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SC Johnson Has Some Stubborn Stains in Their Transparency

SC Johnson recently put this commercial on the air. And it makes a lot of promises. Promises that, as a proponent of transparency, I'm excited to see. But from the tone of the ad, you can already tell that they don't seem to completely get the world they now live in. Instead of suggesting there might be some ingredients that they will need to remove or improve on, they instead attempt to project an image that suggests there will be no ugly surprises. In the ad, they go on to say that we will get to know everything they know; that there will be no asymmetry of information; and that even those sneaky compounds that fall under the catch-all of "fragrance" will be revealed. It's worth mentioning that there are hundreds of compounds that can be listed under this single term, "fragrance," and that is a big problem for transparency.

A quick perusal of their site reveals that a breakdown of fragrance has not been revealed and the structure of the site suggests that, even when it is, it will be an extra click away. As the control of data shifts away from sellers towards buyers, the new opportunity is to become not just a force of transparency in your business, but in your entire category. Transparency is a potential silver bullet for marketers, and consumers will race to support those brands which transform themselves into advocates for their customers’ health and well-being in the cleaning category. But the way it works is, you lose the slick and happy veneer and instead create really powerful tools for your customer. I'm not seeing that yet, but I'm hoping it is the next step.

SC Johnson feels like they are making the mistake (which I’ve written about here before) of trying to be a little bit transparent.

For transparency to be effective for SC Johnson, they also need to strongly consider inviting their customers into the dialogue. An open dialogue with consumers about how they would like to see compounds and products improved. Remember, your customers are ready and anxious to join your mission if you let them in. Again, maybe that's coming but I'm missing it here.  Keep it coming, SC Johnson. Put some transparency in your transparency.

I've included below some information and references from Environmental Working Group on the catch-all "fragrance" category.

By Alex Bogusky

"Fragrance" = "Hidden Chemicals"

Take a quick look at a personal care product label, and you'll nearly always find a long list of chemical ingredients in tiny print. Chances are, somewhere in the midst of these technical chemical terms, is the simple word "fragrance." Although companies are required by law to list all chemicals ingredients in a product, a special loophole allows them to hide what's in the "fragrance" component[1]. And what's hidden in that simple word can include complex mixtures of up to hundreds of chemicals that studies show may be linked to a variety of health problems, including allergies, skin reactions, endocrine/hormone disruption, and possibly even birth defects. Companies are not required to test cosmetics for safety before they are sold. The label is the primary protection we have to make decisions about products we rub, pour, and lather on our skin and hair. Yet when it comes to fragrances, we don't even have this simple protection.

Who makes sure fragrances are safe?

The FDA, the agency responsible for overseeing product safety, does not systematically review the safety of fragrances. The FDA cannot require that fragrances be tested for safety before they are sold. Instead, the fragrance industry regulates itself, through their trade association, the International Fragrance Association, which funds and conducts safety assessments for fragrance ingredients. This self-regulating scheme has led to the widespread use of chemicals in fragrances that raise concerns when it comes to our health:.

Top hazards hidden in fragranced products:

  • Phthalates: Common plasticizing ingredients linked to birth defects in the reproductive system of boys at exposure levels typical for about one-quarter of U.S. women [2, 3]. Lowers sperm-motility in adult men [4]. Studies in laboratory animals show significant developmental toxicity [5] and damage to adult reproductive, adrenal, liver, and kidney organs [5]. Under consumer pressure, some cosmetic companies recently agreed to remove phthalates from their products — but many others have not. Our product tests show phthalates in nearly three-quarters of 72 name-brand products tested [6], even though none of these products contained the term "phthalate" on the ingredient label. Instead, in most cases these phthalates were almost certainly hidden in the product's fragrance.
  • Musks: Artificial musks accumulate in our bodies, and are often detected in breast milk and blood [7-10]. Musks come in two basic types, nitromusks and polycyclic musks. Nitromusks are linked to skin irritation, sensitization [9,10], and even cancer in laboratory studies [11, 12]. They are also linked to reproductive and fertility problems in women at high levels of exposure [13]. Laboratory studies also suggest that both polycyclic musks and nitromusks may affect hormone systems [14-19]. While the European Union has banned use of some nitromusks in cosmetics and personal care products [20], the use of polycyclic musks as an alternative to the more toxic nitromusks has increased. In the US, all musk chemicals are unregulated, and safe levels of exposure have not yet been set.
  • Allergic reactions: Fragrances are considered to be among the top five known allergens [21, 22], and are known to both cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks [23, 24]. Unfortunately, EWG's 2005 detailed survey of approximately one-third of the industry safety panel's ingredient reviews revealed that allergen and sensitizer determinations were made with little scientific rigor and inadequate safety margins.

