Why The Honest Company’s ‘Toxic’ Scandal Matters

Jessica Alba at a product launch for The Honest Company.
Jessica Alba at a product launch for The Honest Company.Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for The Honest Company

Actress-turned-business mogul Jessica Alba is once again facing fire for products sold by Honest Company, the venture she co-founded in 2011. The company prides itself on truthful marketing and using only safe, nontoxic ingredients in its household cleaners, diapers, and personal care products. However, a new Wall Street Journal investigation suggests Honest Company's laundry detergent contains sodium lauryl sulfate — one of the very ingredients it promises never to use in its products. 

Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is a sudsy cleanser found in thousands of conventional detergents, toothpastes, shampoos, and other household products. This harsh surfactant can irritate the skin and eyes, which is why natural brands often shun it and why Whole Foods Market and many other health food stores refuse to sell products that contain it.

Irritation aside, though, whether or not SLS is truly toxic isn't so clear-cut. Green-cleaning giant Seventh Generation maintains the surfactant is safe when formulated properly, and the Environmental Working Group deems its potential for toxicity extremely low. But Honest Company has joined the ranks of brands railing against SLS, going so far as to list it among the ingredients that all of its products are "Honestly Made Without." So, even though the verdict is still out on whether SLS is safe or unsafe, Honest has firmly proclaimed its stance.

Suffice to say, this makes these findings even more troubling. To conduct the investigation, WSJ sent samples of the Honest Company liquid laundry detergent to two separate independent labs for testing. Both revealed significant amounts of SLS. The brand quickly denounced these results, claiming that the company contracted to manufacture the detergent confirmed it was free of SLS. But it turns out that "proof" actually came from the chemical supplier, which clarified that it didn't add any SLS — but it never specifically tested for the ingredient's presence.

Still, Honest Company isn't accepting blame. Instead, according to a statement posted on its website, the brand is convinced the Wall Street Journal has an ax to grind with its and Alba's reputation. The post explains that, instead of SLS, Honest detergents include a gentler surfactant called sodium coco sulfate, which, like SLS, can be derived from coconut oil. Some even argue that these ingredients are actually the same thing. If they are, that would explain the test results, but Honest insists the two ingredients are different. Therefore, the company claims WSJ is purposefully disseminating inaccurate information and being reckless in its mudslinging.

This is not the first time Honest Company has been accused of dishonest marketing. Last September, a class-action lawsuit alleged that the company deceptively uses synthetic ingredients in several products. Honest's sunscreen also came under fire last year, after users began posting photos of their blistering sunburns on social media and those images went viral.

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Honest Company certainly has its work cut out in answering to all of these allegations — and in winning back its customers' trust. Today's consumers have easy access to information, actively question what they're putting in and on their bodies, and are eager to hold companies to their word. Thus, brands can no longer make product claims without expecting to back them. If Honest Company is going to make any kind of guarantee and market products accordingly, it has to be held accountable. It must be aware of what's going on at every step of production. It has to know its entire supply chain. Time will tell how this all pans out, but it certainly looks like Honest, somewhere along the line, did not do its due diligence.  

If anything, this is a lesson for consumers. You want safe products, yes. You want to trust brands to deliver those safe products, yes. But at the end of the day, there are crooked wheelers and dealers out there, as well as companies like Honest, that may be acting deceptively but, more likely, have gotten caught in over their heads with the insanely complex world of product chemistry . The best way to protect your and your family's health and safety is to educate yourself about the ingredients in the products you purchase — whether detergents or shaving cream or protein bars — and never take marketing claims at face value.