The Wall Street Journal, enlisting two independent labs, found an ingredient in the Honest Co.’s laundry detergent that the company said it doesn’t contain—and that co-founder Jessica Alba has told people is a toxin to avoid.
The ingredient, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), can in large quantities cause allergic reactions, but is commonly found in laundry detergent, toothpaste and other household products as a foaming agent and in some medicines to help pills dissolve. One lab found the same amount of SLS in Honest’s detergent as is found in Procter & Gamble’s Tide brand detergent.
The Honest Co. disputes the findings and said its suppliers have assured the firm there is no more than trace elements of SLS in its products, adding on its blog "The Journal clearly had the goal of harming the reputation and good will that we are so proud to have built here at Honest."
This is a significant problem for the Honest Co.—not just the fact that the Wall Street Journal found SLS in its independent lab tests, but also that the company won’t accept the findings and is sending responsibility down its supply chain. It is called the Honest Co., after all.
While the report may get past many of its customers, and others may choose to believe its claims, the findings could further damage the brand in the minds of some consumers. While the Journal was working on its story, the brand changed the wording on its website that apparently fudges its claims: “It used to say its products are 'Honestly free of' dozens of ingredients, including SLS,” according to the paper. “Now it says the products are 'Honestly made without' those ingredients. Honest also removed claims that other companies use ‘risky’ or ‘toxic’ ingredients that it doesn’t use."
One reason for the findings could be that the Honest Co. says it uses a compound called sodium coco sulfate, or SCS, which—according to several scientists interviewed by the paper and not disputed by other product makers—contains SLS. The Honest Co. disputed that notion, however.
It isn’t the first time that the Honest Co. has run into trouble with its products. Last year customers complained that a new formulation of its sunscreen left them with terrible sunburns. The lotions had been reformulated following complaints about the texture and smell of the original formula.
The Honest Co. may be finding that to manufacture household products that perform the way consumers are used to, those products must contain ingredients (like SLS) that deliver the performance people are expecting. Or it must educate customers that sometimes making things naturally means those products don’t have the same texture or smell as rival products.
The Honest Co. may be trying to have it both ways instead, and in the process is sacrificing, well, honesty. If it’s true, as the Wall Street Journal reports, that its laundry detergent is about as natural and “honest” as Tide, there’s almost no point to it. And worse, the Honest Co.’s denials in the face of independent tests and scientific certainties could seriously undermine its brand: It currently enjoys a $1.7 billion private valuation and is reportedly considering going public.