A Label Reading Lesson: Johnson & Johnson’s Head to Toe Baby Wash

I’m always harping on about reading labels.  I know it is difficult to read labels while shopping with kids.  Who has time to read the label on each product with 2 kids tugging on you, demanding to go to the toy section right now! At least, that is what happens to me if I am shopping at Target.  So, not only is it hard to have time to read labels while shopping, it is even harder to figure out what the label says.  

And those labels can be tricky to decipher.  And what about the claims on the packaging?  Can you trust them? 

Well, let’s look at a baby staple.  Johnson’s Head-to-Toe baby wash from Johnson & Johnson.  And let’s hope I don’t get sued. 

First, let’s look at the claims.  The website advertises the product as “an ultra-mild cleanser for your baby’s skin and hair that’s gentle enough even for newborns.”  It also proclaims it “the #1 choice of hospitals” and “milder than baby soap.”  The “no more tears” formula is “as gentle to the eyes as pure water” and the product is “soap-free, dye-free, hypoallergenic and allergy- and dermatologist-tested.” 
baby washNone of these claims, including hypoallergenic, allergy-tested and dermatologist-tested have any regulatory meaning.  Keep in mind that, according to the Food & Drug Administration, a cosmetic company does not have to prove its claims or the efficacy of the products.  There is no regulatory definition of “hypoallergenic” – you think it means that the product will not cause allergic reactions or irritant responses.  Keep that thought in mind when we discuss the ingredients.  A company can label a product as “hypoallergenic” without having any proof to back up that claim.  There are no standardized guidelines for this claim, just as there are no guidelines for dermatologist tested or allergy tested.  Before we can talk about the claim that the product is “as gentle to the eyes as pure water,” we need to talk about the ingredients.  The ingredients are: 

Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEG-150 Distearate, Tetrasodium EDTA, Sodium Chloride, Polyquaternium-10, Fragrance, Quaternium-15, Citric Acid. 

PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate and PEG-150 Distearate are all ethoxylated compounds.  Ethoxylated compounds, unless vacuum stripped, are contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.  1,4-dioxane has been identified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  1,4-dioxane is not listed on the ingredient list because it is a contaminant from the manufacturing process, not an ingredient.  The FDA encourages manufacturers to remove 1,4-dioxane from products, but there is no requirement that it be done.  And, testing reported by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics did find 1,4-dioxane in Johnson’s Head-to-Toe baby wash at 5.3 to 6.1 parts per million (ppm).  In fact, in its FAQ section of its website, Johnson & Johnson admits that “[s]ome of the ingredients in our products may contain 1,4-dioxane as an incidental ingredient at extremely low levels.” 

Further, sodium laureth sulfate can cause eye and skin irritation.  Do you think that is consistent with the claim that the product is “hypoallergenic”?  Wouldn’t you expect it to be free of any ingredient known to cause irritant responses?  As a note, sodium laureth sulfate was widely reported on the web as being a carcinogen, but, at least to date, research by the EPA, OSHA, NTP and IARC has not suggested that sodium laureth sulfate is a carcinogen.   

Cocamidopropyl betaine, PEG-80 sorbitan laurate and PEG-150 disterate can all cause allergic reactions.  Again, these ingredients aren’t what you would expect in a product advertising itself as hypoallergenic.  Cocamidopropyl betaine may also be contaminated with nitrosamines. 

Quaternium-15 may release formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.  But, I actually think that Quat-15, as it is called, is more of a problem because it is the number one cause of contact dermatitis from preservatives, according to the American Acadmey of Dermatology’s Testing Tray results.  Also, it is identified by the cosmetic industry’s Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel as a sensitizer, but is still considered safe by the CIR as a cosmetic ingredient.  (If you want to learn about the function of the CIR, I encourage you to read Stacy Malkan’s Not Just A Pretty Face).  It has also been linked to birth defects in laboratory animals when administered orally. 

Finally, the product contains “fragrance” – which means synthetic fragrance and, of course, phthalates.  Phthalates are used in fragrance to sustain the fragrance and make it adsorb better to the skin.  Johnson & Johnson admits that it uses diethyl phthalate (DEP) in its baby products.  And, as reported in a recent study, exposure to DEP in baby care products results in the presence of a DEP metabolite in baby urine.  Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means that they can mimic hormones and disrupt’s the body’s normal function.  Phthalates have been linked to premature breast development in girls, deteriorated sperm quality, low sperm counts and poor sperm morphology in men, and a host of other adverse health effects.   

So, how can this product claim to be “as gentle to the eyes are pure water” when it contains a host of chemicals known to be irritants, allergens or sensitizers?  And do you really want to use it on your baby?  I think that this staple baby product should be thrown out with the bath water.  But, hey, that’s just me. 
If you are looking for phthlate free baby care products, I have some listed here. 

What now? Toxic lead in baby changing pads & diaper bags

You may not even want to hear this but it is actually nothing new.  It gets almost tiresome – the daily reports about this toxic chemical in this product.  You may stop even paying attention.  I can’t say a blame you.  You almost want to give up.  But don’t!  We can eliminate or reduce toxic chemicals in our homes.  It may take some sweeping policy changes to make a real difference on a global scale, but you can make the environment you want a home.


So, what’s the latest?  Diaper bags and changing pads contain lead.  A report from the Center for Environmental Health found high levels of lead in a number of diaper changing pads and diaper bags.  The CEH purchased 60 diaper bags from major California retailers and specialty stores in February and March, 2008, and tested the bags and the changing pads that came with the bags for lead using an X-ray fluorescence analyzer.  The bags & pads were also sent to an independent laboratory to verify the results.


And the results?  Some of the bags came back with elevated lead levels.  Why?  These bags and changing pads, or parts of them, were made with polyvinyl chloride (“PVC” or vinyl) plastic.  PVC plastic has to be stabilized to retain its strength.  It is often stabilized with lead, although other metal salts can be used.  The lead isn’t bound up in the plastic polymer, so it will migrate to the surface, especially with exposure to heat and friction.  The result?  Lead is available for pick up on the surface of some vinyl items. 


The CEH compared the lead levels to the federal standard for lead in paints and other coatings, which is 600 ppm.  This isn’t a standard for lead in vinyl, but it was at least a benchmark for comparison purposes.  There is no federal standard for lead in vinyl.  California’s Proposition 65 requires warnings for listed chemicals, and certain standards have been established for lead in certain products – above the level, a warning is required and below it, no warning is required.  Most of these standards are below 600 ppm for lead in vinyl products, such as tool handles and electrical cords.


Does it matter?  Lead exposure can cause significant adverse health consequences, including lower IQ scores, at low levels.  Children are more at risk for lead exposure.  The benchmark is 10 micrograms lead per deciliter blood, but it is fairly well established that there is no safe level for lead, and health effects have been demonstrated at blood lead levels of 2.5 micrograms per deciliter blood.  Lead exposure is cumulative, so little small exposures can add up.  Lead based paint and lead in household dust remain a more significant exposure for children, but you still might want to check out  your diaper bag.  The highest lead levels were found in the changing pads of three bags from K-Mart including a Disney Baby “Winnie the Pooh” bag, a Baby Got Bag leopard print bag, and a “Baby Necessities” brand bag. A fourth with lead in the changing pad was a “George” store-brand bag from WalMart. A “Red” brand bag from Mimi Maternity and a Carter’s “Out ‘N About” bag from Babies R Us had high lead levels in other parts of the bag.