Jessica Alba's Honest Company Ordered to Pay Over $1.5M in Lawsuit Over Common Cosmetics Ingredient
Alba's Honest Company has reached a settlement with consumers for $1.55M. The company also claims that it has removed the ingredient from its formulations.
Originally Published: 3/30/16
Unlike pharmaceutical products, which are regulated by the FDA, anything you buy over the counter, be it a face cream or dishwasher detergent, doesn’t face the same scrutiny. Scarily enough, as long as the claims companies make are not so wrong that consumers or the Federal Trade Commission bust them for false advertising, they have a lot more leniency when it comes to what they are allowed to say their product can do. But, if a recent wave of heightened media coverage over safety in consumer products—from wood pulp in Parmesan cheese to talc powder risks to bunk supplements—is any indication, consumers and investigators alike are paying a lot more attention to product labels.
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The latest company to feel the scrutiny is Jessica Alba’s brand, The Honest Company, a billion dollar company built off selling consumers on natural and toxin-free products. Last week, consumer Margo Smith filed a class action complaint in Missouri, claiming that the brand “deceptively marketed its popular consumer liquid laundry detergent, dish soap, multi-surface cleaner and other products" as being free of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).
SLS is a commonly used ingredient found in everything from toothpaste and shampoo to household cleaning products. The ingredient is added to products to generate lather. Although SLS is a common ingredient, The Honest Company says it irritates skin, and has built a platform on encouraging consumers to avoid it. According to product labels, The Honest Company lists SLS up top on its “Honesty free of” label.
The complaint was filed two weeks after the Wall Street Journal revealed on March 10 that independent lab tests commissioned by the publication determined that The Honest Company products contained quite a bit of the offending ingredient. “Our findings support that there is a significant amount of sodium lauryl sulfate” in Honest’s detergent," Barbara Pavan, a chemist at Impact, one of the labs the WSJ used, told the publication. Another chemist at Chemir, a second lab the WSJ tasked to test the product said that “it was not a trace amount.” In fact, the WSJ reports that Chemir’s test for SLS in The Honest Company products found about the same concentration as Tide. Proctor and Gamble, Tide’s parent company, took no issue with the lab results and stands behind their claim that SLS is not a hazardous ingredient.
In response to the Wall Street Journal’s article, the Honest Company shot back that their own tests did not find SLS in their products and that they were guaranteed by their suppliers that the products were free of the ingredient. The brand calls the lawsuit “without merit.”
But what the suit may come down to is the fact that The Honest Company does use a product called “Sodium Coco Sulfate.” In a blog post to consumers, The Honest Company explains: “While many name brand detergents use SLS to create suds, we have always chosen to use SCS at Honest. Independent studies have shown that SCS is less irritating and safer to use in products from skin care to cleaners.”
However, the crux of the issue is that many cosmetics chemists, including those interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, say that SCS intrinsically contains SLS. The Honest Company says it does not.
We reached out to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos for clarification.
“Sodium coco sulfate does contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS production begins with a specific fatty acid, lauric acid. Sodium coco sulfate is produced using the entire distribution of fatty acids found in coconut oil. It would be complicated to utilize the name of each fatty acid in the cosmetic ingredient nomenclature, hence sodium coco sulfate. Of the fatty acids in coconut oil lauric acid is the most predominate, accounting for approximately 50 percent of the fatty components. Claiming products that contain sodium coco sulfate are free from SLS is simply not true.”
Dobos adds: "SLS can be an irritant if left on the skin, but there little concern in wash-off products. And because it's very good at removing dirt and oils, it may be more drying than milder surfactants that strip less oil from the skin, but products containing SLS are certainly safe to use."
Whether or not SLS should be avoided is a whole another issue—one that experts may have differing opinions on. What’s causing consumer outrage is that the marketing message they were fed may not actually align with the true nature of the product. Our take? Just another reason consumers should always dig a little deeper and ask questions.