It May Be April Fool’s Day, But Toxins in Baby Bath are No Joke

April 1st, 2009

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.

— Lynn

Copyright OrganicMania 2009

17 Responses to “It May Be April Fool’s Day, But Toxins in Baby Bath are No Joke”

  1. JessTrev on April 1, 2009 11:23 am

    Fascinating, thorough look at the issues, as usual Lynn. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Jess, Thanks for your support. And folks, go check out what Jess had to say about this issue at The Green Phone Booth. I agree with Jess: A parent shouldn’t need a chemistry degree to understand a label!
    — Lynn

  2. Kid Safe Chemcial Act is Need | Green & Clean Mom on April 1, 2009 11:24 am

    […] Lynn of points out toxins in our baby care products really is NO JOKE! This is serious stuff and it needs […]

  3. Sommer @greenmom on April 1, 2009 3:25 pm

    I love your point on maybe needing more than the Kid Safe Chemical act and wanting to know more from J&J. Great point Lynn.

    Yeah, I just wish they would respond, Sommer. Folks, Sommer is hosting the Green Moms Carnival today. Head on over to Green and Clean Mom to view Sommer’s satiric video and to read perspectives form other members of the Green Moms Carnival. Go to:

  4. Anna (Green Talk) on April 1, 2009 5:09 pm

    Blows your mind that J & J did not have those answers. I agree with you that the Act may not be the answer. The worse thing is how long will it take to get enacted? I along with other parents feel particularly helpless since it is our job to be chemical snoops to figure out what is safe and isn’t.

    I would love for you to post further on the answers that you get.

    A mommy blogger specialist? Are they serious. Do they have a daddy blogger specialist too?

    Anna, you can bet I will post re whatever else I learn. In fact, I’ve since found another link that says the industry knew about 1,4 dioxane in 1982 and committed at that time to reducing or eliminating the use of it. I’d love to see an effort like we saw with BPA – industry-led – rather than government led, as with CSPIA. Why isn’t the industry responding? Fear of litigation? Sticking their collective heads in the sand? I don’t know, but I can say I’m very disappointed. I actually had a pleasant discussion with the J&J spokesperson and really expected more from them. Folks, check out what Anna had to say about this issue at: Lynn

  5. Katy from Non-Toxic Kids on April 1, 2009 6:02 pm


    Great way to balance this post by calling J & J. You asked important questions they need to answer. Nice job with a thorough post.


    Katy, Thanks so much for your nice feedback. I just wish I had received some real feedback from J&J. Very disappointing. — Lynn

  6. mother earth aka karen hanrahan on April 1, 2009 6:12 pm

    what did she say when you asked if this meant that NO ONE had ever asked these questions??

    I don’t recall an answer to my question. She asked me to email her my questions…which further irritated me because I had just spent about 20 minutes on the phone with her…didn’t she pay attention to what I was saying? — Lynn

  7. April Anderson on April 1, 2009 6:45 pm

    WVE had sent out a newsletter talking about the toxins in our kids baths


    Excellent comments on the issue relating to No More Toxic Tub….what I find very interesting is that we talk about the wrongs in the personal care industry, yet we don’t take it one step further and include the use of toxic and or synthetic “Green” cleaning products that so many use to ensure their children are “safe” (germs and dirt) while taking a bath.

    April, I agree with your points…the focus of this carnival was specifically kids bubble baths…but your point is well taken. Tonight we washed the tub with baking soda and I had no fears about letting my kids get in the tub and help clean it too! By the way, I love your blog. Folks, check out April’s post: — Lynn

  8. Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama on April 1, 2009 8:57 pm

    Great post Lynn and fantastic effort at trying to provide a balanced take, even if J&J couldn’t answer your question. I can’t believe that the J&J contact person was going to pass you along to the mommy blogger specialist. Why would the mommy blogger specialist know the answers? It seems to me that J&J’s response means that they do NOT take our questions and concerns seriously. Just a bunch of hysterical mommy bloggers . . . And it is also curious since J&J offers at least some answers to questions regarding 1,4-dioxane and phthalates on its website.


