SKILLMAN, N.J. – The only hint that something is different inside millions of bottles of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo arriving on store shelves are two words: “Improved Formula.”
The shampoo has the same amber hue, the same sudsy lather and – perhaps most important – the same familiar smell that, for generations of Americans, still conjures memories of childhood bath time.
What’s different about the shampoo, and 100 other baby products sold by Johnson & Johnson, isn’t so much about what’s been added; it’s what’s missing. The products no longer contain two potentially harmful chemicals, formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, that have come under increasing scrutiny by consumers and environmental groups in recent years. In response to consumer pressure two years ago, the company pledged to remove both chemicals from its baby products by the end of 2013, and this month, it said that it had achieved that goal. The reformulated products are making their way to store shelves around the world and will replace existing products over the next several months.
The move is the first step in a companywide effort to remove an array of increasingly unpopular chemicals from its personal care products, and is the biggest yet by a major consumer products manufacturer. Johnson & Johnson has also promised to remove such chemicals, and others, from all of its consumer products by 2015, including popular brands like Neutrogena and Clean & Clear.
In doing so, the company is navigating a precarious path, investing tens of millions of dollars to remove the chemicals while at the same time insisting that they are safe. The company is responding, executives said, to a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, as an increasingly informed public demands that companies be more responsive to their concerns, especially when it comes to the ingredients in their products. The complex effort carries both risks and rewards for the health care giant – it requires difficult re-engineering of some of Johnson & Johnson’s most beloved brands, but success in the marketplace could serve as a much-needed boost to a company that has been battered by a series of embarrassing quality lapses and product recalls.
Taking the chemicals out, however, has not been simple. In remaking its baby products, Johnson & Johnson’s scientists had a delicate task before them: how to remove the chemicals in question without compromising some of the company’s most iconic brands. A team of close to 200 people set to work on the project.
But as scientists set to work, they discovered that replacing the problem ingredients often led to a chain reaction of unintended consequences. One new preservative led to a snow-globe effect, with particles settling at the bottom of the bottle. But the fix for that turned the shampoo from a golden honey color to a dull brown. Another change turned the consistency to water.
The team thought it had successfully reformulated the Head-to-Toe wash and even held a dinner to celebrate. But their hopes were dashed when the normally clear wash turned cloudy, and they were forced to start over.
The challenges continued: Two products were scrapped when they failed a skin test in adults, an initial step before they are tested on babies. Altogether, the team vetted 2,500 raw ingredients and tested 12 to 18 versions of each product before seeking the opinion of 74,000 consumer volunteers.
Mostly, the task was to make the change as invisible as possible. “If you can’t tell the difference, then we did our job,” said Trisha Bonner, principal scientist for Johnson & Johnson’s consumer products.
The team’s next step is removing parabens, another type of preservative, from their baby products, and removing those and additional chemicals from their adult products.