clock menu more-arrow no yes
A baby in the tub with possibly fancy bubbles on his head.
twomeows/Getty Images

The skin care generation wants to pamper their babies, too

Johnson & Johnson has lost customer trust; aspirational “clean” brands are stepping in.

A new generation of parents — perhaps you’ve heard of millennials? — have different tastes and priorities than those who have come before them. And that includes which soap and shampoo they want to put on their babies.

According to Pew, 1.2 million millennial women gave birth in the US for the first time in 2016; 17 million total are now moms. And they are apparently united in their desires with others in their generation globally.

“What we learned through doing research is that millennial parents are more similar today than any other generation before them,” says scientist Trisha Bonner, chief of staff and strategic initiatives at Johnson & Johnson. “So there’s this global-ness about how they think and act, and what they like, that we’ve never seen before.”

One thing they seem to agree on? They want something other than Johnson’s Baby for their babies. Yes, J&J is still the No. 1 selling baby line, but it has been losing market share steadily. Based on a very unscientific survey of Vox moms, not a single one said they were using Johnson’s Baby. They mentioned brands like Babyganics, the Honest Company, Aveeno, Burt’s Bees (owned by Clorox), California Baby, and French heritage brand Mustela.

You only have to look at what’s happening in the adult skin care industry to figure out why. There’s a push toward so-called “clean,” “natural” products from companies people perceive as trustworthy. And there’s also a trend toward specialization in skin care.

People are spoiled for choice right now for things to put on their faces, and personalization is a buzzword. Young parents are used to shopping for themselves this way, so why would they want to just grab any old baby wash off a drugstore shelf? The result is a robust baby product market with more brands and more choice than ever. Baby products are no longer utilitarian.

A case study in how to make baby products cool

Mustela represents this new mindset even though it’s not a new brand. The French company launched in 1950 and is considered the “Johnson’s of western Europe,” according to Catherine D’Aragon, Mustela’s vice president of marketing. It sells in the luxury beauty section of Amazon as well as at Target.

Mustela’s micellar cleansing water.
Mustela

Mustela has been in the US since the 1980s, but is enjoying a huge surge right now. Sales are up 30 percent since last year and its Instagram page went from 5,000 followers to more than 40,000 this year after the brand stopped doing all traditional advertising and focused on digital. It boasts all of the things that help products sell right now: It’s French, it has natural messaging, it sells by skin type just like the skin care industry at large, and aspirational people are endorsing it.

D’Aragon says that in the US, Mustela was perceived as “too clinical,” and parents would only buy it if their baby had eczema or other skin issues. But she saw the wave of desire for natural products here and thought Mustela fit the bill, since it uses “95 percent natural ingredients.” She focused on that.

D’Aragon, who came from L’Oreal, also tried to exploit what was happening in skin care in general. Mustela plays up choosing products based on baby skin types, much the same way, say, Sephora does for those babies’ moms. Mustela offers a variety of specialized products, so she pushed that angle too. “The American woman is using more skin care than ever before. I think people are becoming more sophisticated. So they are becoming sophisticated for their babies as well,” she says.

D’Aragon points to the Mustela’s No Rinse Cleansing Water. It’s a micellar water, a product you can find in any French pharmacy, historically sold for removing makeup. It’s also hot in skin care right now. “It’s very unique, and micellar in adult categories is booming. So we repositioned it.” Now it’s number five on their US bestsellers list.

And no viral product or brand gets that way these days without an assist from influencers. Khloe Kardashian partnered with Mustela for an Amazon project, and shared the products with sister Kim Kardashian West. Kardashian West’s personal assistant reached out to Mustela, which then sent her a “truckload” of products. After she shared it on her Instagram story, the brand earned 4,000 new followers in one day. According to D’Aragon, she regularly reaches out to the brand asking for more baby wipes.

Other cool moms have also endorsed the product. Laura Izumikawa, best known for dressing her baby up in costumes while the baby naps, went viral after posting herself doing a baby face massage on her daughter. (The Honest Company even reached out on the post her asking if it could share the video.) D’Aragon says Izumikawa, who is pregnant, is going to do a belly massage on herself using Mustela products for a future post.

Gemma Marin, a mom who went viral after posting a very sexy, very pregnant video of herself dancing with her partner, frequently shouts out Mustela on her social media. “She’s still doing things for free for Mustela because she kind of grew with us,” says D’Aragon.