We recommend that you choose products free of fragrance for your Valentine's sweetheart. But read ingredient labels carefully — the term "fragrance-free" on a product does not necessarily mean a product is actually free of fragrance chemicals. Instead, a fragrance may be masking a chemical scent to create an illusion of fragrance free. But better yet, use EWG's guide for fragrance-free products for easy Valentine's shopping.

How We Made the List

To compile this list, EWG's researchers searched not only our own toxicity and product ingredient databases, but also searched the most current literature for toxicity concerns surrounding the ingredients in these 10 products. All of the products on the list are ranked as green, or safer choices on the Skin Deep website. While some of these products may contain some ingredients not yet assessed for safety, all the ingredients in these products are listed on the labels and none contain secret ingredients hidden in fragrances.



1. EHNC, FDA Petition 99P 1340. 1999, Environmental Health Network of California.

2. Marsee, K., et al., Estimated daily phthalate exposures in a population of mothers of male infants exhibiting reduced anogenital distance. Environ Health Perspect, 2006. 114(6): p. 805-9.

3. Swan, S.H., et al., Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environ Health Perspect, 2005. 113(8): p. 1056-61.

4. Duty, S.M., et al., The relationship between environmental exposure to phthalates and computer-aided sperm analysis motion parameters. J Androl, 2004. 25(2): p. 293-302.

5. CERHR, NTP-CERHR expert panel report on di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). 2000, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction.

6. Houlihan, J., C. Brody, and B. Schwan, Not Too Pretty - Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA in Skin Deep. 2002, Environmental Working Group: Washington, DC. p. 24.

7. Rimkus, G.G. and M. Wolf, Polycyclic musk fragrances in human adipose tissue and human milk. Chemosphere, 1996. 33(10): p. 2033-43.

8. Liebl, B., et al., Transition of nitro musks and polycyclic musks into human milk. Adv Exp Med Biol, 2000. 478: p. 289-305.

9. Hutter, H.P., et al., Blood concentrations of polycyclic musks in healthy young adults. Chemosphere, 2005. 59(4): p. 487-92.

10. TNO, Man-made chemicals in maternal and cord blood. 2005, TNO Built Environment and Geosciences: Apeldoorn, The Netherlands. p. 1-39.

11. Maekawa, A., et al., Long-term toxicity/carcinogenicity of musk xylol in B6C3F1 mice. Food Chem Toxicol, 1990. 28(8): p. 581-6.

12. Apostolidis, S., et al., Evaluation of carcinogenic potential of two nitro-musk derivatives, musk xylene and musk tibetene in a host-mediated in vivo/in vitro assay system. Anticancer Res, 2002. 22(5): p. 2657-62.

13. Eisenhardt, S., et al., Nitromusk compounds in women with gynecological and endocrine dysfunction. Environ Res, 2001. 87(3): p. 123-30.

14. Seinen, W., et al., AHTN and HHCB show weak estrogenic--but no uterotrophic activity. Toxicol Lett, 1999. 111(1-2): p. 161-8.

15. Chou, Y.J. and D.R. Dietrich, Interactions of nitromusk parent compounds and their amino-metabolites with the estrogen receptors of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and the South African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). Toxicol Lett, 1999. 111(1-2): p. 27-36.

