What is Wrong With a Cosmetic Company Caving to Fearmongers?

Recently, Johnson and Johnson have announced plans to remove a variety of chemicals from their cosmetic products. This is strictly a PR move and also an unfortunate mistake for the following three reasons.

1. Emotion trumps science

From a cosmetic chemist standpoint, the ingredients we use are safe. Even J&J admits that the formulas that they are currently selling are safe. But despite the guaranteed safety of their product, they are going to change them

“Because we know parents want complete peace of mind when making decisions about their babies, we will phase out the use of all parabens from our baby care products.”

So in other words, they don’t really care what the toxicologists, independent scientists, and government regulations say, if parents are irrationally afraid of parabens, they are going to remove them.

I suppose it’s not that big of a deal at the moment. But how about when the next fearmonger group comes out and convinces a tiny minority of consumers that surfactants are dangerous? Is J&J going to remove all surfactants from their products? or thickening agents, or pH adjusters, or any other ingredient that people are irrationally afraid of? Good luck with that.

2. Alternatives may be less safe

The one piece that fearmonger groups miss is that when a cosmetic formulator has to switch from a material with a proven safety profile, they replace it with something that is less tested. J&J might be phasing out perfectly fine ingredients like Quaternium-15 and Methylparaben but what will they be switching to? A brand new preservative that has only a few years of safety testing? Do you know the long-term exposure effects of the material? Not likely. They could easily be using materials that are less safe than the current options. Congratulations CFSC. You just made everyone less safe.

3. Encourages scientific illiteracy

The third problem I have with this move by J&J is that they are encouraging scientific illiteracy. They are capitulating to non-scientific thinking and rewarding willful ignorance. This is the same kind of nonsense that will prompt people with no background in climate science to declare that global warming isn’t happening or that vaccines are causing autism. These are the non-scientific, irrational positions that are having a real, detrimental effect on our government and society. J&J is contributing to the erosion of society. Nice going.

Chemical free cosmetics

Perhaps the dumbest thing I’ve seen related to this issue are the various tweets and blog posts declaring that Johnson and Johnson are removing chemicals from their products. How J&J goes about making “chemical free” cosmetics is a mystery to me. Last time I checked everything that goes into their cosmetics is a chemical.

As a scientist, I have a real problem with capitulating to non-science based conclusions about chemicals. If an ingredient is unsafe, then by all means get rid of it. But if it is safe, publicly reformulating is a mistake.

I understand cosmetic companies have to give consumers what they want and that’s what J&J is doing. It just doesn’t feel right to give in to irrationality.


  • Dene Godfrey

    Marketing 1; Science 0

  • Sandra L Meyer

    And your #2 reason is such a very important reason in baby care products. It’s hard enough diagnosing and treating serious skin and eye infections in adults, the hurdles of it with babies and kids in general are enormous. Sadly, I’m waiting for the explosion of skin and eye infections in the adult population which will undoubtly lead to realizing that infecton rates will be even higher in infant/child arena.

    It may already even be here, just no one has actually corrolated the uptick. Dr’s offices will rarely ask (ala Dr. House) “go bring me all the stuff you used on yourself, your baby…”, etc. unless or until it becomes a re-occuring,life threatening or other houshold member infection. And even then…

  • GCgirl

    This is happening in other industries too. Non-chemists are declaring chemicals to be unsafe without knowing that everything has a chemical name whether its natural or synthesized. Wait until these people find out that water is a chemical with its own MSDS.

    • Perry Romanowski

      Well maybe if enough scientists speak out against this nonsense, we can keep influencing governments to pass rational based regulations

  • Elham

    no chemicals in cosmetics is a claim which drives me mad. I don’t know who is more naive , those who write that nonsense or those who believe that. I can hardly help not getting aggressive when a vendor/beauty consultant or whatever they call themselves tries to pump me with information I’ve never asked for whenever I’m in a shop. As I explain them, than being a chemist, they would rather not tell ma that fairy tale of “No chemicals”, they change to “no harmful chemicals”. One of these days I’ll kill a vendor and since death sentence is not practiced in Europe, I can read and write for the rest of my life in prison without any necessity to take care of the business.

