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No more formaldehyde – How to modify a cosmetic

J&J seems pleased with themselves for capitulating to fear mongering groups and reformulating their iconic J&J Baby Shampoo.  We previously wrote about why caving to fear mongering groups is a bad thing so I won’t talk about that now.  What I wanted to talk about was the formulation process by which J&J changed their formula.

Start with a formulation goal

According to the NY Times article, J&J had a specific goal in reformulating their product.

Remove formaldehyde, reduce 1,4 Dioxane levels and make the changes invisible

While this seems like a straightforward goal, we’re talking about a formula that has been on the market, unchanged for decades.  This has the potential to be as significant as changing the formula for Coca Cola.  A mistake could be disastrous for the brand.  Undoubtedly, they had to run numerous consumer home use tests to demonstrate that there was no noticeable difference in the new formula versus the old.

Keep changes minimal

If you look at the ingredient list from the formula they started with to the one they ended up with, there are very few changes.  These include

  • Removal of Quaternium-15 (preservative)
  • Addition of Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, & Ethylhexylglycerin (preservative)
  • Addition of Glycerin (for feel?)
  • Addition of Potassium Acrylates Copolymer (for thickening)
  • Swap Yellow 6 for Orange 4 dye

J&J baby shampooApparently, when they swapped out the Quaternium-15 preservative system with the PSE system, that caused the formula to drop in viscosity.  To fix that problem they had to add the Acrylates Copolymer.  And fixing that may have caused the product to feel a little different so they added some Glycerin.  I’m skeptical the Glycerin would do much but perhaps it could affect the way the product feels in your hand.

The dye change was probably the result of a color change caused by the other substitutions.

But you can see it wasn’t such a simple task to modify the preservative.

Test to ensure parity

After 2 years of work by 200+ people, they finally came up with a prototype that met the goal and was not noticeable by consumers.  To ensure parity they probably followed a three step process.  First, match the performance of key characteristics in lab tests (like foaming, viscosity, color match, etc).  Second, conduct small 10 – 15 person panel tests to ensure that the formulas look, feel and perform the same.  Lastly, conduct a full 200+ person consumer home use test with the best performing prototypes.

Of course, this is usually not good enough to convince upper management that a change will be unnoticeable.  The final final step is to give samples to the higher ups in a blinded fashion and get their blessing.

I don’t really agree with the decision that J&J made to cave in to pressure from consumer groups and change their perfectly safe formulas to a slightly different, but perfectly safe formula.  However, it did employ the efforts of over 200 people for the last 2 years and that seems like a good thing.  Unfortunately, this work didn’t lead to anything that was innovative or more useful for consumers.

It was a lot of work to stay exactly where they always were.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • SB 01/27/2014, 8:07 am

    I don’t agree. In a world where new and improved products make us nuts when we really like the product the way it was, I give them credit for recognizing that and trying to retain their color and consistency.
    (If you want to test that, try changing the look of your website see how many people hate it)

    Quaternium-15 releases the most formaldehyde among those type of preservatives according to this source:
    Formaldehyde-releasers in cosmetics: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy . http://share.eldoc.ub.rug.nl/FILES/root2/2010/Formretof/de_Groot_2010_Contact_Dermatitis.pdf

    Like any allergy, it can appear suddenly from constant exposure to an increasing number of sources that may also be using Quaternium-15 as a preservative. So better to get out now and learn how to make their products without it.

    • Perry Romanowski 01/29/2014, 1:58 pm

      They’ve been making this product with Quat-15 for at least 40 years. What has changed?

  • alchemist 01/21/2014, 4:07 pm

    When you’re number 1, the only way to go is down, they’re caving in to the loss of sales.

    I’d expect the formulators would relish the challenge of working on such an iconic product, which has had very few changes over many many years. There are far worse formulating projects to work on – fragrance changes due to IFRA guideline updates for example.

    • Perry Romanowski 01/21/2014, 5:53 pm

      Great point!

      I think what Colin points out is that this is a lot of work to change a formula without making any changes. That can be a bit discouraging, at least to me.

  • Colin 01/21/2014, 9:59 am

    I suppose 200 people are grateful for the pay cheques, but I wonder how many of them have decided that formulating products is a dull waste of time as a result of working on such a pointless project. Incidentally, I have a reaction to sodium benzoate if the concentration is high enough. This is pretty rare but far from unknown. I am sure J&J know this, but they will certainly be getting a shed load of complaints from existing customers when the change goes through even if they represent a tiny proportion of their customer base.

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