Consumers can force meaningful changes

People who use Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and other products in their baby line may have noticed the phrase “Improved Formula” on the bottle. Those two words represent a victory for consumers who have made their wishes known in a way that manufacturers understand, a challenge to their bottom line.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) was created in 1978 to, among other duties, provide information about potentially toxic agents among the more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the US. In 1981, the NTP was listing formaldehyde — a chemical widely used in industry, food processing, and the manufacture of cosmetics — as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The listing didn’t have much impact outside the circle of environmentalists and consumer watchdogs, certainly not on manufacturers, but research into the chemical continued.

In 2011 (yes, 30 years later) the NTP had enough additional data to definitively list formaldehyde as “known to be a human carcinogen.” Still, faced with the prospect of spending many millions to reformulate their products the vast majority of manufacturers continued business as usual. They did, however, vigorously challenge the science and successfully invested in lobbying congress to hold off on any action on the matter.

But the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a grassroots coalition representing 3.5 million concerned consumers, scientists and activists did take vigorous action. The campaign generated plenty of sympathetic media attention and pressured Johnson & Johnson unremittingly until they won a pledge from the company to remove formaldehyde and other questionable chemicals from their products.

This year, Johnson & Johnson has honored that pledge and its baby products are now made with an “Improved Formula.” The company still disputes the harmfulness of formaldehyde, but not the necessity of responding to the concerns of an informed and voluble public.

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