salerno said. "Two days later, we saw that."
The challenges continued: Two products were scrapped when they failed a skin test in adults, an initial step before they are tested on babies. Altogether, the team vetted 2,500 raw ingredients and tested 12 to 18 versions of each product before seeking the opinion of 74,000 consumer volunteers.
Mostly, the task was to make the change as invisible as possible. "If you can't tell the difference, then we did our job," said Trisha Bonner, principal scientist for Johnson & Johnson's consumer products.
The team's next step is removing another type of preservative, parabens, from their baby products, and removing those and additional chemicals from their adult products.
Salerno and others say they sometimes get frustrated at critics who promote the idea that natural ingredients are inherently better. "I like to remind people that poison ivy is natural," Salerno said.
But she said that the concerns of their customers, especially those related to health and safety, could not be ignored. "This lands right at the heart and soul of what Johnson & Johnson is about, so we really had to take this very seriously," she said.
"I tell people, in 28 years with this company, this is by far the most challenging project I've ever worked on," Salerno said. "But it's a real point of pride."
Katie Thomas, New York Times