Lather, rinse, repeat…as needed?

by egndukwe on October 3, 2012

We all remember them. The uncomfortable commercials that would make you hurriedly search for the volume button on the remote, then look around to make sure no one was watching over your shoulder.  The awkward looks family members would give you when they walked into the room mid-commercial and you rushed to explain that it was just a shampoo commercial, you promise. I can’t be the only one.

These days, the “climactic” Herbal Essences commercials are a thing of the past. Owned by Proctor and Gamble (P&G), consumers may have noticed that Herbal Essences recently changed more than just their marketing strategy. In 2010, under threat of an impending lawsuit in the state of California, P&G announced their decision to reformulate the brand’s shampoos. Why were they being sued?

Obtained from

In 2007, the Green Patriot Working Group (GPWG) began testing various consumer products for levels of 1,4 dioxane. Commonly called dioxane, the toxin is known to irritate the eyes and respiratory tract. Although there are no established safe levels of dioxane, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that laboratory studies found that lifetime exposure to dioxane in animals can lead to cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage. Many companies are able to avoid listing dioxane on product ingredient lists, as it’s not technically an ingredient. Instead, it’s a byproduct of a process used in production called ethoxylation.

Ethoxylation is a complicated name for a simple process used to make products gentler on the skin. For example, many cleansing products for the hair and body use Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) which works to remove oils. However, as is, SLS can be harsh and drying to the skin.  To reduce these effects, companies might add ethylene oxide to SLS, to make it milder. The problem is that adding ethylene oxide also creates dioxane. As a byproduct, dioxane is not needed, and producers didn’t intend for it to be there. But it’s there regardless. GPWG found that Herbal Essences products contained dioxane levels as high as 24 parts per million (notice the levels found in Tide Detergent…but I digress).

After analyzing their results, the GPWG’s founder filed an intent to sue P&G for violation of Proposition 65, a California law that requires businesses to include warnings when exposing consumers to certain toxins. Dioxane is listed as a cancer agent on the Proposition’s list of Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity. Soon after the intent was filed, P&G announced their decision to reformulate their shampoos.

P&G is not the only major manufacturing company to respond to consumer pressure to remove harmful ingredients from their products. In August, Johnson & Johnson announced their intention to remove potentially harmful toxins,including formaldehyde, from its products. The company maintains the position that their products are safe, but insists they’re making changes to ensure their consumer’s peace of mind.

What’s most unnerving to me is that companies are using loopholes to avoid listing the presence of harmful chemicals in their products. It may be idealistic to expect to completely avoid exposure to harmful toxins, but as a consumer, how can I make informed decisions…without the information?

**Updated on 10-4-12**