Plaintiff: “Preservative-Free” Neutrogena Shampoo Contains Citric Acid

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January 31, 2024

by Brian Eckert

Milberg class action attorneys are representing a customer who claims Johnson & Johnson falsely labels its Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo as containing no preservatives, even though the shampoo lists the well-known preservative citric acid as an ingredient.

Anyone who purchased Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo may be eligible to join this lawsuit as a class member.

J&J Accused of False, Misleading, and Deceptive Marketing

In a complaint filed on January 16 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, plaintiff Melissa Gonick says that Johnson & Johnson misrepresents its Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo as containing no preservatives in order to exploit consumer demand for preservative-free products.

According to the complaint, the market for “clean” beauty products is forecasted to reach $22 billion globally by 2024. One study cited found that, when consumers were asked to choose a product that meets their understanding of what “natural” means on product labels, they tend to choose products with “No Preservatives” labels.

Consumers are willing pay a premium for healthy, preservative-free skin care and cosmetic products, as they hoped for in purchasing the [shampoo]. Defendant’s misleading and deceptive practices proximately caused harm to plaintiff and the proposed class members who suffered an injury in fact and lost money or property as a result of defendant’s deceptive conduct.

Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo, formulated to treat common dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and scalp psoriasis, prominently states on the label that is it “Preservative-free.” However, the product contains citric acid—a preservative commonly added to cosmetic and skin care products to increase shelf life.

“In purchasing the Product, Ms. Gonick relied on Defendant’s false, misleading, and deceptive marketing of the Product being ‘Preservative-Free,’ the complaint states. “Ms. Gonick understood that ‘Preservative-Free’ meant the Product did not contain any preservatives. However, the Product she purchased contained the preservative citric acid.”

Citric Acid in Beauty Products

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes citric acid as an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that can act as a pH adjuster in cosmetics. Acidic pH inhibits microorganism growth and thus extends a product’s shelf life.

Citric acid has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Citric acid deactivates enzymes in cosmetic and hair product ingredients that oxidize these ingredients and break them down over time. It also stabilizes and preserves cosmetic ingredients. Citric acid additionally has antimicrobial properties and inhibits the growth of certain bacteria and mold.

Gonick says in the lawsuit that J&J’s subjective intent to add citric acid to Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo, whether as an exfoliant or for some other purpose, is irrelevant to her claims.

“Even if the products’ citric acid does not function as a preservative in the products, they nonetheless qualify as preservatives given that they have the capacity or tendency to do so,” she states in the complaint.

While citric acid occurs naturally in some citric fruits, the citric acid found in Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo—like 90% of commercially produced citric acid—is commercially manufactured from black mold, which can cause allergic reactions and diseases in humans.

Citric acid is widely used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food products. Milberg previously filed a “preservative-free” false labeling suit against B&G Foods, the maker of Emeril’s pasta sauce.

Lawsuit Allegations and Proposed Class

Lead plaintiff Gonick claims she purchased Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo based on the representation that it is free of preservatives. She says she wouldn’t have purchased the product—or at the very least would have paid less for it—had she known the “preservative-free” representation was false and misleading.

Gonick’s lawsuit asserts claims for violation of New York General Business Law, breach of express warranty, and unjust enrichment on behalf of herself and the following classes:

  • A national class consisting of all persons in the United States who, during the applicable statute of limitations period, purchased Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo labeled as “preservative-free.”
  • A New York subclass consisting of New York residents who purchased Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo labeled as “preservative-free.”

The plaintiff and class members are represented by Milberg’s Nick Suciu III, Erin J. Ruben, and J. Hunter Bryson.

Milberg has been a national leader in class action litigation since 1965. We’ve filed thousands of class action lawsuits that have recovered billions of dollars for our clients, set groundbreaking legal precedents, and reformed how big companies do business.