Married Life: Learning ‘the gentlest baby shampoo’ has harmful chemicals comes as a crushing blow

How can Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo possibly be harmful if it’s on every shelf in every supermarket? My outrage has me practically paralysed.

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Having children is an exercise in self-doubt. You are never really sure if the decisions you’re making are the right ones – there are too many conflicting choices to contend with. Never mind all the questions you’re grappling with, such as: should I speak Arabic with the baby and leave the English to the husband, so we can raise a bilingual prodigy, or should we wing it; should we embrace the current cloth-diapering trend; should we test every item of clothing for toxic paint? The list goes on and on.

There’s too much to research, worry about and learn about. You can’t help but be grateful for the experiences of an older generation who have some of the answers you’re looking for. I can take my mother’s word on how best to prepare purées for the baby and I can ask my mother-in-law for advice on how best to deal with a nappy rash and I’m home free.

Same goes for the toiletries Mr T and I chose for Baby A. Even before she was born, we bought huge bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, body wash, powder and lotion. Our mothers used it on us, our mothers’ mothers used it on them, so why not use it on Baby A? It’s the best-known baby product out there, isn’t it?

Recently, we stayed at the St Regis on Saadiyaat Island and were delighted to find travel-size bottles of the same Johnson & Johnson products we have in our nursery and bathroom. How nice of the hotel to welcome the room’s tiniest occupant so considerately.

So, imagine my surprise when another mother informed me that Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo is known to be harmful for babies and contains potentially cancer-causing chemicals – dioxane and a substance called quaternium-15 that releases formaldehyde, a carcinogen and a skin, eye and respiratory irritant.

This was revealed back in 2009 and Johnson & Johnson did not deny the claim. In fact, only last year, the company publicly admitted to the claim by pledging to eliminate formaldehyde, parabens, triclosan and phthalates from all baby products.

The day Baby A was born, the nurse in the hospital gave her a bath using Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. Every day since, Johnson baby products have been used to freshen Baby A up.

My outrage has me practically paralysed. You strive to give your child the best you can manage and to protect them from harm. You place your trust in a product that you think is safe, because, for more than a century, Johnson & Johnson has promoted itself as carrying “the gentlest baby shampoo” on the market. How can it possibly be harmful if it’s on every shelf in every supermarket?

I’ve recently switched to using olive oil soap on Baby A. It is a staple in the household of any Arab from the Levant: in Syria, it is known as Aleppo soap, or ghar soap, and is an army-green colour. It is made from olive oil and lye with drops of laurel oil; western supermarkets might carry it as Castile soap, the Palestinian version is Nabulsi soap. It’s white and has almost no scent.

The soap leaves Baby A’s hair a little dry and I miss the smell of baby powder. I also have to be careful that no soap gets in her eyes; it will burn her, unlike the “gentle” Johnson & Johnson product. But I know exactly what’s in the bar of soap and I have one less thing to worry about – one less decision to question.

Hala Khalaf is a freelancer living in Abu Dhabi

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