Friday, May 6, 2022

Unilever and Johnson & Johnson: Recall Antiperspirant Products After Elevated Levels of Benzene had been Discovered (March 31, 2022)

 Case Controversy

It has been discovered that numerous media organizations have published news and articles in response to various corporations who have released aerosol items that have since been recalled due to the discovery of carcinogens. One company in particular that has experienced their products containing cancer causing chemicals is Unilever. Due to the presence of “benzene”, a cancer causing chemical, in several products, Unilever in March of 2022 had announced to the public that they had to recall everyday consumer products due to carcinogens being found in testing samples.  These products were recalled from the shelves of stores and pulled from online sales due to the concern that benzene, which has been associated with various types of cancer after long-term exposure, was present in a couple of commodities. During an internal investigation, high quantities of benzene were discovered product samples which lead to Unilever having to announce the voluntary recall of two different kinds of Suave 24 hour aerosol antiperspirants. Suave 24 Hour Protection Aerosol Antiperspirant Powder (4 oz. and 6 oz.) and Suave 24 Hour Protection Aerosol Antiperspirant Fresh (6 oz.), with an expiration date through September 2023, were the two commodities that had been affected and contained benzene (Albert, 2022). Unilever spoke out on their recall and stated “while benzene is not an ingredient in any of our products, our review showed that an unexpected level of benzene came from the propellant that sprayed the product out of the can” (FDA, 2021). The company also went on to say that the exposure to the quantity of benzene observed from review, on a daily basis is unlikely to be harmful to one’s health. However Unilever has initiated this recall that is voluntary for the two Suave antiperspirant aerosol products as a result of these findings and out of an excess of caution for the consumer (Torchinsky, 2022). When it comes to the question of how benzene could have exactly gotten into these aerosol products that individuals use on a daily basis, the company went on to say that “investigators believe it may be due to the manufacturing process and cross-contamination” (Yates, 2021). Suave products were only available in limited quantities in retail stores and online stores in the United States and were discontinued in October of 2021. 

Recalled Sauve Products (Image from Unilever Recall Page)

A month after the product was discontinued a class action lawsuit was filed against Unilever following a study made by Valisure. On November 3rd, 2021 Valisure released a petition requesting the Commission of Food and Drugs to request recalls and revise industry guidance. Valisure found that body sprays and found that 54% of the samples tested contained elevated levels of benzene and in some as much as 18 parts per million (ppm) (Valisure). Which is much greater than the FDA’s limit of 2 ppm if  “unavoidable to produce a drug product with a significant therapeutic advance” (FDA Alerts). The Suave Powder Aerosol products in 4 oz. and 6 oz. sizes contained an average of 5.21 ppm and 0.97 ppm respectfully. Suave Fresh contained an average of 2.30 ppm within tested samples. This is a huge concern for customer safety because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has  “estimated that lifetime exposure to benzene at 0.4 parts per billion (‘ppb’), or 0.0004 ppm, will increase the risk of developing cancer in humans” (Valisure). Making these products harmful to consumers uses them everyday. Furthermore, Valisure also stated that if a contaminated product was used in the bathroom (20 sq. ft. with 8 ceilings) the air could contain benzene at 6 ppb. So if someone used a contaminated aerosol product everyday, in an enclosed space, they would dramatically increase their chance of getting cancer. 

Retailers had been informed the recalled products must be removed from their shelves. The company also stated that the customers that had been affected by these purchased products would be reimbursed by Unilever. Recalls regarding the chemical, “benzene”, was not the best news for Unilever nor is it a great look to have cancer associated with their products. On the other hand, this was great news for the general public that regulators were able to quickly discover the problem.

Not only have antiperspirants been recalled in recent months, but Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has also voluntarily recalled four of their sunscreen products. Specifically, Neutrogena® Beach Defense, Neutrogena® Cool Dry Sport, Neutrogena® Invisible Daily™ defense, Neutrogena® Ultra Sheer, and Aveeno® Protect + Refresh. All five of these products are aerosol sunscreen and all of them were found to have benzene contained within the propellant, similar to Unilever’s Sauve products. J&J also advises customers to do the same as Unilever, to stop using the products and dispose of them properly. Any customers with questions are encouraged to call J&J’s Customer Care Center at 1-800-458-1673.

