Neutrogena has taken some action to be more sustainable in its packaging and the safety of its ingredients, but generally a lot of this action seems like greenwashing. There are many questionable features to this product, including its plastic packaging, the lack of information about its production and the petroleum sourcing of its ingredients. There are many other sustainable indie beauty brands currently on the market, most of which are animal cruelty free, vegan, sustainable packaging and ethically sourced. Given the broad number of choices, I would caution against the use of this product unless it is truly the only effective treatment against psoriasis/seborrheic dermatitis for an individual. Regardless of whether one chooses to continue using this product for medical treatment, switch to a new shampoo or somewhere in between, I encourage consumers to keep Neutrogena accountable and push its transition to more sustainable product development for this integral shampoo.
The first feature of this product is its packaging: a plastic bottle. Although it is largely recyclable according to Neutrogena, plastic still has a large negative impact on the environment, especially considering that there are alternative options. Many smaller companies now sell bar shampoo or offer refillable shampoo in aluminum bottles. With these new options, it is hard to see why plastic bottling is still used for most shampoos, although perhaps this product being medication influences the necessity for plastic.
Neutrogena’s T/Gel doubles as a shampoo and a treatment for skin diseases like seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis. The ingredient list is extensive (which is true of most large-brand shampoos) with many questionable items, including SLES/SLS which are petroleum and palm oil derived, citric acid, sodium hydroxide and assorted others. The main active ingredient, however, is cold tar. Coal tar is a proven anti-dandruff treatment used to relieve itchy flaky skin. The ingredient is what makes this product the #1 dermatologist-recommended medicated shampoo brand, but it is also what makes the shampoo unsustainably sourced. Coal tar is derived through the thermal destruction of coal, a process that pollutes the planet and generally provides a demand to sustain the coal industry.
Coal tar is just one of many active ingredients known to treat psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis, including zinc pyrithione and salicylic acid. Although it is tricky to find a good medicated shampoo, and indeed, Neutrogena’s shampoo has been found by many to be highly effective, there are many other options that might also work. Based on this, I would recommend that those using this shampoo as medication consider switching to an alternative that is non-fossil fuel derived if it is also an effective treatment. For those using T/Gel as a regular shampoo, however, I would recommend switching to a more sustainable brand.
The process for making shampoo is pretty uniform across all large-brand beauty companies. Shampoo formulas are initially created by cosmetic chemists in a lab, then tested to confirm durability and safety. In manufacturing plants, large batches are made by heating or cooling materials to mix them together. These solutions then undergo quality control checks and are pumped out, filled into bottles, labeled and hauled away for transportation. With all of these stages of manufacturing, the company provides virtually no information about its current emissions. Given that the company operates at such a massive scale (with manufacturing locations in over 70 countries) and employs practices traditionally known to be highly emissive and polluting, it is concerning that there is such a large information gap.
In the process of manufacturing, distributing and selling beauty products, a big issue is animal cruelty. Unfortunately, Neutrogena is not cruelty free. The company’s current policy is that it does not test on animals unless required by law. Since it imports products into China where animal testing is required, the company still participates in the practice somewhat, although it claims to always follow the highest welfare standards as mandated by local and national governments. Furthermore, the parent company Johnson & Johnson has stated that it supports research and advocacy orgs and works with legislators, policy makers and other orgs to lobby for acceptance of alternative practices to animal testing.
On the post-consumer end, in 2009 Neutrogena implemented an aquatic-impact testing tool named GAIA meant to rate ingredients on their impact on the environment post-disposal. This tool has improved Neutrogena’s impact on the aquatic world immensely. Beyond this tool, Neutrogena has also presented a number of company-wide packaging goals for 2025, along with packaging successes in the previous years. Nearly 75% of Neutrogena’s bottles are currently recyclable, and this number is set to increase in 2021. Furthermore, this product’s bottle now has a how2recycle label to help consumers properly recycle. The company has established a goal to achieve fully recyclable plastic packaging and to explore refillable products by 2025. Although these sustainable actions are welcome, many of the company’s stated goals are vague and ambiguous, especially since it gives no specifics on its current emissions or waste volume. Like most large companies, Neutrogena uses big statements such as “rigorous safety process” and “ethical principles” without giving any concrete explanations to expand.
Despite Neutrogena only doing animal testing when legally required to, there are plenty of other smaller companies that are certified cruelty free, not to mention zero waste, vegan, ethically sourced and transparent. This is not to say that Neutrogena is not making efforts to improve its waste and product safety, but the company is far from being zero waste or from offsetting its plastic. Ultimately, in both quality and transparency, small brands are shaping the future of sustainability in beauty.
As is true with most large-scale beauty brands, Neutrogena fails to achieve a respectable level of corporate transparency. No information about the company’s labor practices are provided, making it unclear what the quality of work is at the warehouse or corporate level, although there are solid ratings for the company on independent job websites. With the little information provided on the website, the company does demonstrate a solid effort to improve its sustainability, phasing out the use of microbeads and implementing an aquatic life assessment tool (GAIA), both to improve the safety of each product. Neutrogena claims that its focus is on advancing the standards of its ingredients, packaging, sourcing and social responsibility. Though the company cites these pillars and makes promises such as raising packaging standards, very little information is given as to how these goals will be achieved or what the company’s current impact is.
Neutrogena is the main skincare division of Johnson & Johnson, and so unsurprisingly devolves much of its sustainability information to its parent company. Johnson & Johnson does have a much better record of corporate sustainability and transparency, providing more concrete numbers to assess the company’s impact and the progress of its goals. The company addresses multiple SDGs, focusing on health workforce, women’s and children’s health, essential surgery, global disease challenges and environmental health. Even with the added information provided by Johnson & Johnson, however, there is still nothing to be found on labor practices, emissions or post-consumer processing for the parent company and for Neutrogena. This suggests that the company might be selectively presenting certain information and withholding other statistics. Both Neutrogena and its parent company’s efforts in sustainability earn them some brownie points but the lack of transparency and the lacking size of their positive actions earn them the lower rating.
how shampoo is made: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-3/Shampoo.html
sustainable beauty: https://www.wellandgood.com/beauty-industry-sustainability/
what’s coal tar: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/coal-tar#:~:text=Coal%20tar%20is%20derived%20from,creosote%20and%20coal%2Dtar%20pitch.
animal treatment: https://www.jnj.com/about-jnj/policies-and-positions/humane-care-and-use-of-animals-policy
neutrogena’s sustainability: https://www.neutrogena.co.uk/sustainability#committed-to-your-health-carefully-selected-ingredients-developed-with-dermatologists
the product: https://www.neutrogena.com/products/haircare/tgel-therapeutic-shampoo-original-formula/6809200.html
job ratings: https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Neutrogena-Reviews-E140503.htm?filter.iso3Language=eng
jnj sustainability: https://safetyandcarecommitment.com/sustainability