Despite marketing claims like “gentle” and “pure,” dozens of top-selling children’s bath products are contaminated with the cancer-causing chemicals formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, according to the March 2009 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics report, "No More Toxic Tub."
This study is the first to document the widespread presence of both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane in bath products for children, including baby shampoos, bubble baths and baby lotions. Many products tested contained both chemicals.
What We Found
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent laboratory to test 48 products for 1,4-dioxane; 28 of those products were also tested for formaldehyde. The lab found that:
- 17 out of 28 products tested – 61 percent – contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.
- 23 out of 28 products – 82 percent – contained formaldehyde at levels ranging from 54 to 610 parts per million (ppm).
- 32 out of 48 products – 67 percent – contained 1,4-dioxane at levels ranging from 0.27 to 35 ppm.
While a single product might not be cause for concern, the reality is that babies may be exposed to several products at bath time, several times a week, in addition to other chemical exposures in the home and environment. Those small exposures add up and may contribute to later-life disease.
Formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are known carcinogens; formaldehyde can also trigger skin rashes in some children. Unlike many other countries, the U.S. government does not limit formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, or most other hazardous substances in personal care products.
Where They Come From
The chemicals were not disclosed on product labels because they're contaminants, not ingredients, and therefore are exempt from labeling laws.
Formaldehyde contaminates personal care products when common preservatives release formaldehyde over time in the container. Common ingredients likely to contaminate products with formaldehyde include quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea.
1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of a chemical processing technique called ethoxylation, in which cosmetic ingredients are processed with ethylene oxide. Manufacturers can easily remove the toxic byproduct, but are not required by law to do so. Common ingredients likely to be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane include PEG-100 stearate, sodium laureth sulfate, polyethylene and ceteareth-20.
What You Can Do
Contrary to industry statements, there are no regulatory standards that limit formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane or most other toxic chemicals in personal care products sold in the United States. There are signs the U.S. is gearing to catch up, but for now it's up to consumers to consider carefully before they buy. Here's some suggestions for safeguarding your family's health:
Led by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 44 organizations representing 1.7 million moms, nurses, doctors and other people concerned about our environment and our health signed on to a May letter to J&J, in which we asked the company to make safe products and meet with us. Read the letter and list of signers.
On April 29, 2009, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the Safe Baby Products Act, which directs the Food and Drug Administration to investigate and regulate hazardous contaminants in personal care products marketed to or used by children. She introduced the bill in response to the "Toxic Tub" report.
Though the U.S. FDA has yet to respond to our test results, retailers and governments in Asia have taken action. Immediately following our report release, a major supermarket in China pulled Johnson & Johnson products from the shelves amid concerns that the products are contaminated with carcinogens. Both the Vietnamese Drug Administration and the Chinese government responded by testing products immediately.
Though China later declared J&J products safe, it tested products made in China, not those for the U.S. market. Manufacturers can use different ingredients for different markets, which may be the case here. Because we don't have the full report from China, we have no way of knowing which products the Chinese government tested or what they found.
Here in the United States, our tests found two carcinogenic contaminants in Johnson's Baby Shampoo. In November 2011, we released a new report, Baby's Tub Is Still Toxic, showing that while safer products are being sold in some countries, J&J has yet to reformulate globally. Prompted by growing concerns raised by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be removing carcinogens and other toxic chemicals from its baby and adult products globally.
Download the report, "No More Toxic Tub"
Complete list of products tested, with results
Case Study: Pure and gentle? Children's products can be deceptive
Press release: Children’s Bath Products Contaminated with Formaldehyde, 1,4-Dioxane (Mar. 12, 2009)
Science: Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
Science: Low-dose exposures
What's In Your Products? Contaminants in kids' bath products