“As we grow, we see a lot of very serious and premium influencers reaching out to us because they like the brand, it’s premium, it’s good for their image,” D’Aragon says. “Ten years ago they started doing fashion and beauty. Now they are all becoming moms. They need to grow with their audience.”

How Johnson & Johnson lost its way

Johnson’s may not be premium, but when you think of baby shampoo, the first image that pops into your head is likely that amber “No More Tears” bottle by Johnson & Johnson. It’s been the best-selling baby shampoo in the US for generations. It is so iconic that internally the company just calls it the “gold shampoo.”

The old-school Johnson’s baby shampoo.
Johnson & Johnson

Then came the bad headlines. “Probable Carcinogens Found in Infant Care Products,” read the Washington Post in 2009. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a consumer advocacy group, had tested a number of baby products and found formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both potential carcinogens, in trace amounts.

Johnson & Johnson pushed back, telling the New York Times that its products “met or exceeded regulatory standards” everywhere its brands were sold. (The chemicals are by-products of other ingredients in the formula and are probably safe in those tiny amounts.)

Nothing changed, until the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doubled down two years later. “Baby’s Tub Is Still Toxic” read the title of a report, featuring a doe-eyed kid covered with possibly nefarious bubbles. The issue made national headlines again, and this time the public outcry was such that J&J had to respond. By 2014, the company had quietly removed a bunch of chemicals that had suddenly become the target of suspicious consumers.

“Frankly, we failed to see evolving needs from millennial consumers, millennial moms, and we failed to evolve our model,” a J&J executive told CNBC.

The US baby- and child-specific skin care market was worth $344.8 million in 2017, according to data provided by Euromonitor International, a market research provider. Johnson’s Baby is still the number one brand, claiming it has more than 35 percent of the market.

But J&J’s baby sales have declined 20 percent since 2011, thanks to ingredient scrutiny, including the high-profile baby powder talc ovarian cancer cases the company keeps losing. It’s added up to an erosion in trust in the brand in general. The company adamantly stands by the notion that none of its products have ever been unsafe, but consumer perception won out.

“We did remove [some ingredients] because we knew that was a trend in the marketplace, a thing that parents were asking for,” says J&J scientist Bonner. “But I will say that, at the time, we believed people would eventually understand the science and realize that these ingredients are completely safe and that they’re okay to stay in the product. But what ended up happening is that the trend didn’t go away.”

Natural, baby

After Johnson’s Baby, according to Euromonitor, the second best-seller in the US is another J&J-owned brand, Aveeno Baby, a line geared to sensitive and allergy-prone skin. Tellingly, the third is California Baby, a super-crunchy natural indie line that launched in 1995. California Baby was likely a beneficiary of J&J’s missteps.

California Baby founder Jessica Iclisoy first sold the brand in health food stores, then Whole Foods. It’s now sold at Target and Walmart. Iclisoy also owns a farm that grows the calendula that ends up in many of the products. All of its products feature plant-derived ingredients. The brand has no outside investors, though several have shown interest. Iclisoy doesn’t want them or need them.

California Baby does have one other thing in common with J&J besides a spot in the top three bestselling brands: hospital bragging rights. Sarita T. Finnie, senior director for baby care at J&J says “60 percent of newborns in the US get their first bath with Johnson’s and we’re very proud of that credential.”

But Iclisoy says that Kaiser Permanente, a large health care system with hospitals in several states, has been using two of California Baby’s “super sensitive” products in the NICUs and PICUs at 25 hospitals since 2014. (A representative at Kaiser Permanente would not confirm this, writing to Vox that it “does not generally share information about its vendors.”)

“We have a whole industry of companies who are changing, but they’re not authentically changing. They’re green-washing and they’re marketing. That is disturbing to me,” says Iclisoy.

She has a point. Babyganics just settled a class action lawsuit for $2.2 million. The suit alleged that the brands’ advertising was misleading, insinuating its products are made from only organic ingredients. They aren’t. Parents who bought products from September 2010 through June 2018 might be eligible for refunds.