    Jennifer, thanks so much for the compliment, and I am with you on the reaction to being referred to the Mommy blogger specialist. I just hit their site trying to find the references you mention. I couldn’t find that but I did find this: “We aspire to be the most environmentally responsible company in the world.” That’s an incredible goal – good for them. But then why couldn’t their Director of Comms answer these three questions:
    – 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?

    — Lynn

  9. Diane MacEachern on April 2, 2009 5:41 am

    Great overview of the issue. You’re right – this is no joke. We need better labeling, more restrictions and tougher laws.

    Thanks, Diane, for stopping by and leaving an encouraging note. This has actually been a very frustrating and discouraging experience, although I must say I have learned a lot! — Lynn

  10. Eric McErlain on April 2, 2009 6:14 am

    With all due respect, the report from EWG has a number of serious flaws that one could only detect by giving it a more careful reading. Here are just two sources who came to a conclusion that supports J&J’s position — that their baby care products are safe and that altering their formulation in a manner consistent with what you’re demanding in this forum would actually make the products less safe:

    The irresponsible party in this case is the Environmental Working Group, as they are needlessly panicking parents all around the world with accusations that are bogus and without foundation.

    Actually, Eric, there are far more than two parties who support this report, which incidently was released by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetic and not by the EWG. How about Senator Lautenberg, who backs the Kid-Safe Chemical Act?

    Or the many respected organizations that back the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics? Check them out here: They include organizations like The Breast Cancer and The American Nurses Association. See:

    And what about your group? Counterpoint Strategies?

    CounterPoint Strategies, Inc. provides communications services
    to leading companies, prominent public figures and organizations

    CounterPoint combines assertive communication strategies
    and experienced counsel to help clients confront volatile media
    circumstances. We shield clients and counter attacks. We hold
    press accountable and challenge adversaries. With unique
    solutions and proven tactics, we safeguard clients through a
    hostile public affairs marketplace.

    I see the formaldehyde council is up on arms about this as you’ve left comments on all of the Green Moms blogs. I’m still waiting for a direct answer to the three questions I asked J&J and repeated in my post:

    – 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?

    — Lynn

  11. Michael Shaw on April 2, 2009 6:41 am

    Actually, the formaldehyde is put in there as a preservative. Without it, the product would be contmainated with bacteria, and similar products without such protection have caused serious infections and blindness.

    I hate to break this to you, but formaldehyde is naturally occurring in all your vegetables and fruits, and your breth level is probably around 30 parts-per-billion.

    Finally, I am convinced that the EWG’s lab–no website–did the tests incorrectly.

    Refer to my article on this..

    EWG definitely gots its wish, as this nonsense has appeared on hundreds of Mommy blogs, and I’m sure they’re getting plenty of contributions. No agenda there, of course…

    As it happens, many, many eminent toxicologists doubt that formaldehyde is carcinogenic in humans, and the levels that did cause cancer in animals are enormously higher that what you’re talking about here, in any case.

  12. Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama on April 2, 2009 9:17 am

    Yes, formaldehyde is released from preservatives in the personal care products, but it isn’t the only option for preservatives. That’s a complete fallacy. Other options exist as well – many companies successfully do without formaldehyde releasing preservatives but nevertheless have safe products.

    And while the amounts may occur naturally in certain foods, then amounts are lower than found in most of the personal care products. 6 to 13 ppm in a tomato.

    But that argument misses the point. The members of the Green Moms Carnival recognize that the EWG report simply identifies the presence of these compounds and does not assess exposure or risk. What we are seeking instead is a company and spokesperson that advertise themselves as being green to be that – stop using petroleum based compounds, disclose ingredients, use recycled content bottles, etc.

    Jennifer, thanks so much for responding to the two comments from The Formaldehyde Council (Or Counterpoint Strategies or whomever they are fronting). — Lynn

  13. margie on April 6, 2009 11:27 am

    Can I just point out that the industry spokespeople that have thus far attacked the report fail to mention that there are PLENTY of safer products on the market that don’t contain chemicals likely to be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane (ethoxylated ingredients) and don’t contain formaldehyde releasing preservatives. Any product carrying the USDA organic seal doesn’t allow for these ingredients and work perfectly well, are well preserved and don’t irritate baby’s skin.