  • http://www.facebook.com/harald.jezek Harald Jezek

    Perry I disagree with your views.
    1) J&J is engaging in marketing. It doesn’t really matter whether certain ingredients are bad or not. What counts is the consumer perception.
    2) Now we have to ask where do consumer perceptions originate. Who created the concept of sulfate free, paraben free, conservative free, natural = good and synthethic is bad, etc, etc ?
    Raw material producer and finished product producers have to be pro active in explaining their products to the market otherwise urban legends are created and spread. Once this happens the industry is in a bad shape because it puts you in a defensive position.

  • MsClogs

    Ultimately, cosmetics manufacturers are in the business of sales and just like anyone else in retail they have to bow to the wishes of the customer. However, all of that aside, you make the comment that no regulatory bodies agree with the removal of certain chemicals from cosmetics and that is not entirely true.

    In 2011, Denmark banned the use of methyl & propyl parabens from any personal care products that were to be used on the under 3s. The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety then undertook a review of this decision to determine whether it had any scientific merit. They came to the conclusion that it would be prudent to avoid the use of methyl and propyl parabens in babies under the age of 6 months with a specific focus on the nappy area given that it’s prone to broken skin.

    Whilst this isn’t a rousing endorsement of Denmark’s decision, it’s also a tentative agreement that it would be best to enforce the precautionary principle when it comes to certain chemicals in personal care products, particularly when used on babies. In my experience, cosmetic chemists all tend to get very indignant about how certain chemicals are portrayed by the mainstream media, but just like many other issues sometimes a precautionary view is sensible.

  • Mawi

    While I agree there is no such thing as “chemical free” cosmetics, I for one am thrilled that J&J is getting rid of parabens (which are known endocrine disruptors) and quaternium-15 (a proven formeldahyde releasing contaminant). There is absolutely NO reason why these should be included in children’s products, and should absolutely be banned during such sensitive times of growth and development. What you call the non-educated stirring up the muck, the rest of us see as a real issue. You also forget to mention that these types of chemicals have a tendency for bioaccumulation, so it is not just a single exposure that we have every day, we get it multiple times a day from different products and it builds up over time to be passed from generation to generation. If you can reduce your exposure to even ONE thing, it should be done.
    Cosmetics are NOT regulated in this country, and there is a complete lack of interest in the consumer’s well-being. I think it was smart on J&Js side to get rid of these things, and to find safer alternatives. I am not sure why you see this as an erosion of society, but it sounds more like you have a “holier than thou” view just because you’ve studied chemistry. But just because you see how a chemical is made does not mean that you know how these things interact in the body or even understand the health effects of being exposed (especially at low doses).
    The precautionary principle should reign king instead of waiting for the human guinea pig experiment to prove how we are out to destroy ourselves. Many scientists agree that parabens have negative health effects, so saying that this is simply a marketing scheme is ridiculous.

    • PerryR

      There is much you claim that is just mistaken (bioaccumlation, regulatory status of cosmetics, etc) but I’ll just limit my comments to the following.

      If you believe the “precautionary principle” should reign supreme then there is a simple step you can take to ensure you are taking every precaution you can.

      Stop using cosmetics. And stop using them on babies. No one needs to use cosmetics to live a healthy life.

      Once you start putting ANY chemicals on your body or the bodies of your children, you’ve decided to accept the risks.

    • Dene Godfrey

      Mawi – not all scientists know everything, so when basing your opinion on what scientists are claiming, it is better to take note of the opinion of scientists who are expert in whatever particular field is in question. Instead of listening to random scientists (David Pollock claims to be a scientist, for example, but I have never heard such unscientific rubbish coming from a “scientist” in my life), why not read the attached opinion from the group of expert, independent scientists who advise the European Commission on EU safety legislation: http://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_132.pdf

    • Dene Godfrey

      And, furthermore, your claim that parabens are “known endocrine dusruptors” is simply not true. There are no studies that demonstrate endocrine disruption by parabens (and it is fundamentally inaccurate to lump all parabens together as though they share exactly the same toxicological properties anyway!). Please check out the series of articles on parabens on this site to get a better perspective before listening to people whose opinions (I stress “opinoins”, not facts) fit with what you prefer to believe – that doesn’t make them right (and they are not!)