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The products are advertised as “extra gentle” and “for sensitive skin,” yet new medical papers indicate that many children’s bath products contain a chemical preservative that can cause chronic skin problems that are often misdiagnosed as eczema or other diseases.

Quaternium 15 - a chemical found in Johnson's Baby Shampoo, Mr. Bubble Bath, and Huggies Bath Wash, among many others - "has been repeatedly shown to be a strong allergen that can cause contact dermatitis," an inflammation of the skin that varies from mild irritation to rashes and open sores, according to a peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of the Dermatology Nurses’ Association.

“Quaternium 15 is present in an alarmingly high number of baby products, making exposure and sensitization at an early age increasingly common,” said Sharon Jacob, M.D., co-author of the paper and physician at the Department of Medicine and Pediatrics at Rady Children’s Hospital.

“This is a concern because repeated exposures to sensitizing chemicals, especially in early life, can cause a person to develop allergic reactions over time.” She advises parents to choose products without quaternium 15 and other formaldehyde-releasing preservatives whenever possible.

Nearly 700 products on the market contain quaternium 15, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.  Johnson & Johnson/Aveeno and Cover Girl make the highest number of products in the database containing the chemical.

EWG’s database at is also an excellent resource for finding products without this chemical.

Growing pressure on companies

Correcting this problem could help millions of people.  An estimated 72.9 million adults in the United States suffer from allergic contact dermatitis, and most are never properly diagnosed, according to the cover article in the July 2009 Skin & Aging magazine, co-authored by Dr. Jacob.

The authors conclude that proper diagnosis and avoidance of sensitizing chemicals could help patients avoid a lifetime of contact dermatitis.

The papers come on the heels of a March 2009 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics that found dozens of top-selling children’s bath products, including the market leader Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, were contaminated with the carcinogens formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

In the wake of the March report, thousands of stores in China pulled Johnson’s baby products off shelves and several class-action lawsuits were filed against the company. New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand introduced a bill into Congress that would require FDA to limit contaminants in baby bath products.

In August, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the American Nurses Association met with top executives from Johnson & Johnson (JNJ: NYSE) to ask the company to remove hazardous chemicals from its popular children’s products.

“The meeting was a positive step, and we’re optimistic that a productive dialogue will continue,” said Lisa Archer, national coordinator of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics from the Breast Cancer Fund – yet she noted that the company has made no definitive commitments.

“We urge Johnson & Johnson to show its leadership by reformulating its baby products to remove quaternium 15 and other chemicals of concern. Many companies are already making products without these hazardous ingredients.”

Take action by sending Johnson & Johnson a letter asking them to live up to their “pure” and “gentle” claims.

Stacy Malkan is the co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

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