Recalled Neutrogena Products (Image from 

Timeline of Events


Any sizable business has plenty of stakeholders to help the business strive and grow. The responsibilities of a stakeholder include contribution of not only their money but more importantly time to better the company. In this case we are talking about the stakeholders involved with Neutrogena. Unfortunately over the last few years we have become very familiar with Neutrogena stakeholders. That being Johnson and Johnson(J&J). J&J works side by side with Neutrogena to promote sustainability. Main end goal is to maintain the competitive advantage over other rival companies. The current CEO to date for Neutrogena is Alex Gorsky and CFO Alexander Caruso.  Now the thing with stakeholders is that when the company is thriving they get a good amount of credit, on the contrary when the company is doing poorly they take most of the hit. As one could imagine during this time in which the recalls began a lot of it fell on J&J. Another major stakeholder that was involved are called external stakeholders. This includes doctors and other organizations that promote these Neutrogena products and ensure safe and healthy use. Now imagine how the doctors felt once they discovered that Benzene was in the product. This makes people lose trust in the doctors even though it shouldn't be. The stakeholders allow for the reputation of the product to remain positive and Neutrogena did just that and are still one of the top selling cosmetic companies globally.

Unilever stakeholders are different in comparison to Neutrogena, Unilever prides itself on having a strong relationship with many of its stakeholders ranging from customers to suppliers, shareholders, scientists, as well as trade associations. When conducting research it was difficult to find the exact names of these stakeholders, but  is it important to notice that Unilever makes a point to take into consideration all of them. The current CEO of Unilever is Alan Jope as of 2019 which is fairly recent. As mentioned above, many of the stakeholders' responsibilities are to grow the company as much as possible.  

The General Public is affected because Unilever and J&J  are very large corporations spread across many industries and are owners of same brand products like Ben & Jerry’s and Neutrogena. Due to a lack of quality control/product investigation there could be other products also containing potentially harmful products without anyone knowing. 


In this class there were two theories of Individualism: Friedman's Individualism and Machan’s Individualism. Friedman’s Individualism states “The only goal of business is to profit, so the only obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner or stockholders within the law of the land” (Salazar). This theory does not take into the consideration the identity of the company and the motivations of investors and customers to choose socially responsible businesses. However, Machan’s Individualism does take this into account, stating that the primary goal of the business is to profit, with the law, BUT may have goals not aimed at profits (such as being a socially responsible business).

In the case of Unilever, under both Friedman’s and Machan’s Individualism Unilever used unethical business practices to gain profits because they were above the legal limit of benzene in their products. A class action lawsuit was filed, against Unilever, on November 12th, 2021 claiming that “as much as 5.51 parts per million (ppm) of benzene” (Shaak) were found in Unilever products. This is above the FDA’s limit of 2 ppm if the presence of benzene is “unavoidable” during the manufacturing of a product. The actions of Unilever are impermissible under an individualist point of view because they did not follow the rules & recommendations set forth by the FDA. While the lawsuit states that not all of the tested samples contained benzene, this shows that the presence of benzene is not “unavoidable” because some products were able to be produced without containing benzene. 

Let's say for example Unilever was below the FDA’s regulation 2 ppm in their product. It highlights one of the shortcomings of Freidman’s Individualism because investors are supporting a non-socially responsible business. An individualist would view Unilever’s actions as ethical because they are profiting within the law. However, Unilever did do the socially responsible thing by voluntarily recalling their product but this did occur 4 months after the lawsuit was filed. Back to the case at hand,  Unilever’s business practices were not ethical because they did not profit within the law.


