Sunday, April 06, 2008

Camp Baby Questions Answered: Well, Sort Of...

Before I disappeared into the wilds of Camp Baby, I asked for your questions and comments for Johnson & Johnson.

On Thursday morning I got to share your concerns (which were very much in line with my own) to Johnson's executive Susan Nettesheim (former VP of Worldwide R & D for adult skin care, now the VP for Product Stewardship at Johnson & Johnson).

Although the current Director of R & D (Anna Prilusky) and the Manager of Global R & D for Johnson's Science and Technology were listed as panelists on the program, they inexplicably were not present during the conference. Susan Nettesheim fielded the all questions on parabens, phthalates, and dioxane 1,4.

And their answers were much in line with this corporate statement on phthalates. In paraphrase, it all sounded to me like, "Trust Us, We're Experts."

They obviously assumed we would come with some health questions. Prior to our Q & A opportunity, Nettesheim's presentation and that of Dr. Ellen Kurtz, Director of Scientific Affairs, Baby Care Franchise, J & J CPPW, there were plenty of anticipatory statements on the safety of these "carefully selected" substances. For instance, dioxane 1,4 apparently occurs in naturally in peanuts (ergo peanut butter) and although they freely concede that the class of phthalates does have problems they only use the one safe phthalate that is approved for use in the European Union where all products must pass the precautionary principle (which far exceeds US standards).

Phrases like "We have 100 years experience in baby products" were bandied about as were statements about their extensive product testing methods.

I was surprised by their responses and by their absolute confidence in the vetted safety of their products. Lots of people work at corporations, but these people (particularly the scientists) seemed to be true believers in their products, methodologies, and intentions. They don't just stand behind their products, they use them on their own children and give them to their friends and families. They did not seem to understand how we could have ongoing concerns in the face of their experience and research. Their responses to our probing incredulity seemed to me to be sincerely laced with tinges of confusion and hurt. The J & J employees we met seem to have strong pride of ownership in their products, so consumer uncertainty are taken as statements on their professional and personal integrity.

After the session ended, I felt like I should try again to communicate our concerns. I approached Susan Nettesheim during the break (thanks so much Stephanie for allowing my intrusion into your conversation already in progress). I told her about your questions and handed her a print copy of them to read later. It seemed important that someone in authority at Johnson's know that these are the questions naturally arising from online parents.

I mentioned that our generation (raised watching two-person garage startups like Apple and Microsoft outpace large, established organizations like IBM) tended to accept new companies more readily than previous generations and to view their products as innovative and improved. I added that the phrase "trust us" seems to intensify our skepticism rather than relieve it.

Susan Nettesheim pointed out that natural doesn't equate safe (a point I readily concede) and that we probably wouldn't be wise to purchase pharmaceuticals made in a garage startup (which, although true, is a little funny to me in light of the startup history (circa 1876) of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lily). Nettesheim also stated that J & J would hate to replace an existing, vetted, chemical they trust with a new one that may have unknown health consequences.

In and after the session, I specifically requested future production of unscented baby products (J&J currently only offers a few under their Aveeno line) as phthalates are most often found in fragrances. Apparently, J & J feels that the psychological effects of the scents are so strong that they are deeply reluctant to forgo the fragrances. As a child who didn't use their classic pink lotion because of sensitive skin, I reiterated that they're missing a market of people who dislike and/or cannot use scented products (including families with allergies and asthma). The cynic in me thinks that their dedication to fragrance may be a subtle but powerful form of branding as scent memories have overwhelming influence on decision making, but sometimes my inner cynic is paranoid.

Stephanie from emphasized a need for transparency. I agreed, and stated that J & J needs to offer accessible scientific defenses when one of their ingredient falls under suspicion. For instance, the information of how much dioxane 1,4 by ppm (parts per million) is present in peanut butter would give me a scale to evaluate their safety claims. If peanut butter is around 20 ppm, then J & J's Watermelon Explosion Kids Shampoo at 10 ppm doesn't worry me as much, but if peanut butter is more like 0.5 ppm or less, I'm still pretty bothered. It's not enough to say that it's present in common foods and substances. I'm sure I've had trace amounts of lead in my drinking water, but that doesn't mean I want add a little lead to Ranger's breakfast cereal.

