While Hollywood “bad girls” tend to grab more attention for their antics, Jessica Alba is hoping that nice girls don’t finish last. As the reigning queen of multitasking in Hollywood — she juggles acting, marriage and motherhood with a billion-dollar lifestyle brand, The Honest Company Inc. — Alba has lately felt the burn of fame with a public relations fiasco stemming from customers who claimed The Honest Company SPF 30 Sunscreen was ineffective. On Thursday, a class action lawsuit filed in San Francisco by a consumer seeking $5 million in damages added to the company’s woes.
In the complaint, filed in the District Court of Northern California, Jonathan D. Rubin claimed that products described as “natural” actually contain synthetic chemicals such as Methylisothiazolinone and Phenoxyethanol, both synthetic preservatives; Cocamidopropyl Betaine, a synthetic surfactant, and Sodium Polycrylate, a petrochemical-based additive.
The complaint lists Honest Hand Soap, Honest Dish Soap, Honest Diapers and Honest Multi-Surface Cleaner as being “deceptively and misleadingly labeled and marketed” because the word “natural” appears in product descriptions.
The suit also claims that Honest SPF 30 Sunscreen is “ineffective in preventing unhealthy exposure to harmful UV rays,” echoing the sentiments of a handful of customers who took to social media in July to share photos of their sunburns.
Alba and The Honest Company told WWD, “The allegations against us are baseless and without merit. We strongly stand behind our products and the responsibility we have to our consumers. We are steadfast in our commitment to transparency and openness. I know my children, Honor and Haven, are growing up in a safer home because of our products.”
Said Alba, “I started The Honest Company to develop safe and effective products not just for my children, but for families everywhere. I am very proud that we have built this company into an industry leader focused on using natural ingredients and developing products that people love.”
She continued, “We believe that consumers deserve to know what’s in their products — whether it’s diapers for their children, cleaning products for their families or beauty products for themselves. Our formulations are made with integrity and strict standards of safety, and we label each ingredient that goes into every product – not because we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s the first time Alba has issued a statement since posting a response to the sunscreen snafu on The Honest Company website last month, and she still has plenty of goodwill on her side. She’s due to launch her skin-care and color cosmetics line Honest Beauty on Wednesday and will be speaking at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco on Sept. 15.
Susan Woods, principal at The Woods & Co., a New York-based marketing firm specializing in health and beauty, said that most people aren’t going to fault Alba for using a phrase like “natural” when it’s a catchphrase for so many products containing far more chemicals.
“Many consumers are unaware of the terminology and meaning of the word natural as it relates to health and beauty. The products that [Rubin] referred to in the lawsuit contain ingredients that are rated by Environmental Working Group with hazard scores between low and moderate, which is common when referring to the natural market,” she said. However, she did point out, “There is one ingredient in the Multi-Surface Cleanser that does have a high hazard rating. I would recommend that they pull that product and readdress its formulation.”
Woods believes Alba and The Honest Company can avert a crisis by meeting the media head-on. “I think that Alba and Honest can survive this but need to employ a proactive, open and honest communication platform that leverages her celebrity, key MDs and the formulators to discuss ingredients. This is an opportunity to educate and inform consumers,” she said.
For some in the natural-products business, the parameters are more black and white. Brenda Brock, founder of the all-natural line Farmaesthetics, said, “Either you’re natural or you’re not — there is no quantitative response, it is either 100 percent yes or 100 percent no.”