Last week The Huffington Post reported that high levels of sodium lauryl sulfate, a potential skin irritant, were found in The Honest Company’s laundry detergent—despite the fact that the company claims it doesn’t use this ingredient in its products. The Honest Company, founded by actress Jessica Alba, sells personal care and household products that it claims are safer and more environmentally friendly than its competitors’.
The company responded to this report by denying its use of sodium lauryl sulfate, stating that it instead uses sodium coco sulfate and that it had conducted its own testing to confirm the presence of this “gentler alternative” in its product.
The truth about The Honest Company is that it’s representative of a much larger, uglier phenomenon than whether or not the company’s laundry detergent contains sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium coco sulfate.
The truth is that Jessica Alba may very well have been unaware of the exact ingredients in the company’s detergent.
As the founding scientists of Silk Therapeutics, we can attest to the fact that there are at least 3 persistent problems in the personal care and beauty industries that make today’s news a likely and recurrent problem, and as consumers you should be aware of them so that you can take steps to ensure you’re protected:
1. Contract Manufacturing – In the personal care products and beauty industries, contract manufacturing is extremely common. What that means is that the products you buy are actually made by a company other than the one whose name is on the bottle. In fact, many personal care products companies don’t even develop their own products. They purchase a formula, add color and fragrance, hire a firm to develop attractive packaging, slap on a label and begin selling. So, many ‘contracted’ products that claim superiority may actually be quite similar to others on the market in terms of their active ingredients and formulations. Also, we have personally witnessed the contract manufacturing process and, while there are no doubt many respectable companies out there, concerns do exist. Further, once contract manufacturing is in place, it’s up to the company to audit their practices and the products they make. Clearly establishing chain of custody –that is, verifying and documenting ingredient sources from raw material to finished product, is also notoriously difficult in the beauty industry. And that leads us to the second problem…
2. Lack of Scientific Rigor – When product development and manufacture can be contracted, hiring appropriately trained scientists is optional. That limits the company’s ability to conduct research toward novel discoveries and product improvements, as well as the capability to maintain checks and balances over contract manufacturers such as following certified manufacturing practices and monitoring ingredient sourcing for safety and claims. For example, products claiming to be ‘organic’ or ‘non-GMO’ should be subject to regular audits to check their origin and ensure proper practices are being followed.
3. Lack of Regulation – It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that products intended to cleanse or beautify are, other than most color additives, NOT subject to approval by the FDA before they are marketed to consumers. Until this changes (and we don’t anticipate that it will anytime soon), we urge you to be especially vigilant about product claims. At a bare minimum, we recommend checking product toxicity ratings via The Environmental Working Group (which publishes the free mobile app Skin Deep.)
We don’t know the details of how The Honest Company sources, develops or manufactures products, but we do know how important it is to have scientific leadership and control at the very top of the company, especially in an industry that continues to let consumers down. Regulation and transparency are sorely lacking; so for now, it’s buyer beware.
We believe in your good health and your right to make educated decisions about the products you buy, and will continue to provide as much information as we can to assist you.
In beauty and health,
Greg Altman, PhD, co-Founder and CEO
Rebecca Horan, PhD, co-Founder and COO