Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Baby Shampoo?

Photo Courtesy Of:  iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you buy special shampoo for your baby, the last thing you’d expect it to contain would be known or suspected carcinogens…

But if you live in the U.S., this may in fact be the case.

For the past two years, health and environmental groups have been urging Johnson & Johnson to remove two potentially cancer-causing chemicals from its baby shampoo.

One of these ingredients is quaternium-15, which releases formaldehyde; a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant, and a known carcinogen (formaldehyde exposure has been associated with leukemia specifically).

According to

“The North American Contact Dermatitis Group considers quaternium-15 to be among the most clinically significant contact allergens in children.”

The other, 1,4-dioxane, is a “likely carcinogen,” and is present in Johnson & Johnson’s:

  • Baby Shampoo
  • Oatmeal Baby Wash
  • Moisture Care Baby Wash, and
  • Aveeno Baby Soothing Relief Creamy Wash

According to the CDC, 1,4 dioxane is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” and is toxic to your brain, central nervous system, kidneys and liver.

Why is Johnson & Johnson Dragging Their Feet on Removal of Toxic Ingredients for U.S. Lots?

On October 31, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics sent Johnson & Johnson a letter signed by 25 environmental and medical groups, demanding they “commit to removing the chemicals from all of its products by November 15.” The Campaign also urges everyone to boycott Johnson & Johnson until it complies.

Johnson & Johnson recently responded, stating that:

“We have been phasing out the use of preservatives that release tiny amounts of formaldehyde to guard against bacterial contamination. These preservative technologies, which are used widely in our industry are all safe and approved in the countries where they are sold…  Over the past couple of years, we already have reduced the number of formulations globally with these “formaldehyde releaser” preservatives by 33 percent and in the U.S. by over 60 percent.

We are completing this reformulation as quickly as we can safely and responsibly do so.

As part of the manufacturing process, we have extensive monitoring to ensure that the amount of a trace byproduct known as “1,4 dioxane” in any of our products is well below the level that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and regulatory agencies around the world consider safe.

… We have introduced new product formulations for consumers who prefer natural products, such as JOHNSON’S® NATURAL®, a line that is 98 percent natural, and contains no formaldehyde releasing preservatives or traces of 1,4 dioxane.”

However, reasonable as this may sound, there are two rather obvious “problems” with their reply:

1. They’re already selling a carcinogen-free version of its baby shampoo in other countries, so obviously no complicated reformulation would be necessary, and

2. The Johnson’s “Naturals” brand does not contain either of these chemicals, but, it costs about twice as much as their regular baby shampoo. That makes TWO carcinogen-free formulas at their disposal, which makes the line “We are completing this reformulation as quickly as we can safely and responsibly do so,” seem like a rather strange excuse

The countries already receiving quaternium-15-free Johnson & Johnson products include:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Japan
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • South Africa
  • Sweden
  • The U.K.

As stated by Jezebel:

“And it’s not like the company removed an essential ingredient to meet environmental restrictions in these countries. While some have banned the use of quaternium-15, it’s unclear why some of these countries are being treated to the carcinogen-free shampoo.”

What to Look for to Avoid Formaldehyde and 1,4-Dioxane

If you want to avoid formaldehyde-releasing ingredients and 1,4-dioxane, you need to know what to look for as they’re NOT listed on the label; at least not in those words.

Common ingredients likely to contaminate products with formaldehyde include:

  • Quaternium-15
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea

To avoid 1,4-dioxane, watch out for these ingredients, which create 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct:

  • PEG-100 stearate
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium myreth sulfate
  • Polyethylene
  • Ceteareth-20

Other Hazardous Ingredients to Watch Out for

It’s unfortunate, but personal care products, including those specifically designed for babies, can contain a number of hazardous ingredients. Other common culprits to avoid include:

  • Any chemical that include the clauses “xynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth”
  • Diethanolamine or DEA, a potentially cancer-causing agent. DEA also readily reacts with nitrite preservatives and contaminants to create nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), a known and potent carcinogen. The chemical also appears to block absorption of the nutrient choline, which is vital to brain development.
  • Propylene Glycol. Despite the fact the material safety data sheet warns users to avoid skin contact with propylene glycol as it is a strong skin irritant and can also cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage, it’s a common ingredient in shampoos.
  • Parabens. These preservatives may be listed on the label as methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, propyl paraben, butyl paraben, isobutyl paraben or E216. They have shown particularly troubling links to cancer.Studies have shown that parabens can affect your body much like estrogens, which can lead to diminished muscle mass, extra fat storage, and male gynecomastia (breast growth). Other studies have also linked parabens to breast cancer, as researchers found traces of parabens in every sample of tissue taken from 20 different breast tumors. The EPA has linked methyl parabens in particular to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers.

Average Baby Exposed to Dozens of Potentially Unsafe Chemicals Daily

Four years ago, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) surveyed 3,300 parents and compared the baby products they used to lists of chemicals known to cause allergies, hormone disruption, damage to the nervous system, and cancer. Their review revealed that children are exposed to about 27 chemical ingredients on a daily basis that have never been assessed for safety. Not by the industry, nor by the government.