16. Bitsch, N., et al., Estrogenic activity of musk fragrances detected by the E-screen assay using human mcf-7 cells. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol, 2002. 43(3): p. 257-64.

17. Gomez, E., et al., Estrogenic activity of cosmetic components in reporter cell lines: parabens, UV screens, and musks. J Toxicol Environ Health A, 2005. 68(4): p. 239-51.

18. Schreurs, R.H., et al., Examination of the in vitro (anti)estrogenic, (anti)androgenic and (anti)dioxin-like activities of tetralin, indane and isochroman derivatives using receptor-specific bioassays. Toxicol Lett, 2005. 156(2): p. 261-75.

19. Schreurs, R.H., et al., Interaction of polycyclic musks and UV filters with the estrogen receptor (ER), androgen receptor (AR), and progesterone receptor (PR) in reporter gene bioassays. Toxicol Sci, 2005. 83(2): p. 264-72.

20. SSNC, Fragrances - Draft for public hearing. 2000, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation: Stockholm. p. 49.

21. de Groot, A.C. and P.J. Frosch, Adverse reactions to fragrances. A clinical review. Contact Dermatitis, 1997. 36(2): p. 57-86.

22. Jansson, T. and M. Loden, Strategy to decrease the risk of adverse effects of fragrance ingredients in cosmetic products. Am J Contact Dermat, 2001. 12(3): p. 166-9.

23. Norback, D., et al., Asthmatic symptoms and volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, and carbon dioxide in dwellings. Occup Environ Med, 1995. 52(6): p. 388-95.

24. Millqvist, E. and O. Lowhagen, Placebo-controlled challenges with perfume in patients with asthma-like symptoms. Allergy, 1996. 51(6): p. 434-9.

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Reader Comments (7)


I wonder if SC Johnson can even cash the checks it's writing here. I'm sure you know from your research that fragrances, along with artificial flavors, are often created from outside companies like Givaudan. If SC Johnson purchases fragrances from contractors for its products, that fragrance recipe is a trade secret - intellectual property that SC Johnson may not have the legal right to share despite even the best intentions to do so.

I have no idea how much, if any, of its fragrances SC Johnson purchases versus creates in-house, although the practice is widespread in consumer products. But the legal wrinkles involved in disclosing trade secrets it does not own may hint that SC Johnson's transparency campaign is either not well thought-out, or was never sincere to begin with.

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjoe


SC Johnson does not understand Interbeing. They seem to think it begins and ends with them.

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterluaP

I'm having some problems with 5th generation credibility. A token step towards "transparency" is the rough equivalent to "sustainability" in the energy game both of which are very lame.

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Smith

Hi Alex,

Thanks for posting this.

Totally agree with your povs on transparency or should I say the lack of it! :)

However in my view is, am not sure if the consumer really processes so much or even gives us the privilege of such high Share of Mind ... so the communication comes plays for 30sec and probably leaves behind certain key imagery/take outs ... probably the fact that the 5th generation descendant (Fisk Johnson) himself came and spoke on TV, which means they may be speaking the truth?? A company that is willing to take on/address the issue of 'transparency' head-on ... which means they know what they are speaking about? And therefore ends up being perceived as more credible than most other players in the category?

Having said that, I would like to reiterate that as much as I agree with your pov, I wouldnt be surprised, if this communication works well for the brand!! :((

Such is the paradox of communication I suppose! Look forward to your views.



December 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTej Desai

This is the first time that I have seen a very large company even hint at transparency and I think J&J deserves kudos for this. As the issues with proprietary substances becomes more widely known consumers will demand to know what is in them. J and J is at least beginning the process.

And.. remember, our most powerful vote is with each and every dollar we spend. If you don't know whats in it, don't buy it.

December 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Whitehill

Fyi, SC Johnson is a completely separate company from Johnson & Johnson.

December 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

Tudo bem? colocas discussões muito giros no teu blogue....

January 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGanhar Dinheiro Online

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