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Contaminants in Bath Products


Does baby shampoo need to contain cancer-causing chemicals? No – but it often does.

Product tests released by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in March 2009 found two chemicals linked to cancer, 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, in dozens of bath products for babies and kids, including Sesame Street character brands and even the iconic "pure and gentle" Johnson's Baby Shampoo. None of the products tested listed 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde on the label.

Two and a half years later, Johnson's Baby Shampoo is safer in some countries, but not everywhere. Our October 2011 analysis of this product in 13 countries found formaldehyde-releasing chemicals have been replaced in some parts of the world, but not in the U.S. or Canada, among others.

Our inquiry started in February 2007, when tests found 1,4-dioxane in 18 soaps and shampoos for kids and adults.

What's Wrong with These Chemicals?

Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen, while 1,4-dioxane is listed as "reasonably anticipated" to be a human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Formaldehyde can also cause skin rashes in sensitive children.

As with many chemicals of concern used in cosmetics, the companies that make these products argue that it's "just a little bit" of 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde in the baby shampoo. But the same baby may be exposed to these chemicals from bubble bath, shampoo, body wash and many other sources over the course of one day, and these toxic exposures add up.

Why Do Products Contain These Chemicals?

1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of a petrochemical process called ethoxylation, which involves using ethylene oxide (a known breast carcinogen) to process other chemicals in order to make them less harsh. For example, sodium laurel sulfate – notoriously harsh on the skin – is often converted to the gentler chemical sodium laureth sulfate by processing it with ethylene oxide (the "eth" denotes ethoxylation), which can result in 1,4-dioxane contamination.

Formaldehyde contaminates personal care products when common preservatives release formaldehyde over time in the container. Ingredients likely to contaminate products with formaldehyde include quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol), imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.

Pushing for Change

After we released our 2009 Toxic Tub report, thousands of Johnson & Johnson’s consumers  around the world expressed their concern. In addition to receiving letters, emails and calls from angry moms, nurses and other consumers, Johnson's Baby Shampoo was pulled from store shelves in China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and several governments responded.

We've been in contact with Johnson & Johnson through letters and meetings since May 2009 regarding 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde and other chemicals in the company's products. Check out our full timeline of communications with J&J.

J&J hasn't been the only company affected. An August 2008 lawsuit was filed by the California Attorney General's office against several companies for making products with toxic levels of 1,4-dioxane.

The Good News

Yes, there's good news! Many companies in the natural products industry are quitting the ethoxylation habit, which generates 1,4-dioxane. Standards such as the Whole Foods Premium Body Care Seal do not allow ethoxylation, and many companies have been quietly reformulating to replace chemicals such as sodium laureth sulfate that are associated with 1,4-dioxane.

Product testing by author David Steinman released in March 2009 found lower levels of 1,4-dioxane than previously found in an array of products – proof that it's possible to make products without this contaminant.

Our October 2011 analysis of formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in Johnson's Baby Shampoo found that the company is using safer alternatives in some countries as well as in the "natural" version of baby shampoo marketed in the U.S. Not only is it possible to make baby shampoo with safer preservatives, Johnson & Johnson responded to our report by releasing a statement saying it is phasing out formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from its baby products worldwide. No timeline has been set for this phase-out.

What You Can Do

1. Avoid using products that list ingredients that may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, including:

  • sodium myreth sulfate
  • PEG compounds
  • chemicals that include the clauses "xynol," "ceteareth" and "oleth"

2. Avoid products that contain formaldehye-releasing preservatives, including:

  • quaternium-15
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • diazolidinyl urea
  • sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol)
3. Ask Johnson & Johnson to make safer baby shampoo worldwide.

4. In the long run, we need laws that protect us from nasty contaminants. Write to your elected officials and ask them to clean up cosmetics.

More Information

Report: "Baby's Tub Is Still Toxic" (2011)

Report: "No More Toxic Tub" (2009)

Product tests: Cancer-causing Chemical Found in Children's Bath Products (2007)

Skin Deep: Products that may contain 1,4-dioxane

Science: 1,4-dioxane

FAQs: 1,4-dioxane in personal care products

Fact sheet: Avoiding formaldehyde allergic reactions in children

Journal Article: Environmental Exposures: A Pediatric Perspective on Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Press release: Toxic Baby Shampoo: Johnson & Johnson Agrees to Global Reformulation Under Pressure from Health Groups (Nov. 1, 2011)

Press release: Parents, Doctors, Nurses to Johnson & Johnson: Make Safer Baby Products (May 26, 2009)

Press release: Cancer-causing chemical found in children's bath products (Feb. 7, 2007)