By Rachel Abrams, NY Times, Jan. 23, 2015
Because she has an eczema condition, Michelle Kirn intently reads ingredient labels on baby wipes, soaps and other household items to avoid allergic reactions that she says were caused by a commonly used preservative.
Ms. Kirn, 37, says she believes that nerve damage and scarring to her hands stemmed from using wipes that contained the preservative methylisothiazolinone, or MI.
Still, when her throat began to swell, she says she did not think to check the label of her new mouthwash, Colgate Total Lasting White.
“I thought I was developing allergies to foods,” Ms. Kirn, a consultant in Breinigsville, Pa., said. “I felt like I constantly had a sore throat.”
Colgate-Palmolive introduced that product in August, and it may be the only popular mouthwash to contain MI, an ingredient added to deter the growth of bacteria. But it can cause rashes and skin irritations in people who are allergic to it. The company chose that preservative, according to Stephanie Clark, a spokeswoman for Colgate, because it worked best for that particular formula.
Experts say it’s an unusual additive for a mouthwash, an expansion of the chemical into products occurring at the same time that major consumer products companies—including Kimberly-Clark, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever—have begun removing it from lotions and wipes.
“It’s not a preservative that we’ve seen commonly in products that are used anywhere but on the skin,” Dr. Bruce A. Brod, president-elect of the American Contact Dermatitis Society, said. “When people are exposed on a daily basis to MI, we think the rates of sensitization are going up.”
Compounding the problem, Dr. Brod said, is a lack of awareness among both patients and doctors. Ms. Kirn said her hands “looked like I had been in a fire” several months after she began using Huggies Simply Clean wipes, but she didn’t discover her allergy to the product until months later.
The dermatitis society named MI its “allergen of the year” in 2013, a listing intended to give attention to problematic and often obscure substances. That same year, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, a European advisory group, said that MI should be used only in limited quantities for rinse-off products, like soaps and shampoos, and that “no safe concentrations” existed for leave-on products like lotions.
In the United States, MI can be found in Unilever’s Dove shampoo, Beiersdorf’s Nivea moisturizer, some of Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena sunscreens and dozens of other personal care items that line drugstore shelves. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of products that used it more than doubled to about 2,400 items, according to an estimate from the dermatitis society.
Efforts to reduce the use of MI underscore a broader challenge for consumer product manufacturers, which are under increasing pressure to respond to public concerns about potentially harmful or synthetic chemicals.
Often, companies say, there is little if any scientific evidence to prove that a particular ingredient targeted by upset consumers is actually dangerous. Eliminating controversial ingredients can also restrict alternative options.
Dr. Brod and others say that the solution may not be to remove MI entirely, but rather to increase public awareness that some products containing it could cause allergic reactions.
“Everything is a balancing act. You want to have a safe product, but you want to minimize the amount that you’re sensitizing the public to rashes.”
Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Ms. Kirn’s Huggies Simply Clean wipes, no longer uses MI in its baby wipes, and will have completely removed it from feminine care wipes by April, according to Bob Brand, a spokesman.
“We are very sorry she experienced difficulties,” Mr. Brand said. “The levels of MI previously used in our wipes products were always well within the guidelines recommended by regulatory agencies.”