J & J also emphasized that most scientific tests study ingestion of the chemical compounds which is a more direct exposure than topical application. A recent study on phthalates in infant urine published in Pediatrics (Feb. 2008), however, suggests that topical exposure to baby products is a valid and growing health concern.

Later in the day, bloggers met in a smaller focus groups of 18 or 19 led and documented by one of J & J's many public relations/marketing firms. I repeated much of what I had said earlier to Susan Nettesheim and tried to say that J & J could earn our trust by producing a few unscented J & J branded products that don't use chemicals under scrutiny. To offer such alternative products would let consumers know they understand our fears and (even if they disagree with the science behind those fears) they will meet our needs as we see fit. Other moms asked that these products be made affordable. We were told the president of the company was in the room, but as the executives present (and there were many) were not introduced, I don't know which J & J company was represented in that manner.

Oh, and anastasiav, it turns out that although while J & J owns Baby Center, they leave it (like many of their companies) under independent governance and exert no editorial or advertising influence. They bought it when it fell into bankruptcy many years ago, but they want it to be able to facilitate open discourse.

Sorry about the length of this post, but there was no simple, succinct answer at Camp Baby. On an instinctual level, I liked the Johnson's people and particularly appreciate the time Susan Nettesheim took to talk with me. I don't think our Johnson's product use will change from periodic use of Original Desitin (which smells ghastly and probably involves no phthalates) and their lightly scented Foaming Shampoo (which we don't use every bathtime).

***This is the independent opinion of the geek parents at, (c) 2006-2008. We aren't experts at this. Adrienne accepted an all-expenses paid 3 day trip to New Jersey from Johnson & Johnson's to Camp Baby a gathering of blogging moms and women influencing mom bloggers.


Katie Davis said...

Thank you for writing such a detailed post about your experience with Johnson & Johnson at "Camp Baby." It was very informative and helped me a great deal. Thanks!

JessTrev said...

Thank you so much for bringing up these concerns with J&J. They might bring back some of my business if they listened to you and the other moms looking for affordable products without suspect chemicals/fragrances. Read your entire summary with much interest.

LeftyMama said...

Ditto thanks on bringing these concerns to J & J.

We, too, are a family that avoids skin- & haircare products with heavy fragrances due to allergies, sensitive skin, and general sensitivity to strong odors. One of my biggest pet peeves in this arena is that almost all hair/skincare products marketed for children (at least the grocery store & drugstore brands) have very overwhelmingly sweet & fruity scents akin to candy.

Recently, now that my son's curly hair is long enough to become seriously tangled, I had a terrible time trying to find a gentle detangler that didn't smell like a fruit salad bomb detonated on my child's head. Don't the product developers at these companies know that bees and other stinging insects are attracted by these fruity scents??? I finally was able to find a bottle of the old fashioned J & J "No Tears" detangler with a very light non-fruity scent, but the bottle was in the discount bin as a discontinued product, so when this runs out, I'll have to find something else.

For baby lotion, we use Cetaphil unscented cream and for baby shampoo, we like Burt's Bees and Aveeno, both with a very light non-fruity scent.

Debbie said...

Thanks so much for the writeup about your experience about Johnson & Johnson.

I considered going to Camp Baby, but decided not to because it's not related to what I blog about (travel with children) and because I have always kept it simple when it comes to baby products (very few products, and almost exclusively fragrance free).

I love that you took the time and energy to talk with J&J about what they are doing and to share their response and your experience.

Having worked at a big company, I can understand how easy it is to absorb the corporate mindset, and I am sure that the scientists at J&J feel that they're doing the right thing by their customers.

It feels like they've gotten out of tough, however, with what is happening in the outside world. Granted, I live in Seattle where we subsist on granola and foraged berries ;) but when I look around at my friends with young children, we're all moving more towards natural products with short, easy to understand ingredient lists. It's so difficult to navigate the research about what chemicals are safe, and there's virtually no data about safe levels, and it can feel scary to look at a long and unfamiliar ingredient list and try to figure out which ingredients, at which levels are ok for your young children.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your detailed report.

I miss J&J products, as they were part of my own childhood, but because of health concerns, I just won't go there.

"Trust us" just doesn't cut it anymore, when it comes to the health of my own child, even when I fully believe that the company does mean well, like J&J.

A "natural" line would be very helpful, from my point of view, but until and unless they produce one, I'll be getting our family's products elsewhere.

Christy said...

Thank you for relaying your experience. I certainly wish that they would listen about fragrance free products. So many people would like that line.