Ethical theory played an important role in this decision, because the companies could have attempted to hide these findings in order to uphold the companies name and overall stature. As soon as the lab results came back immediate action was taken in order to protect the health and safety of its consumers. The two Suave antiperspirant arousal sprays were immediately recalled to protect the lives of the consumers. This case stated above can be linked to the ethical theory of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that all parties are treated honestly and with the utmost respect, as well as promotes happiness among the greatest number of people. “Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy”(Stanford). A Utilitarian wants everyone's happiness to count as the same, in other words maximizing the good. After conducting a sufficient amount of research one can conclude that even though the Unilever situation was extremely severe the company did everything to make sure that it had full transparency and despite  being in the wrong. When Unilever realized their mistake there made sure that the appropriate actions were taken in the benefit of all who were affected. Their biggest concern was the consumer, further explaining how the ethical theory of utilitarianism can be closely connected to this case. The company took the necessary precautions for the good of the people. The only aspect that wasn't fully explained was how the products get contaminated in the first place. Now the company could be hiding the aspect, however if what they say is true they might not have an actual answer.  


Unilever voluntarily recalled their two Suave antiperspirant aerosol products due to the potential of cancer-causing chemicals. From a Kantian perspective, this was the most ethically desirable approach to handle the situation for almost everyone involved. Like Kantian ethics in general, the Kantian understanding of business ethics encourages acting with respect toward all human individuals. Rational decisions must be ethical, according to Kantian business ethics theory. Being ethical refers to the rules or standards that govern proper behavior or performance. The decision you make should be driven by obligation rather than self-interest. Good will is at the heart of Kantian ethics. According to Kantian Business Ethics, the definition of good will is: “rationally which chooses to do what is right for the reason it is good” (Salazar). We, as individuals, all have value derived from our moral and cognitive abilities, and therefore we should all act in ways that demonstrate our gratitude for that value. When you’re in control of a company that services millions of human individuals, you should constantly be faithful and trustworthy to the customers who support you while also helping them. A company should not be exempt from ethical principles in general. Kantianism's four essential principles are to act logically, to assist others in making rational decisions, to respect individuals, and to be motivated by Good Will, looking to do the right thing because it is the correct thing to do. In this case, Unilever responded in accordance with its duty to protect its customers’ well-being by issuing a statement warning its customers who had purchased the product that benzene, a cancer causing chemical, had been discovered in the aerosol cans. Despite the fact that the amount of benzene identified on a daily basis is unlikely to be hazardous to one's health, they made certain to inform clients, be honest, and demonstrate that they care about their error. Unilever has ensured that the health and safety of individuals were prioritized, as well as the well-being of customers. 

The Categorical Imperative which is the Law of Rationality, is a test that determines whether a behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, is part of this theory. The Formula of Humanity, which asserts that using people as a method to get what you want is immoral because it exploits them, is one of the most important formulations of the categorical imperative. (Salazar) According to this ethical theory, Unilever passed the Categorical Imperative since they voluntarily recalled Suave aerosol cans for the health and safety of its customers, not for the sake for the company to make more money when they knew that quantity of benzene on a daily basis is unlikely to be harmful to one’s health. Unilever does not gain anything by recalling the product, if anything they are the ones that are losing and are the ones that actually care about their customers' health currently and down the line. After Analyzing from Kant's ethical theory, it is clear that Unilever actions were acceptable and that they had followed all four essential principles. Remember life is precious and we must protect it. 

Virtue Theory

Back in the 4th century B.C., Aristotle developed the virtue theory which consists of four main characteristics. These include courage, temperance/self-control, honesty, as well as justice/fairness. For starters, the virtue theory was established to help those differentiate between what’s good, and what isn’t good. Understanding that seeking a purpose and only doing what best to achieve that said purpose, results in virtue. The courageous characteristic takes a part in this case, representing the risk-taking and willingness to take a stand for the right ideas and actions (Salazar, 7). After the review of both Suave products, the recall notice explained that the benzene levels came from the propellant that sprays the product. Immediately, Unilever acted and issued a nationwide recall. Research concluded that the levels of benzene found were slightly elevated and only capable of causing little to no harm. 

