For those of a certain age, particularly those who changed diapers before disposable nappies came on the scene, the smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder is etched into the sensory memory, conjuring the downy hair of a newborn and the giggle of an infant. No more, at least in North America, where the product will no longer be sold.
“The company said on its website Tuesday that it had re-evaluated its products in light of the novel coronavirus in March and stopped shipping hundreds of items in the U.S. and Canada. The purpose was to place a priority on its high-demand products and to make room for social distancing at its manufacturing and distribution facilities,” writes CNN’s Jen Christensen.
“The company said it was permanently discontinuing about 100 products, including Johnson’s Baby Powder. This will only impact sales in the U.S. and Canada. It will continue to sell its products in other markets. The company says there has been a decline in demand for the powder. The company does have a cornstarch-based baby powder that will remain on the market,” Christensen adds.
But there’s much more to the story than that, of course.
“The company has faced thousands of lawsuits from cancer patients who claim that its talc was contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen, and that the company knew of the risks,” reads the subhead in The New York Times’ coverage.
“Johnson & Johnson has often said that faulty testing, shoddy science and ill-equipped researchers are to blame for findings that its powder was contaminated with asbestos. But in recent years, thousands of people -- mostly women with ovarian cancer -- have said that the company did not warn them of potential risks that the company was discussing internally,” write the NYT’s Tiffany Hsu and Roni Caryn Rabin.
“In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer -- a part of the World Health Organization -- began classifying talc powder as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ when women would use it as a deodorant for feminine hygiene, the report said. In 2013, a jury found Johnson & Johnson negligent in a first suit alleging that baby powder for feminine hygiene had caused ovarian cancer,” NJ Advance’s Media Chris Sheldon writes for NJ.com.
“Separate investigations by Reuters and The New York Times in December 2018 revealed documents showing J&J fretted for decades that small amounts of asbestos lurked in its baby powder,” reports NPR’s Vanessa Romo.
“‘From at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company's raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public,’ Reuters reported,” Romo writes.
“‘I wish my mother could be here to see this day,’ said Crystal Deckard, whose mother Darlene Coker alleged Baby Powder caused her mesothelioma. She dropped the suit filed in 1999 after losing her fight to compel J&J to divulge internal records. Coker died of mesothelioma in 2009,” write Reuters’ Carl O’Donnell and Lisa Girion.
“In early October, the company recalled 33,000 bottles of the baby powder after FDA regulators found a small amount of asbestos in a bottle purchased online. But later that month, Johnson & Johnson said that 15 tests of the same bottle of baby powder conducted by two laboratories hired by the company found no asbestos,” Victoria Albert writes for CBS News.
“We will continue to vigorously defend the product, its safety, and the unfounded allegations against it and the Company in the courtroom. All verdicts against the Company that have been through the appeals process have been overturned,” J&J maintains in yesterday’s announcement.
Baby powder was first marketed by the company in 1894 “to prevent skin irritations caused by moisture, and to treat diaper rash,” according to a blog post on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
“The baby hygiene product industry arose during a time in American history when proper baby care practices were changing. Traditionally, mothers and grandmothers had been the source of authority for proper baby care practices; they developed and passed down baby care techniques and recipes for homemade products. During the mid-nineteenth century, doctors began to replace mothers as the source of authority,” according to the story.
As for that alluring smell, the AP’s Samantha Critchell informed us in 2008 that “several perfumers are creating fragrances that try to capture what consumers think of as new baby smell, that aroma of baby powder and lotion that so readily conjures up memories of happy, peaceful newborn bliss,” in a piece published by the The [Toronto] Starcited by Wikipedia.
“That sweet, immediately recognizable scent can have elements of violet, cumarine and musk, says Delphine Jelk, of the fragrance lab and manufacturer Drom, and ‘when you smell it, you smell baby skin.’”
Now you presumably just smell baby skin, and that’s sweet in and of itself.