More Than Cosmetic Changes: Taking Stock of Personal Care Product Safety

Rebecca Kessler


Environ Health Perspect. 2015;123(5):A120 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Small glass jars full of liquid soap are neatly packed in a refrigerator-size heating chamber. Scanning the jars, Trisha Bonner reaches in and plucks one out. Unlike most of the other jars, whose contents appear thick and pearlescent, this one contains soap that has gone clear and watery. A thin layer of tiny beads, fine as sugar, dusts the bottom—exfoliating beads that have fallen out of suspension. "The scientist will be kind of sad to see this," Bonner says. The jar holds a prototype of one of Johnson & Johnson's revamped Clean and Clear® facial cleansers. It's one of hundreds of products the company is reformulating to make good on a 2011 promise to eliminate or further reduce trace amounts of several ingredients that have drawn safety concerns.[1] Having successfully omit-ted substances that release small quantities of the carcinogen formaldehyde and reduced levels of the potentially carcinogenic impurity 1,4-dioxane in its baby products in 2013, the company is now working on making fur-ther changes across its baby and adult product lines by the end of this year.[1]

The prototype in Bonner's hand is one of many that will fail a series of tests for safety, stability, and cus-tomer satisfaction before the reformulation is complete. That's par for the course, says Bonner, a manager of research and development at a Johnson & Johnson laboratory in rural New Jersey. Tinkering with a product's recipe can have unintended consequences, even if only one or two ingredients are targeted for removal. And fixing one problem often sparks another.

To reformulate around 100 baby products for its 2013 deadline, the company developed 1,500 prototypes, some of which made it 18 months into the development process before failing under scrutiny, Bonner says. That initial reformulation process was particularly tricky because it involved changing the company's most iconic products, including its baby shampoo and baby lotion, which had to retain their familiar colors, consistencies, and scents.

The present round of reformulating has been a bit easier but by no means simple, according to Cathy Salerno, vice president of research and development for the company's North American consumer products division. For example, removing polycyclic musk fragrance ingredients, which have raised concerns as persistent and bioaccumulative endocrine disruptors,[2] is "sort of like taking the sugar out of ice cream" because of the unparalleled warm, creamy scent they contribute, Salerno says. For certain products, rather than try to replace the musks, the company has simply jettisoned the old fragrance for a new musk-free one. In other cases, if reformulating a product becomes too troublesome, Salerno says the company might simply discontinue it.

The trail of failed prototypes notwithstanding, Johnson & Johnson is on track to meet its end-of-year deadline, Salerno says. It is also working to eliminate plastic exfoliating microbeads, which have emerged as a potentially serious water pollutant, by 2017.[1]

Under ordinary circumstances, Johnson & Johnson and other manufacturers of beauty and personal care products reformulate regularly to improve their products or because of changing ingredient availability, but this effort is much bigger. Salerno says it's the hardest project she's ever worked on in her 30 years at Johnson & Johnson. "We've never done anything on this scale before," she says.

Johnson & Johnson's moves have earned it praise from consumer advocacy groups as a herald of change in the cosmetics and personal care products industry.[3] Safety concerns are transforming the industry, which in 2013 earned $41 billion in U.S. sales, according to Vera Sandarova, a spokeswoman for marketing consultancy Kline & Company. In recent years, under mounting pressure, a number of major manufacturers have begun eliminating certain controversial ingredients, and major retailers have announced plans to tailor their stock accordingly.

But even as companies invest considerable resources to reformulate their products, they universally defend the questioned ingredients as perfectly safe. "It all comes down, fundamentally, to providing peace of mind to our consumers and customers. There really is no safety issue," says Homer Swei, associate director of product stewardship at Johnson & Johnson.

Advocacy groups, on the other hand, maintain the chemicals of concern are bad news[4] and that current regulations, which have changed little since 1938, are insufficient to protect consumers. And although the evidence for adverse health effects is still in dispute for many of these chemicals, some scientists see reason for concern.