Examples of hazardous ingredients and baby products from that review include:

  • 2 bromo, 2 nitropropane, and 3-DIOL: Can cause allergies and skin irritations. In certain products these ingredients can also break down to form other cancer causing agents
  • Sodium borate, found in Desitin diaper cream, can accumulate in your child’s brain and liver, causing detrimental health effects
  • Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreen, can trigger allergies, and may disrupt a child’s delicate hormone system

Interestingly, 89 percent of products labeled “Recommended by doctor” were found to be some of the worst offenders, containing some of the most dangerous chemicals!

The 2007 EWG study also determined that:

  • 82 percent of children are exposed every week to one or more ingredients with the potential to harm the brain and nervous system.
  • 69 percent of children are exposed every week to one or more ingredients that may disrupt the hormone system.
  • 3.6 percent of children are exposed to ingredients with strong data linking them to cancer, including chemicals classified as known or probable human carcinogens.
  • 80 percent of children’s products marked as gentle and non-irritating contain ingredients linked to allergies and skin or eye irritation according to government and industry sources.

Evaluate Ingredients Before You Buy

The issue of potential toxins lurking in shampoos, soaps, lotions and other personal care products is a serious one, as your skin readily absorbs these chemicals, allowing them directly into your blood stream. When absorbed, they can actually do more harm than if you were to swallow them.

I strongly recommend switching over to organic brands of toiletries, including children’s personal care products. You can usually find a good variety at either your local health food store, or by searching online. Keep in mind that not all products marked “natural” or “organic” are in fact wholly natural or organic, as “greenwashing” has become increasingly pervasive.

I highly recommend using the Environmental Working Groups Skin Deep site to evaluate each product before settling on a purchase. The EWG is a nonprofit public-interest research group known for making connections between chemical exposure and adverse health conditions. Since its inception in 2004, their “Skin Deep” study has assigned health-risk ratings to thousands of personal-care products.

General Shopping Guidelines

Some general guidelines to keep in mind when purchasing personal care products include:

  • Look for the genuine USDA Organic Seal.
  • If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to put it on your body. Ask yourself, “Would I eat this?”
  • Look for products that are fragrance-free. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds—even thousands—of chemicals, and fragrances are a major cause of allergic reactions.
  • Pay attention to the order in which the ingredients are listed. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by volume, meaning the first few ingredients are the most prominent. If calendula extract is the last ingredient in a long list, your calendula body wash isn’t very natural.
  • Stick to the basics. Do you really need 10 products to prepare for your day? Simplify your life and rescue your bank account by reducing the total number of products you use daily.
  • Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a serious concern; make sure any plastic container is BPA free.
  • Look for products that are made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly and committed to organic and sustainable business practices.

There is reason to be concerned about the numerous toxic chemicals you expose your children to on a daily basis, as each and every exposure adds to your child’s total, long-term toxic load. For more information, I highly recommend reading Dr. Doris Rapp’s book, Our Toxic World: A Wake Up Call. Dr. Rapp does a thorough job of uncovering the many ways you’re exposed to toxic chemicals, and how they take a toll on your health, contributing to the many chronic diseases you see today.

Call to Action recommends taking decisive consumer action to end the unnecessary inclusion of toxic ingredients in products designed for babies. Here’s what you can do:

1. Vote with your pocketbook: Until Johnson & Johnson commits to making safer baby products for all babies, purchase products from companies making safer alternatives. Search EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic database to find safer products.

2. Contact Johnson & Johnson: Sign the petition to Johnson & Johnson, asking them to immediately remove formaldehyde-releasing preservatives from all of its baby products sold in all countries and replace them with safer alternatives.

Write to Congress: Ask your U.S. Representative to support the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011.

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Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Linda V.
L V.3 years ago

Not all that surprising. But what I do find unbelievable is how relaxed our own government regulations are. Look how many countries have banned these carcinogenic ingredients; why does the US not get a clue? I don't expect J&J to be as concerned about this; after all, a corporation's primary goal is to increase profits, not to be concerned about our health...especially given that they profit when our health is compromised anyway. And don't get me started on food dyes. Why is it that the same food products sold in the UK have naturally derived coloring agents such as beet juice instead of synthetically manufactured red dye? We obviously can't trust our government to be vigilant about our health. One would think our government would realize that disease prevention is cheaper in the long run than dealing with the high cost of a diseased populace. Oh I forgot for a moment that the US gov is tremendously near-sighted.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal3 years ago

Why are we so surprised?

Hannah Short
Hannah Short3 years ago

they also test on animals, just stick to all natural biodegradable products that has ingredients that you can recognize and that are cruelty free

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Lydia Price

Suave products also contain dangerous chemicals. Some of these are banned in the state of California.

Sue H.
Sue H.3 years ago

So bad to do this to our babies and our planet!!

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers3 years ago

Shameful !

Michelle R.
Past Member 3 years ago

you can wash your kids hair with comes up quite shiny

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran3 years ago