Friday, March 17, 2017

What is a Natural Baby Wipe?

Over the last six years I have written many times about how the terms natural and all-natural should not be taken seriously.  I labeled them and other such terms as trigger words, used by advertisers to get you buying without thinking.  Now the public is striking back.  Unfortunately, it is not doing so by stopping to think but by calling in the lawyers.

CBS Money Watch tells how Kimberly Clark has gotten into big trouble for labeling its baby wipes as natural when they contain a synthetic chemical called phenoxyethanol.  The company faces a lawsuit “seeking damages for unlawful business practices and acts and deceptive advertising.”  The mother on whose behalf the suit was filed says that had she known the “truth” about the baby wipes, she would have purchased a different product – presumably one with no artificial ingredients.

So what is the truth about phenoxyethanol?  Honest Company uses it as a preservative and to fight bacteria in five of its cleaning products.  Their website says, “Phenoxyethanol can be found naturally in green tea, but the commercial ingredient is synthetically produced in a laboratory creating what’s termed a ‘nature identical’ chemical.”  They go on to say that they have been getting questions from customers due to a concern raised by an on-going on-line controversy about the chemical’s safety.  But surprise!  Just like every other chemical in the world, including good old H2O, too much can be bad.  They reassure their customers:  “Most of the studies that have found significant negative health impacts are based on full-strength or high-dose exposures. In real life usage, exposures are quite small. That’s why it’s approved at levels up to 1%.”

Likewise, according to the Honest Company and CBS, Whole Foods, an icon for natural products, uses it in its Premium Body Care products.  It is also listed in something called The Handbook of Green Chemicals. It may be found in a range of products including many cosmetics, soap, shaving cream, deodorant, ultrasound gel and toothpaste.

In this skin care dictionary of ingredients it’s listed as GOOD as a preservative.  “Phenoxyethanol is approved worldwide (including in Japan and in the EU) for use in all types of water-based cosmetics, up to a 1% concentration.”  Despite some negative comments elsewhere, this site declares it safe and effective, providing external references.

And another point from the FDA website: “FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.”  This confirms that to date natural is primarily an advertising term, not a defined category.

What’s really at issue here is summed up later in the CBS article by Kimberly Clark’s response.  “This complaint does not allege a single safety event or evidence of any injury to a consumer.”  In other words, there are no damages to the baby.  The only problem may be a distressed mother, distressed because she thought that natural had a real legal meaning.  And that she, like so many other poorly informed shoppers, is “willing to pay and have paid, a premium for products advertised, marketed, and labeled as ‘natural’ over products containing nonnatural, synthetic ingredients.”  

Thinking about baby wipes in isolation - how natural is the idea pulling a moist towelette out of a plastic container you bought at Target?  All this doesn't seem to matter.

I have been known to make predictions before.  In this case, despite the wide use of the chemical, the lack of definition of natural and the industry standard that it is safe to use in appropriate amounts, here's what is likely.  KC will settle out of court, calculating it to be cheaper than fighting it out in court, faced with a sympathetic jury with no economic understanding, overwhelmed by the dispute between expert witnesses and in the presence of the poor distressed mother.  That’s just a hunch about the direction of today’s America where being a victim of social-media-induced panic or any other irrational behavior is so often rewarded.

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