Natural Foods Merchandiser

Children's cosmetics under scrutiny

Lawsuit filed over formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane contamination.

Johnson & Johnson, Proctor and Gamble and Kimberly Clark are among the companies targeted by a class-action lawsuit after studies conducted by the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics revealed that many of the companies' baby products contain the carcinogens formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

"Parents are frightened by these findings, and rightly so," said Steve Berman, attorney at the Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro law firm, which brought the suit.

The tests revealed that 61 percent of tested products contained both formaldehyde, and 82 percent contained formaldehyde, at levels ranging from 54 to 620 parts per million. Because these chemicals are contaminants associated with the manufacture certain preservatives and surfactants, they are not listed on the ingredients label.

"We commissioned an independent lab to conduct the tests because we suspected that many products contained these contaminants," said Stacy Malkan, communications director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, based in San Francisco. "In chosing products to test, we looked at the ingredients and identified problem chemicals."

Formaldehyde is released by certain preservatives, including Quaternium-15 and diazolidinyl urea, while 1,4-dioxane can be introduced through the process of ethoxylation, a process used in the manufacture of surfactants, or foaming agents.

For naturals retailers and consumers, the bad news is that natural products aren't immune, especially to dioxane contamination. "Natural is no guarantee," Malkan said. "You have to look at the labels, and it's challenging to figure out."

Luckily, there are three private standards that ensure that consumers can avoid these chemicals. The first is the USDA Organic Seal. It's difficult to formulate products to food standards, but some companies have done it. The Whole Foods Premium Body Care Seal, a private standard for products carried by the chain, and the Natural Products Association seal, created by the trade association, also guarantee that products won't contain chemicals associated with formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane contamination.

There's evidence that natural manufacturers are working actively to fix the problem. The Organic Consumers Association's Coming Clean Campaign tested dozens of natural products in 2008 and again in 2009. It found that 23 products from 16 major brands that had tested positive for dioxane in 2008, including offerings from Giovanni, Jason, Kiss My Face and Alba, were free of the chemical a year later. The campaign found no evidence of contamination in any USDA Organic-certified products, including Dr. Bronner's.

As for the lawsuit, it has brought renewed consumer attention to the issue. "We think companies need to reform products," Malkan said, but the problem should be solved in the chemistry lab and not in the court room."

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