Label, Rinse, Repeat: A Guerilla Labeling Campaign Takes on Baby Shampoo Carcinogens

Public health activists take carcinogen labeling into their own hands.

Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo is a comforting relic of our youth. But "No More Tears" becomes a bit sinister with the realization that it contains two preservatives—1,4-dioxane and quaternium-15—that release carcinogenic formaldehyde. Parents asked the company to remove the toxins two years ago, but recent testing by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed that small amounts are still present in the formula used in the United States. (Foreign countries with better regulation already force the company to put out carcinogen-free products.)

While Johnson & Johnson has promised not to introduce new products containing the carcinogens and continue its slow process of phasing them out, all the bottles currently on the shelf still house the harmful ingredients without any warning to consumers. Public health student and activist Jessica Assaf saw this as an opportunity to raise consumer awareness herself. Over the weekend, she and a few NYU classmates descended on several Manhattan pharmacies, plastering the baby shampoo's bottles with stickers reading "no more toxic tears." Assaf's goal is to help consumers "see the truth through proper labeling" and put their dollars elsewhere until the company completely phases out the chemicals. She says that she's "gathered a whole team of NYU students who have agreed to continue labeling products until we see a change."

In the past, Assaf conducted a similar campaign against Secret deodorant, which she labeled a toxic hazard to warn shoppers about its ingredients that have been linked to cancer and neurotoxicity. The public response was so positive—many people emailed to ask her to send stickers so that they could get involved too—that it inspired her to replicate it on the baby shampoo. "I wanted to show people that this is so easy, this is so much fun, and it really does make an impact," she says.

Image courtesy of Jessica Assaf

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

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