Natural or organic does not necessarily mean better when it comes to babies, though. “I’ve been in practice now 18 years and there have been many oils and natural products that I’ve seen come and go: tea tree oil, aloe, calendula, shea butter, coconut oil, castor oil, sweet almond oil, apricot kernel, olive oil,” says Dr. Sarah Chamlin, a pediatric dermatologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “And some do have true anti-inflammatory, antiseptic healing properties. But there’s also a risk — like with anything — of irritation or allergy.” (She recommends this list for more reading about potential allergens in baby products.)

It also doesn’t mean safer. The Honest Company, founded by Jessica Alba, was popular from the get-go thanks to its celebrity founder and its clean messaging. But the brand has had a rocky go of it. It’s dealt with recalls and lawsuits for things like customers claiming that their kids got burned when using the brand’s sunscreen and moldy baby wipes. Unilever backed out of a rumored acquisition, and Honest then tabled an IPO. But it received a $200 million minority investment in June, a sign that things are looking up for the company.

New brands for new babies

More brands are feeling confident and entering this market, hoping to take even more customers away from J&J. Kimberley Ho worked in finance as an investor in skin care and personal care companies. This experience, coupled with friends and family in Asia who always asked her to bring them clean baby products from American brands, led her to launch Evereden in May. Two of her investors include founders of Warby Parker and Halo Top.

“I felt like there was this dichotomy of natural versus synthetic, that I didn’t feel was the best way to talk about skin care. We recognize that there are great synthetic ingredients, as well as bad natural ingredients,” she says.

She was also inspired by what’s happening in the larger skin care market. “We want to bring some of the innovation that we’re seeing in women’s and luxury skin care into baby. I think people nowadays are looking for more than just a commoditized product.” Meaning, it’s not only about picking up a medicinal-smelling butt cream at the drugstore anymore; it’s about an artisanal cream that smells good and has Instagram-friendly packaging.

Evereden does not look like any of the other clean baby products out there. There is not a duckie in sight on the boxes. The leaf in the logo reads more cool than crunchy. The packaging features graphic slashes of eye-pleasing pastels. Some of the products include jasmine oil, a pretty sophisticated fragrance note, as a scent, and it seems to be resonating. The brand’s jasmine body lotion is its bestseller. (Everdeen offers fragrance free options for sensitive skin.)

“I think we’re in a pretty unique position in that we really are talking about baby skin care in a very new and popular way,” says Ho.

A classic hope to win over a new generation

J&J eventually realized that it would have to overhaul its entire baby collection. It took three years to do it and the input of a 26,000-person global parent focus group. The company just started rolling out the new products in July.

It added pumps to several of its products, out of concern for parents who are worried about dropping slippery, wiggly babies. And it totally reformulated many of its bestsellers, though some products like its baby oil and wipes are the same. For example, mineral oil was removed from some lotions and replaced with coconut oil, but it is still the main ingredient in the famous Johnson’s Baby Oil.

J&J removed about 50 percent of the ingredients in its products because parents indicated they wanted simpler products. Its famous baby shampoo isn’t even gold anymore. The “pink lotion,” another bestseller, isn’t pink anymore either because the company removed all dyes. The bottles, however, maintain the shades of their now-colorless namesakes.

Products from the overhauled Johnson’s Baby line.
Johnson & Johnson

It also substituted some ingredients “which worked perfectly well and were perfectly safe” with “pantry-friendly” ingredients that are “easy to understand,” says Finnie. The company is very proud of the fact that a new line of products specialized for newborns contains actual cotton.

One area where J&J does still dominate is cost. It is one of the most inexpensive brands on the market. Much like their grown-up skin care counterparts, natural and luxury products tend to have higher price points, which may put them out of reach of parents on a budget. A 10-ounce bottle of J&J Head-to-Toe Baby Wash and Shampoo costs $2.99 at Target. Evereden charges $19 for an 8.5-ounce bottle on an equivalent product.

But no matter what the price point, all the brands want baby products to seem like a fun, purposeful purchase. More is more when it comes to baby care now, a trend that might be at odds with what babies actually need.

“I think less is more, and I say it over and over to my patients,” says Chamlin, the pediatric dermatologist. “Really, babies should only have essential products on their skin in the first month and first years of life. We’re not changing the course of this child’s life by putting extra stuff on them.”

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.

Features

The sad, predictable limits of America’s “economic recovery”

The Goods

What would a healthy social media platform even look like?

Recode

How to make your job search suck a little less

View all stories in The Goods