Features, The Business of Beauty

Chemical Warfare

Let me say this right up front: The New York Times does a bang-up job on the sponsored content coming out of its T Brand Studio commercial arm. Eminently clickable and beautifully designed, the pieces feel so reported and legit that I get pulled into reading a good chunk of them, even when the topic is far afield from anything having to do with my real life. Though each sponsored post clearly states that the Times’s news and editorial staffs had nothing to do with them, I often dig right in.

Thus, you can imagine how my eyes lit up when I saw this sponsored-post headline: “When It Comes to Personal Care Products, Is Natural Always Better?”

Adorned with the iconic Johnson’s logo and charming illustrations, this was, finally, branded content in my wheelhouse. I’ve been writing about the rise and impact of the clean and green sector on the beauty industry for a while now, so this is a subject near and dear to my heart. For the record, I’m Switzerland on this extremely charged issue, both in practice and belief. While I’m personally gravitating more and more toward clean and green – especially as brands like Goldfaden and Tata Harper continually raise the plant-based anti-aging bar – I also know that there are a lot of spectacularly awful “natural” brands out there.

But here’s the thing: I’m not a new mommy, the core target for Johnson’s. Anyone with a kid under the age of, say, eight, is understandably seriously dialed-in to product ingredients. And with the explosion of new organic baby-care brands in the past five years – not to mention subscription-box services like EcoCentric Mom and 21 Bundles that do the clean and green legwork for you – it’s hardly surprising that a mega-corporate, traditional brand like Johnson’s is quaking in its boots.

Busting the Four Natural “Myths”

To combat all those itty bitty organic brands, as well as the clean and green biggies like California Baby, Honest Co. and (Clorox-owned) Burt’s Bees, Johnson’s enlisted the help of experts both inside and outside the company: pharmacist David A. Mays, senior director of global engagement at Johnson & Johnson Consumer, Inc., and skin doc Adam Friedman, a DC-based associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine. Johnson’s then set about debunking four common “myths” around natural vs. chemical.

Since I’ve declared myself neutral on the chemical vs. clean issue, I thought I’d do the fair-and-balanced thing and give my honest assessment as to whether I think Johnson’s succeeds in its debunking mission. In other words, with this beautiful sponsored post, will Johnson’s actually convince green-leaning consumers of its (clearly biased) positions?

Let’s find out…

Myth #1: Chemical-free personal care products are the safest

My Switzerland Stance: Fail

My issue with this first myth is mainly semantics-driven. Rather than really get in there and discuss safety – and the rigorous standards a big company like Johnson’s hews to vs. some tiny indie crafting its iffy wares in a garage somewhere – Johnson’s gets mired in a definition of “chemical-free.”

It states, correctly, that everything is a chemical when you break it down and stick it under a microscope. So shouldn’t the myth, in this case, be: “Chemical-free products exist”? Or how about: “Chemical-free is an actual thing”?

I’m giving this one a fail for missing the myth target altogether.

Myth #2: If you can’t pronounce the ingredients in a product, you should avoid it

My Switzerland Stance: Win…with caveats

Johnson’s does a pretty good job debunking this myth, but again, it isn’t as clear – or as consumer-friendly – as it could be. Explaining that lauric acid is actually a component of much-beloved coconut oil is smart. Veering off into wonk territory with a description of INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients) is way too inside baseball for the average new mommy who just wants to make sure she’s not slathering her precious bambino with petroleum.

Myth #3: Preservatives are harmful and unnecessary

My Switzerland Stance: Win

Bravo on this one, Johnson’s! A dearth of preservatives is my numero-uno pet peeve with natural products. (In fact, I just chucked a new moisturizer – from a very buzzy, upscale clean brand – in the trash. I’d barely used it before it started to “turn” on me. If I’d actually bought it rather than having it sent to me gratis for review, I’d be livid.)

In this patch of the post, Johnson’s does a great job of explaining not only why preservatives are necessary, but also that some of the scariest-sounding ones are derived from natural sources. Phenoxyethanol is found in green tea, for example, while cinnamon can yield sodium benzoate.

Myth #4: Essential oils are purer and safer than artificial fragrances

My Switzerland Stance: Fail

This is, by far, the trickiest “myth” Johnson’s tackles in this post. And my problem with the way they go at it is that it utterly, completely lacks balance.

According to Johnson’s, “essential oils are packed with allergens.” Nowhere is there any mention of the many documented benefits of essential oils, nor the fact that they impart a level of luxury and sense of well-being that artificial fragrances couldn’t buy for love or money.

Worse, Johnson’s drags Europe into the equation here, stating: “Brands like Johnson’s remove potential and common allergens, as identified by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety.”

Newsflash for Johnson’s: Europe’s standards for personal care ingredients are far, far more stringent than America’s. For a company that only removed formaldehyde from its famous “No More Tears” shampoo in 2014, comparing yourself to Europe doesn’t sound like an especially brilliant idea.

The net-net: Both sides of this natural vs. chemical debate have some work to do. For any clean and green brand that hasn’t done its product-formulation homework, it’s time to raise your game to be on par with the best-of-breeds in this category. (Read: anything stocked at Follain or Credo Beauty.) For enormous corporate entities like Johnson’s, my question is: why not just “do you?” Actively trying to discredit brands that use fewer egregious chemicals isn’t a great look. You make fantastic products people know and trust. Relax.

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