    My sister uses Dr. Bronner’s in the tub with her daughter who, like me and my sister, has extremely sensitive skin, and she hasn’t had a problem, whereas J&J baby shampoo made her break out in a rash. Recent studies point to the fact that there is an overuse of formaldehyde releasing preservatives in products that can lead to skin reactions:

    What I find most interesting about the reaction by industry dinosaurs to this report is that MANY other companies make safer alternatives now and they could be too, but it will cost them $$ to move beyond the toxic chemistry of the past to the green chemistry of the future. . .so just like other industries that need to evolve (energy, for example), they’ll fight tooth and nail to resist this change.

    Margie, I love the analogy you make to the energy industry and your reference to green chemistry. You’re right on! — Lynn

  14. Stacy Malkan on April 6, 2009 11:48 am

    You accuse the Moms of inciting fears, but then you claim that products without formaldehyde-releasing preservatives will cause children to go blind. Talk about fear mongering! We all know that there are other preservatives, widely used in the beauty industry, that do not contain formaldehyde — which, in addition to being carcinogenic, can also cause allergic reactions in children who are sensitive to the chemical. This problem is well documented by medical professionals. There is no need to dose kids with formaldehyde and dioxane in the bathtub. Companies already know how to make safe, gentle, wonderful products without these hazardous substances, and that’s what Johnson & Johnson should be doing too.

    Stacy Malkan
    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
    Author, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry”

    Stacy, thanks so much for stopping by OrganicMania and supporting the Green Moms and leaving this comment. Folks, if you haven’t read Stacy’s book, you should really check it out. She’s our champion in for safe cosmetics and personal care products. — Lynn

  15. Stephenie hendricks on April 6, 2009 12:35 pm

    Good for you for talking with Johnson & Johnson and thanks for spreading the word…the industry spin doctors are now using a messaging frame of “Let’s not panic” which many lazy journalists have embraced, as they would have had to work too hard and make their audiences uncomfortable if they did their jobs and exposed the truth of corporate deception. If the companies making these products just focused on making safer products, they could save alot of money they now spend on spin and also save money from what appears to be ensuing litigation as people realize the truth. Crazy!

    Hi Stephanie, Thanks so much for stopping by OrganicMania and leaving this supportive comment. I am very disturbed that no one from the Personal Care Products Council nor from J&J has addressed my concerns directly. I actually felt much better about the situation before I wrote this post, got the responses (or non-responses) that I’ve received and started reading more about all the many breast cancer survivor groups, nursing groups, health education groups and others that support the work of the EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Thanks, Lynn

  16. Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama on April 6, 2009 1:23 pm

    Lynn –

    I loved Stacy Malkan’s comment. She is so right. Talk about fear mongering – without formaldehyde donor preservatives, children will go blind! Who is fear mongering now?

    No doubt – there is a risk of blindness from contaminated cosmetics (as far as I know, the reports of blindness were related to contaminated mascaras from the 1970s), but there are many options to formaldehyde releasing preservatives. Lots of companies use them – from California Baby to Earth Mama Angel Baby to many others.

    Also, here are the links to the information I referenced

    Johnson & Johnson on phthalates in its products:

    The information on 1,4-dioxane is in the FAQ here:

    Here’s the info directly from J&J’s website: Some of the ingredients in our products may contain 1,4-dioxane as an incidental ingredient at extremely low levels. This trace ingredient is common in the personal care industry, and results from a process that makes products mild for even the most delicate skin. 1,4-dioxane is also a natural component of such food products as vine-ripened tomatoes and tomato products, fresh shrimp, brewed coffee and fried chicken. Recently, several environmental activist groups erroneously claimed that in 1985 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked the cosmetics/personal care industry to voluntarily limit 1,4-dioxane to a certain level. However, the FDA has set no limits for 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics and personal care products, and the low levels in some of our products present no risk to consumers. Test results recently released by these groups state that some shampoos and bath products contain trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane. We are unclear as to the testing methodology used by these groups and cannot verify the data that was listed in their press release.

  17. Organic and Green Mom Blog | The Aftermath of the Green Moms Carnival: Hysterical Mommy Bloggers? at Organic Mania on April 10, 2009 6:27 am

    […] hoped that my efforts to reach out to industry before publishing my post for the Green Moms Carnival would lead to more confidence in the state of the industry and the […]

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