You might expect a shampoo labeled "pure, natural and organic" to be, well, pure, natural and organic. So you may have been shocked - and not a little ticked off - to learn that many of your favorite natural body care products contain a nasty petrochemical linked to cancer.
The bad news broke in March at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, California, with the release of product tests that found 1,4 dioxane, a probable human carcinogen, in 46 out of 100 personal care products marketed as "organic" or "natural," including top-selling brands such as JASON Pure Natural & Organic, Giovanni Organic and Nature's Gate Organics. The tests were conducted by author David Steinman and the non-profit organization Organic Consumers Association (OCA).
The timing of the release - in the midst of the world's largest natural-products trade show - was no doubt calculated for maximum splash to capture the industry's attention. That it did. And the waves haven't stopped since.
After the press conference, lawyers for Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps - makers of products that tested clean of 1,4 dioxane (and financial backers of the tests conducted by Steinman and OCA) - threatened legal action against several companies. After discussions ended in a stalemate, Dr. Bronner's filed lawsuits in April against 10 manufacturers and three organic certifiers for their use of alleged "fraudulent organic claims."
In May, the California Attorney General's office filed suit against four manufacturers of products that tested highest for 1,4 dioxane, for failing to warn consumers about exposure to a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, as required by the state's Proposition 65 law (see sidebar).
Two separate questions are swirling in the tempest: Should "natural" body care products contain toxic petrochemicals? And how organic should "organic" personal care products really be? Opinions are aligned on the first question and run the gamut on the second. But one thing is certain: the storm that has been brewing behind the scenes in the natural products industry for years is now out in the open, forcing manufacturers to confront some difficult issues that will define the future of the burgeoning $15 billion industry.
Busy with three kids, David Steinman's wife didn't have time to worry about toxic products. So he worried for them all. "Maybe it's because I know too many secrets," wrote Steinman, in his book A Safe Trip to Eden (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2007).
Secrets like the truth behind the claims made by American companies like Johnson & Johnson. The leading baby product manufacturer states on its website that its products are clinically tested to ensure they are "mild and gentle enough for newborns." This is why the company replaced the harsh cleanser sodium lauryl sulfate with the gentler sodium laureth sulfate. Lauryl is converted to laureth by adding the petrochemical ethylene oxide (a known breast carcinogen). This conversion process, called "ethoxylation," typically leaves a residue of 1,4 dioxane in the products.
Steinman decided to send his children's favorite bath products to a lab to test them for 1,4 dioxane. The results were released in early 2007: Most of the two dozen products tested positive for 1,4 dioxane, including Sesame Street character bubble baths and even the iconic Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo. The chemical was not listed on any of the labels.
Many conventional baby products, it turns out, are made with petroleum-derived chemicals that are either toxic or prone to contamination. As Steinman puts it, "We're so addicted to oil that we're bathing our children in it."
Most consumers have faith that the natural sector - with its emphasis on purity and health - is immune to this condition. But Steinman's second round of tests revealed many natural products carried the same toxic secret as the regular brands: 1,4 dioxane was in the products and not on the labels, in some cases at levels far higher than their conventional counterparts.
"These companies got caught with their pants down," says David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and longtime critic of natural brands who make misleading organic claims. "There is an expectation they're held to a higher standard, and they're not living up to that expectation."
In Bronner's view, products claiming to be "organic" should not contain carcinogenic petrochemicals, and should instead meet the criteria of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program - a standard created for food that some companies feel is too strict for personal care products.
The objective of the Bronner's lawsuits - which names, among others, Estee Lauder, Hain Celestial and Stella McCartney's 100% Organic (which doesn't contain 1,4 dioxane, but which, contrary to its name, isn't 100 percent organic, according to Bronner) - is straightforward: "We're saying either formulate [products] to live up to your organic claims, or drop your claims."
Alas, unlike the food sector, where products must abide by standards in order to use the words "organic" or "natural" on labels, the natural products sector is poorly regulated. In the absence of legal criteria for using those words, some manufacturers of personal care products are making their own definitions.
Putting The Natural Back In Natural
The good news is, even before the 1,4 dioxane story broke, companies and retailers within the natural products sector were taking steps to eliminate ethoxylation.
In March, Whole Foods launched its new Premium Body Care Standard, a seal awarded to 1,200-plus products sold in the store that meet a high bar for ecological integrity. Products with the seal can't use ethoxylated ingredients, synthetic fragrance or some 250 problematic chemicals. Prior to the launch, Whole Foods admitted that its own 365 brand didn't yet meet the Premium Standard but was being reformulated. (The brand's shower gel tested positive for 1,4 dioxane and Whole Foods has been named in the Attorney General's lawsuit.)
A slew of other recently or soon-to-launch private standards for natural or organic products also ban ethoxylation and synthetic fragrance, including the OASIS organic standard named in the Dr. Bronner's lawsuit. In Bronner's view, OASIS is an acceptable standard for natural personal care products but not strong enough for organic certification, because it allows the hydration and sulfation of ingredients, as well as some synthetic preservatives.
The debate over the meaning of organic now heads to court. But the road ahead is looking straighter for the natural products industry. With new standards challenging companies to remove 1,4 dioxane, synthetic fragrance and other noxious ingredients from their product lines, the natural sector will be better able to differentiate itself from the Johnson & Johnson's.
And efforts to raise the bar ever higher will no doubt continue. "We need to put the natural back in natural and keep organic organic," says Ronnie Cummings, president of Organic Consumers Association. "We have to get to the point where the green economy is the economy, and we're not going to get to that point without strong standards."
Stacy Malkan is a co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007; NotJustaPrettyFace.org)
These four popular natural products, from manufacturers named in the Attorney General's lawsuit, tested highest for 1,4 dioxane. While two of the four companies (Whole Foods and Citrus Magic) have publicly committed to reformulating their ingredients, we've listed alternatives that tested 1,4 dioxane-free to try in the meantime. For a full list of the winners and losers in the 1,4 dioxane debacle, visit organicconsumers.org.
Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Shower Gel: 20.1 ppm* (substitute EO Nourishing Shower Gel or ZIA Fresh Cleansing Gel With Sea Algae instead)
Alba Passion Fruit Body Wash: 18.2 ppm (try Burt's Bees Body Wash, Desert Essence Body Wash or Terr- Essential Organic Cool Mint Body Wash instead)
Citrus Magic 100% Natural Dish Liquid: 97.1 ppm* (swap for Aubrey Organics Earth Aware Household Cleanser)
Nutribiotic Super Shower Gel Shampoo with GSE (fresh fruit): 32.2 ppm (for a cleaner clean, try EO Voluminizing Shampoo, Dr. Hauschka Apricot and Sea Buckthorn Shampoo or Head Organics Clearly Head Shampoo)
*parts per million