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When It Comes to Formaldehyde in Baby Shampoo, Caveat Emptor

by Bill Chameides | November 10th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on When It Comes to Formaldehyde in Baby Shampoo, Caveat Emptor


It’s buyer beware in the baby shampoo aisle when it comes to being sure formaldehyde is not lurking in your bottle of choice.

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

Here’s a brainteaser: How do you, the cautious, enlightened emptor, caveat if your baby shampoo label leaves you in the dark?

Did you catch the news for the bassinet set last week? Turns out that there are small amounts of formaldehyde in baby shampoo. Well, technically, that was breaking news in 2009. Last week was the um follow-up story: After two years of unsuccessfully lobbying consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson to stop using a chemical that causes formaldehyde to show up in baby shampoo, the group that discovered the problem is increasing the pressure with a newly released report and a public campaign effort.

The Chemical Marketplace
A series that looks at chemicals in everyday consumer products
     Aluminum and antiperspirants »
     BPAF »
     Dioxin and eggs »
     Flame retardants and pets »
     Fluoride and water »
     Formaldehyde and baby shampoo
     Formaldehyde and no-iron shirts »
     Insect repellents »
     Nanoparticles and food »
     PAH and seal coats: A no-brainer »
     PBDE and fire retardants »
     PFOA and popcorn »
     Piperonyl Butoxide, a pesticide »
     Propoxur and bedbugs »
     Rotenone, a pesticide »
     Spray foams, sealants, diisocyanates »
     TDCPP and the air »
     Triclosan and toothpaste »
     Trihalomethanes (THM) and

The Backstory: Going Head to Head to Get to the Heart of the Matter

They may call it No More Tears, but it’s enough to make you cry.

How could companies we’ve come to know and trust from all those ads with happy babies in the bathtub allow our little ones to be exposed to what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer [pdf] classify as a human carcinogen?*

Incredible? Unbelievable? Maybe so, but that appears to be the case.

Johnson & Johnson uses a preservative that releases formaldehyde in its flagship baby shampoo sold in the United States. At the same time, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, in other countries it sells a reformulated baby shampoo without that formaldehyde-releasing chemical. Which of course begs the question, if the company can make a tearless, formaldehyde-free product for shoppers in Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the U.K., why it can’t do the same for American babies.

Can’t or Won’t? The Company Response

Well, it turns out they can. They’re working on it. It’s just not 100 percent yet. The company line on the continuing presence of formaldehyde in their baby shampoo goes something like this:

  1. Only “tiny” amounts are released ($ub req’ed), anyway, so no worries. Or, put differently, using Johnson & Johnson’s shampoo only exposes your child to a “tiny” amount of a potentially cancer-causing agent.
  2. The amount of formaldehyde released is less than the current industry standard of 0.2 percent — a standard not set by a government agency but by an industry-funded group of experts.** (Time out. Let’s break away from the company line for a little editorializing. OK, so it’s within supposedly “safe” levels, but cumulative exposure may be more relevant than exposure during shampoo time [see here and here]. Perhaps the purveyors of baby shampoo could advise parents on how many baby-shampoo shampoos per week is too much for their little one.}
  3. The presence of formaldehyde serves a deliberate purpose — “to guard [your baby] against bacterial contamination.” Here’s the deal: While the shampoo sits idly in the bottle during transit, on the store shelf or in your bathroom cabinet, formaldehyde is slowly released from the breakdown of the preservative quaternium-15, which is in the shampoo’s formulation. Formaldehyde, being a biocide as well as a carcinogen, kills bacteria that may be lurking in the shampoo.
  4. And anyway, if you’re so concerned about tiny amounts of a carcinogen in your baby’s shampoo, you can always use the company’s “98% natural” line of formaldehyde-free shampoos.

Ultimately, Johnson & Johnson says it’s phasing out the use of formaldehyde preservatives from its baby products “as quickly as [it] can safely and responsibly do so.” And how quickly would that be? The company cannot yet say, reports Reuters. But by J&J’s own account, less than 40 percent of its baby products sold in the United States still contain formaldehyde.

And There’s the Rub: Avoiding Potential Carcinogens in Baby Shampoo Is Tricky

Suppose you decide you don’t want your baby exposed to a carcinogen at any concentration, even if it means an increased risk of exposure to bacteria. So you carefully read the labels of all the products in the baby shampoo aisle looking for one that doesn’t include formaldehyde.

Labels on products sold in the United States are not required to list formaldehyde as an ingredient even though the quaternium-15 listed on the label releases formaldehyde.

Chances are, if you’re in the United States, you won’t find a single label with formaldehyde listed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Why? Formaldehyde is not an ingredient per se but rather a breakdown product of the preservative quaternium-15, which is, by the way, listed. (See photo.)

So, bottom line is that, not knowing any better, you could easily end up purchasing a baby shampoo thinking it was formaldehyde-free when it is anything but. Perhaps we’re all supposed to know that quaternium-15 breaks down into formaldehyde.

Driven to Tears: Shopping in the Chemical Marketplace

In the end this is about more than baby shampoo. It’s about the sad state of U.S. regulation of cosmetics and the lack of transparency. (Read more on cosmetic regulations here, here and in this post on Grecian Formula.)

In today’s chemically enhanced world, it’s buyer beware. Do you want you or your family exposed to a chemical added to a consumer product? In principle, that should be your choice. If you decide it’s not worth the risk, you will want to choose products without the chemical. But figuring out which those are is apparently not always as straightforward as you’d think. (Just read other posts in our Chemical Marketplace series.)

It’s enough to get you in a lather, preferably without formaldehyde.



* Formaldehyde is classified as a “carcinogen” or “probable carcinogen,” depending on the agency doing the classifying. On June 12, 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classified formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. That is the same conclusion the International Agency for Research on Cancer reached in 2006. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a preliminary finding in June 2010 ($ub req’ed) of the same classification, but that has yet to be finalized. For now, EPA categorizes it as a probable carcinogen.

** The Cosmetic Ingredient Review has found the chemical quaternium-15 and formaldehyde to be safe for use at a limit of 0.2 percent in personal care products [pdf].

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