What is wrong with a cosmetic company caving to fearmongers?

Recently, Johnson and Johnson have announced plans to remove a variety of chemicals from their cosmetic products. This is strictly a PR move and also an unfortunate mistake for the following three reasons.

1. Emotion trumps science

From a cosmetic chemist standpoint, the ingredients we use are safe. Even J&J admits that the formulas that they are currently selling are safe. But despite the guaranteed safety of their product, they are going to change them

“Because we know parents want complete peace of mind when making decisions about their babies, we will phase out the use of all parabens from our baby care products.”

So in other words, they don’t really care what the toxicologists, independent scientists, and government regulations say, if parents are irrationally afraid of parabens, they are going to remove them.

I suppose it’s not that big of a deal at the moment. But how about when the next fearmonger group comes out and convinces a tiny minority of consumers that surfactants are dangerous? Is J&J going to remove all surfactants from their products? or thickening agents, or pH adjusters, or any other ingredient that people are irrationally afraid of? Good luck with that.

2. Alternatives may be less safe

The one piece that fearmonger groups miss is that when a cosmetic formulator has to switch from a material with a proven safety profile, they replace it with something that is less tested. J&J might be phasing out perfectly fine ingredients like Quaternium-15 and Methylparaben but what will they be switching to? A brand new preservative that has only a few years of safety testing? Do you know the long-term exposure effects of the material? Not likely. They could easily be using materials that are less safe than the current options. Congratulations CFSC. You just made everyone less safe.

3. Encourages scientific illiteracy

The third problem I have with this move by J&J is that they are encouraging scientific illiteracy. They are capitulating to non-scientific thinking and rewarding willful ignorance. This is the same kind of nonsense that will prompt people with no background in climate science to declare that global warming isn’t happening or that vaccines are causing autism. These are the non-scientific, irrational positions that are having a real, detrimental effect on our government and society. J&J is contributing to the erosion of society. Nice going.

Chemical free cosmetics

Perhaps the dumbest thing I’ve seen related to this issue are the various tweets and blog posts declaring that Johnson and Johnson are removing chemicals from their products. How J&J goes about making “chemical free” cosmetics is a mystery to me. Last time I checked everything that goes into their cosmetics is a chemical.

As a scientist, I have a real problem with capitulating to non-science based conclusions about chemicals. If an ingredient is unsafe, then by all means get rid of it. But if it is safe, publicly reformulating is a mistake.

I understand cosmetic companies have to give consumers what they want and that’s what J&J is doing. It just doesn’t feel right to give in to irrationality.

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