Is a “Clean” Bar of Soap Too Much to Ask?

As United States citizens, we are considered innocent until proven guilty. This is a comfort we are guaranteed, and as a country we value our rights. Is this right something that should be given across the board—not just for citizens, but for industries as well? When it comes to consumer goods and ingredients, should suppliers enjoy the same luxury? Currently, suppliers and manufacturers of cosmetic ingredients in the U.S. do; this is in contrast with other countries that have more stringent premarket regulations. Since these manufacturers of ingredients and products do not have to prove their safety, the burden falls on consumers to determine toxic from safe, right from wrong, good from bad. Without sufficient information and education, we have to be our own advocates for our health and well-being.

This is evidenced in recent cases brought against Johnson & Johnson for failing to warn consumers about the known health risks, namely cancers, associated with talc, which used in its products. More than 1,000 women are suing Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier, Imery, claiming that the companies knew for years that talc was linked to ovarian cancer—yet failed to warn consumers. Furthermore, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the talc read, “Perineal use of the powder is a possible risk of ovarian cancer.”

Some talc contains asbestos, a known carcinogen, in its natural form. And while Johnson & Johnson claims to have been using asbestos-free talc in its products since the 1970s and asserts its purity and safety, this may not be the case. Studies by the National Toxicology Program demonstrated that even cosmetic-grade talc that is free of asbestos could be toxic and carcinogenic.

This is not the first time Johnson & Johnson has been in the press for “chemicals of concern.” In 2012 the company announced that it would be removing all these chemicals from its adult products by 2015 and from baby products by the end of 2013. It removed the ingredients that released formaldehyde from its No More Tears shampoo and other chemicals from the rest of their baby care products. While I’m happy to see such a big player in the industry pay heed and remove “chemicals of concern,” I’m confused by the definition. Was talc an oversight? Did Johnson & Johnson just expect consumers to continue slathering themselves in chemicals until the company could remove them?

Fortunately, we’re entering a new age of consumerism. We’re waking up. We’re beginning to question these established, legacy brands and their supply chains, which have been trusted for decades. Less and less are we blindly accepting products at face value.

While Johnson & Johnson is not alone in using potentially carcinogenic ingredients in  products, it is currently getting most of the press and, therefore, bringing this issue to the forefront. When the press covers a topic, awareness follows. Thank you, Johnson & Johnson, for being the current offender du jour, thus shining light on a health concern that needs to be brought out of hiding.

Currently, under U.S. law, only color additives need to be FDA-approved for use in cosmetics and personal care products. Other cosmetic ingredients and finished products do not need approval before being brought to market. Additionally, only 11 ingredients have been banned by the FDA for cosmetic use.

In contrast, the European Union has banned 1,328 chemicals for cosmetic use (citing that they are suspected or confirmed to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm, or birth defects). The European Union requires manufacturers to perform safety evaluations and to have product safety reports before they can bring a cosmetic product to market. The U.S. is far behind Europe and other countries in its effort to make cosmetics safe.

Making the issue even more confusing, we have “greenwashing,” “pinkwashing” (guilting consumers into buying pink-packaged products they would not have bought before the advent of breast cancer awareness campaigns), and numerous other tactics to make consumers feel good, safe, and trusting when making a purchase. In addition, there is no regulation in the U.S. for using terms such as “natural,” “safe,” “organic,” and even “nontoxic” on a cosmetic product label. Catchy phrases such as “good for you,” “safe for you, safe for baby,” “trusted,” and “approved by moms” trick us into believing that what is in the bottle is safe and nontoxic.

Recently, while perusing the internet for a client with a labeling question, I went to a popular “natural skincare” company’s website. I felt instantly engaged and trusting. The company had countless “seals” proving its innocence and honesty: free from fillers, GMOs, and synthetic fragrances; gluten free, cruelty free, and more. The page for the product in question was emblazoned with the same seals next to the ingredients, instilling more confidence. The truth came when I read what was in the product: an extensive list of many other synthetic ingredients. While most were not harmful, they were nonetheless a direct contradiction of the company’s “no synthetics” seal. One of the company’s taglines was “100% natural and non-toxic.” Sadly, this company is not alone in false claims. It’s just one of the many “all natural,” “organic” cosmetic brands that aremisleading consumers. More and more cosmetic companies making safe products are coming to market, but it’s confusing trying to figure out who is who and what is what!

There’s so much to clarify just to be able to have a shower with a “clean” bar of soap! And other dilemmas exist. Everything “natural” is not necessarily good and everything synthetic bad. So even the conscious, informed consumer can be duped into buying harmful products. For example, talc is a naturally occurring mineral, made up primarily of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen ( It’s natural! So doesn’t that mean it’s safe?

Some harmful ingredients you will not find on the label, as in the example of formaldehyde. Many ingredients are “formaldehyde releasers,” meaning formaldehyde is in the product without being listed.

How do we untangle the convoluted web of information and misinformation within the cosmetics and personal care industry? We can start by being proactive proponents of our own health. Here are eight steps:

1. Educate yourself: Read the entire back label, where the ingredients are listed, and tune out the rest!
2. Research: Understand ingredients beyond what the label says. If it says “from corn,” look at what it’s actually made from.
3. Use products with fewer ingredients.
4. Simplify your regimen—use fewer products.
5. Does it pass the taste test? If you won’t eat it, why put it on your body?
6. Know all your ingredients. Just because something is natural does not mean it’s not toxic.
7. Read Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Once only privileged industry insiders were able to access these, but now they can be found online.
8. Consider your source. Find trustworthy academic and other vetted sources of product information.