However, the company chose to make the ethical decision, and take the product off the market anyways, even though there is a high percent chance that the benzene may have never been noticed, and or cause any problems. Moving on to temperance which is defined as “reasonable expectations and desires” (Soloman, 34), the case ties into this characteristic considering Unilever uses this knowledge to grant their customers with trustworthy products. People have faith in the companies they are giving their money too and expect nothing less than reasonable products that contribute to their purpose. Unilever ethically recalled their products considering it was unsafe, and only wishing to purchase safe products, is a reasonable customer request. Not to mention, Unilever also ethically chose to take the honest route and alert the FDA on its benzene findings as soon as it was discovered, remaining in agreement with their customers. Lastly, Unilever maintains justice to its company overall, remaining true to their business model that I previously mentioned above. Recalling their products was the ethical move considering they are still known for their high-quality products and maintaining their consumer’s trust.

Action Plan

There have been many companies in past months recalling their products because they contain human carcinogens. Two of Unilever’s Suave antiperspirant products contained elevated levels of benzene and J&J’s Neutrogena products also contained benzene. This is a problem because carcinogens are materials or substances that can cause cancer, which can lead to potential deadly health conditions. For example, from prolonged exposure to benzene it can cause the blood cancer Leukemia. Leukemia which can lead to weakened immune systems and weight loss. This is especially a problem when consumers do not know that the products contain human carcinogens. Since benzene was only found in the propellant that sprays the antiperspirant, in the Suave products, it should be very easy for Suave to remove the benzene from their products.

A new mission statement for Unilever and J&J would be very helpful in helping them recover from these controversies’. For instance, the new mission statement might be “We are dedicated to the health and safety of our customers and promise to produce safer quality products.” To go along with the mission statement these companies should also follow some core values going forward. Some values may be customer health, quality consistency, customer services, and trust. The companies will meet these values when releasing products that have no carcinogens within them (that have also been tested for common carcinogens and other harmful substances). Also, they publish documentation that there are no harmful substances in all of their products and even add a URL to the documentation on the product. This will build trust because customers will know exactly what they are buying. One step these companies can take to ensure they practice ethical business in the future is to have informative courses on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). GMP are regulations promoted by the US Food and Drug Administration under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (ISPE). By having management and executives take this informative course it will ensure that Unilever and J&J have consistent quality products being produced. The last part of the plan could be to send out coupons, with the documentation, to customers to encourage them to buy new products. This plan will promote business profits and productivity because customers will know that the product they are purchasing is safe, healthy, and free of harmful substances and therefore be more inclined to purchase the products. Also, by including documentation of safety and quality of the product it will show that Unilever and J&J are trustworthy and are dedicated to being an ethical business.  


Albert, Victoria. “Two Types of Suave Aerosol Deodorant Recalled Due to Elevated Benzene Levels.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 2 Apr. 2022, 

FDA. “FDA Alerts Drug Manufacturers to the Risk of Benzene Contamination.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 23 Dec. 2021, 

FDA. “Unilever Issues Voluntary Nationwide Recall of Suave 24-Hour Protection Aerosol Antiperspirant Powder and Suave 24-Hour Protection Aerosol Antiperspirant Fresh Due to Presence of Slightly Elevated Levels of Benzene.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA,

ISPE. “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Resources.” ISPE, 23 Jan. 2019, 

Salazar, Heather. “Does Business Ethics Make Economic Sense? .” Economics and Individualism Online Lecture, 5 May 2022, Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Shaak, Erin. “Class Action Alleges Carcinogen Benzene Detected in Certain Suave Antiperspirant Products.”, Newswire, 16 Nov. 2021, 

Torchinsky, Rina. “Suave Antiperspirants Are Recalled Because Benzene Was Found in Some Samples.” NPR, NPR, 1 Apr. 2022,

Valisure, “Valisure Citizen Petition on Benzene in Body Spray Products” 3 Nov. 2021

Yates, Jacqueline Lauren. ABC News, ABC News Network, 21 Dec. 2021,

No comments:

Post a Comment