It sounds incredible: probable human carcinogens like formaldehyde in children’s bubble bath. Yes, today is April Fool’s Day, but this is no joke. This is the sad reality of the state of our personal care products industry.
How did we get to this point? It’s a function of our regulatory system (or lack thereof as some might say). According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, “The nation’s toxic chemical regulatory law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, is in drastic need of reform. Passed in 1976 and never amended since, TSCA is widely regarded as the weakest of all major environmental laws on the books today. When passed, the Act declared safe some 62,000 chemicals already on the market, even though there were little or no data to support this policy. Since that time another 20,000 chemicals have been put into commerce in the United States, also with little or no data to support their safety.”
And if this is news to you, you may be asking why you’re learning about this only now. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics just last month released its “No More Toxic Tub” report, which included lab results showing that personal care products are commonly contaminated with formaldehyde or 1,4-dioxane – and, in many cases, both. According to the report, “These two chemicals, linked to cancer and skin allergies, are anything but safe and gentle and are completely unregulated in children’s bath products.”
But you know what? This isn’t new news. It may be new to you because perhaps you’re a new parent who is just for the first time paying careful attention to what goes into the bath water with your baby. But the fact is, you can find reports like this one about 1,4 dioxane and formaldehyde dating back to 2007 – and I imagine, even earlier. (Updated 4/3: Here’s a link reporting that in 1982, “the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel noted that the cosmetic industry was aware of the problem of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics and was making an effort to reduce or remove the impurity.” )
The makers of these products claim they are completely safe and meet all government requirements. J&J’s products are bearing the bulk of the criticism from today’s Green Moms Carnival because of J&J’s ill-timed “Big Bubblin Stars” video campaign. But the fact is, J&J does meet all US requirements. Levels of formaldehyde in the J&J products are even below EU levels, which is significant because many American consumers try to follow EU standards for personal care products because they believe them to be safer than the US standards.
But the issue is not J&J’s products alone. Why? We are exposed to thousands of personal care products over our lifetimes. If each one of these products leaches trace amounts of potentially toxic chemicals into our bodies – as tests like the EWG’s “Body Burden” test have shown – then the effect is a cumulative one. And when you’re talking about infants, small children, and young people in their reproductive years, the potential effects are really unknown. We do know that chemicals have been linked to cancers. We do know that we’ve seen a marked decrease in fertility in this country and an increasing number of reproductive diseases. Are they connected to repeated chemical exposures from birth on? I agree with Dr. Philip P. Landrigan, Professor and Chair of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He says, “Children are not simply ‘little adults’. They are uniquely vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment. Exposures in early life can affect human health over the entire life span. We need to find definitive answers about the relationship between toxic chemicals and health so we can protect our children now and in the future.”
In response to past criticism, J&J’s spokesperson Iris Grossman has said, “It’s important to stress that all our products are within the FDA limits.” But that’s just the problem. Are the FDA limits appropriate? Unfortunately, one of the legacies left us by the Bush Administration is the public’s fundamental distrust of our regulatory system. The public has just been burned too many times by lax oversight. Look at our financial markets. The SEC claims it wasn’t aware of the extensive use of derivatives in our secondary markets. Heck, I remember learning about derivatives way back in ’97 when I was at Georgetown’s Business School. No, I didn’t understand them, but I still remember scribbling this note: Derivatives: Stay Away!!! Then there’s the sad state of our food safety oversight. How many more people will have to die of salmonella before we get that under control? What about the lead in children’s toys? I shouldn’t have to cart my toys over to The Smart Mama for a thorough lead inspection.
Many will advocate for more regulation, such as the Kid Safe Chemical Act supported by the Environmental Working Group. But regulations don’t always work as intended. The CSPIA, enacted to prevent the sale of items containing lead, has inadvertently caused many small makers of children’s products to go out of business because they couldn’t afford to comply with the testing requirements imposed by the new law. Then there’s the response to the banking crisis. While the government was celebrating the passage of TARP, the bankers were celebrating the fact that the law didn’t require them to start lending again. How do I know that? I first learned about it at a Washington Christmas party, well before that scandal had finally hit the press. And now that spring is here? The credit markets still remain frozen.
So is The Kid Safe Chemical Act the answer? Will it cause more problems than it purports to solve? Will it inadvertently cause harm to the natural and organic purveyors, by causing them to comply with burdensome regulation, just like what happened when the USDA Organic regulation and the CSPIA was passed? I don’t know. I don’t claim to be a regulatory expert. But I do know something about marketing. And I know that the profit margins on personal care products – beauty products in particular – are incredibly high. It is a very lucrative business, and in most cases the biggest expense is not producing the product, it’s marketing. It’s paying for all the free samples and glossy magazine ads that personal care products companies routinely hand out.
Of course, it’s a different matter in the natural and organics market. There, the cost of all natural alternatives to synthetic chemical ingredients is high. And consequently, on a percentage basis, they spend less on marketing than companies like P&G or J&J.
As an MBA and a New Jersey native, I have very dear friends who have worked at leading personal care companies like J&J, Bristol Myers Squibb, and P&G. Of course they believe their products are safe and comply with US law. But that’s not the whole issue. Someone – either the personal care industry as a whole – or the US government – needs to take a closer look at the 82,000 chemicals used in our personal care products to assess the likelihood that they are contributing to our sky high cancer rates and the increasing incidence of reproductive abnormalities.
And as a former newspaper reporter, I know that there are two sides to every story. So I called J&J before publishing this blog post. I wanted to understand their stance on the Kid Safe Chemical Act and the possible adverse affects of long term exposure to the multitude of chemicals in our personal care products. Their spokesperson, Iris Grossman, could not respond to these questions, although she did offer to put me in touch with their “Mommy blogger” person. I pointed out to her that if she couldn’t answer my question, I didn’t think a “Mommy blogger” specialist could either. Then the shock set in. As a marketing and communications professional, I know that every company has a set of standard Q&As used to respond to the media. I asked her if this meant that NO ONE had ever asked these questions before:
– What is J&J’s stance on the Kid Safe Chemical Act?
– What does J&J think about the adverse affects of long term exposure to the thousands of chemicals used in personal care products?
– Is this issue even being discussed at the industry level, through groups like the Personal Products Council?
So what can you do? Here are a few choices:
1. Sign this petition in support of the Kid Safe Chemical Act.
2. Fill out this web form to contact J&J and tell them you want them to lead an industry-wide effort to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act. Or, leave a comment on the J&J blog.
3. Contact the Personal Care Products Council here and tell them you expect a better response to the EWG report than the one that their Chief Scientist gave US News & World Report. “These are issues that have been around for many, many years, so it’s not new news. The thing that impressed me was the low levels of dioxane that were found in these products, which indicates to me that the industry is doing its job in keeping this potential contaminant down to a low level.” (And yes, I’ve called the Personal Care Products Council and am just waiting for a call back).
4. Check the EWG’s Skin Deep data base to find safer alternatives to the products identified in the Campaign’s report.
5. Use fewer personal care products and try to find those with fewer, simpler ingredients.
6. Contact your Congressional representatives to let them know you support Kid Safe. Support is especially critical in Pennyslvania and California. This press release from Senator Lautenberg’s office includes good background information on the bill. If you or someone you know lives in PA, check out this link.
If you live in CA, check out this link.
What do you think? Please leave a comment and share. And if you want to talk about the issue, I’ll be on the radio today along with Jennifer Taggert, The Smart Mama, and Lisa Frack of the Environmental Working Group. You can listen to us here and call in with questions at (530) 265-9555.
Thanks for reading this far! This was a longer than usual post, but I felt I needed the space to make these arguments.
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