Personally, we hated Desitin. Thank goodness we found "Diaper Goop" when Ladybug was born. It's from a small local company in our area and that's what we used!

Anonymous said...

Wow - I feel like I got my money's worth from your trip! Thank you for being so diligent - I imagine it is difficult to continue to ask touchy questions in the face of people who were nice to you.

It makes me glad that you stuck to your guns. They may have a staid line of reasoning that they come to the table with, but it doesn't mean that they won't go back, consider what you said, and ultimately change their mind.

Thank you!

Kim Moldofsky said...

It was great seeing you again and hanging out at Camp Baby! What a thoughtful write-up.

I think several attendees echoed your sentiments about fragnance-free products ( I love leftymom's "free salad bomb" comment) and concerns about certain chemicals. I don't think J&J can ignore this. Good job, Adrienne!

Also, good point about the scent branding. We used Dreft for a short time after baby #1, partlky due to free samples and partly just because it "smelled like baby."

One final note for those who didn't attend. The session you mention was th most blatant J&J commercial in the whole event. Most of the other sessions had a more of an educational value, at least for me.

Amy said...

Excellent synopsis and I echo your sentiments! I really would love to see the company taking an approach towards the green movement that we are trying to create. I am disappointed by the amount of big corporations who will not help in this and I would love to see J&J step up to the plate. I can't use scented products because I have an adverse reaction to them. I would support a new line like this for my family!

Stephanie said...

You can interrupt my conversations in progress any time. :) I'm so glad I got to meet you and want to let you know that dinner was about the most hilarious conversation I've had in a long time.

Now, after having thought about all of this, how did you feel about the Times piece on the patch from J&J? Six years they knew about it? I'm just feeling kind of skeptical now about things and think I need some more time to soak it all in.

Also, did you hear the part about the natural products line (like this balm) not doing so well? I have two things to say about that -- people who would buy this line are very adept at knowing what authentic natural ingredients are vs. fake natural ingredients. Most of the crunchy granola moms or moms with allergic kids that I know see Propylene Glycol or the mysterious "Fragrance" listed on the ingredients and go running for the hills. Also, just because it's natural doesn't mean I want it to smell like marigolds or rosemary. I do not equate plant smell with goodness. In fact, since allergies are my biggest concern when it comes to buying "natural" stuff, it can be quite the opposite since we have so many plant allergies.

Jennette Fulda said...

I'm glad you raised those issues with the execs, even if you didn't get the answers you wanted. And, wow, 50+ bloggers? I didn't realize Camp Baby was going to be so big.

Nancy said...

This is a great post, thanks.
I haven't searched through your back posts, but wanted to make sure folks know about the "Skin Deep" cosmetics databases available at the Environmental Working Group website:
Their rankings aren't always intuitive, but I like that I can look up any baby product and get a better sense of whether it's worrisome. We switched sunblocks because of it. Also, we got a few refillable foaming pump bottles and now load up our (phthalate free) baby soap in it, 1/3 soap to 2/3 water. Works like a charm. Here's the one we have:

Mom101 said...

Popped over from Izzymom - such a thoughtful, smart post. Thanks for speaking up. I'm actually surprised that there isn't already an organics line or at least a fragrance free line already in some form of development. More than surprised...I'm shocked. It's where the market seems to be going. They'd do well to consider it strongly.

I think babies smell delish as they are.

R... said...

I really appreciate both the very detailed post as well as your tenacity in trying to get the good folks at J&J to listen. It seems amazing that they cannot comprehend why we don't want scent and other nasty things in the products we use on our babies - or perhaps they can't take the scent out because it is covering up some horrible smell from the other ingredients.

I'm kind of surprised that they weren't a little more open-minded if they truly set up Camp Baby to listen. If, on the other hand they set it up to pretend to listen while instead attempting to brainwash all in attendance, then it makes more sense.

In any case, thanks for trying! I hope it made some impact.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post. I also was at Camp Baby and I think you perfectly articulate J&J's response to our questions - their inherent trust in their products vs. our concerns about ingredients and desire for more information and transparency so we can best make our own decisions. Thank you! And it was great meeting you too! Colleen :)

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I too was surprised that they weren't so open about creating a totally fragrance free product.

I had a great time at the event and enjoyed meeting you (although briefly). Adding your blog to my bookmarks so I'll continue to check it out.