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True Botanicals Removes Retinol Products Due to Ingredient Safety Concerns

The nontoxic skin-care brand was faced with a dilemma upon the discovery its products contained a potentially harmful preservative.

When the process to achieve Made Safe certification revealed retinol in two of nontoxic skin-care brand True Botanicals’ best-selling products was preserved with potentially toxic butylated hydroxytoluene, founder and president Hillary Peterson was faced with a few options: run and hide, stick to the status quo, make stealthy ingredient swaps or come clean and discontinue the troubling items.

The dilemma True Botanicals encountered is increasingly common (see Honest Co.) as scrutiny of ingredients intensifies, and deft actions and explanations are required to weather the issues handily. Peterson chose to expose the problem earlier this month in an e-mail blast and blog post, remove the offending bestsellers, recommend True Botanicals’ existing Pacific Topical Vitamin C Treatment and Pacific Face Serum as alternative remedies, and reinforce product safety.

“It wasn’t a hard decision. We are very clear that we don’t want to sell a product that we wouldn’t feel comfortable using on our daughters or ourselves,” she said. “Our business is growing, and customers appreciate our commitment to transparency and to our values. We just did it. We didn’t develop the replacement product first, but we have products that we think will absolutely fill the shoes.”

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What ended with Night Serum with Retinol and Night Serum with Retinol for Sensitive Skin being eliminated from True Botanicals’ assortment began several months ago as Made Safe dug into its ingredient lists at the brand’s request. The non-profit screening organization examined the retinol products and determined they contained evident quantities of BHT, an ingredient True Botanicals’ retinol supplier hadn’t divulged.

“Interestingly, we were just starting to be aware of it. We were talking to a second supplier, and that supplier said all retinol is preserved with BHT. We had been buying an ingredient that we were not aware was preserved with BHT, and we are very careful about vetting all of our ingredients,” said Peterson. “It was detected to be more than a miniscule [amount of BHT], and we believe strongly that we don’t need toxins to help our customers transform their skin.”

The surprising BHT discovery demonstrated how difficult it is, even for a company bent on avoiding harmful ingredients, to fully account for what exactly outside suppliers put in products. Whether or not a contract manufacturer publicizes ingredients, ultimately the blame for producing products with possibly harmful ingredients falls on brands. Honest Co., for example, not its supplier Earth Friendly Products LLC, is impugned if its laundry detergents include sodium lauryl sulfate. The brand asserts this is an irritant of which it steers clear.

“We really need to take responsibility for the decisions we are making when purchasing ingredients. Those are as much our responsibility as how we combine and curate them to create the products. The approach of not disclosing what I don’t know, I don’t think consumers are willing to accept that anymore. They are demanding change,” said Peterson, adding about suppliers, “How much of all the ingredients are they are disclosing? I do believe that this will become one of the new frontiers evolving our industry.”

The lessons Peterson learned in dealing with her brand’s BHT predicament are twofold: third-party certification is crucial to identify ingredients, and customers respect a brand standing up for its principles. “Third-party certification makes a big difference,” said Peterson. “Made Safe has looked at every single ingredient in every product, where they come from and how they are extracted. They really break it down, and they have scientists who know what to look for. Where they have questions, they investigate further. It’s incredibly thorough, and I think it is a way to clean up the supply chain.”

Peterson braced for customer disappointment and a financial hit once True Botanicals announced it was stopping its retinol products and spelled out the reason, but nothing of the sort materialized. “If anything, it has deepened our relationship with our customers. Someone who might have bought our product for two years may buy us for six or eight years now,” she said. “People have a clear example of our commitment to not only results, but also to their health and wellness. We have had overwhelmingly positive responses.”