A chemist explains why the Honest company toxic ingredient scandal isn’t really a scandal

Honest’s Jessica Alba.
Honest’s Jessica Alba.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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Promising to avoid synthetic and processed ingredients in products is difficult.

Honest Company Inc., owned by actor Jessica Alba, boasts that its products—which include diapers, soaps, and cleaning supplies—don’t contain any synthetic chemicals that haven’t been thoroughly proven to be completely safe. It has a hearty list of the chemicals it avoids, including sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which is found in laundry detergent and other cleaning products. It’s primary use is to isolate the oils that have dirtied clothing so they can be rinsed away.

On March 10 the Wall Street Journal published (paywall) a story in which it claimed that after conducting two separate analyses, it detected SLS in the detergent. Honest shot back with a statement: ”To set the record straight, we use Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) in our brand’s laundry detergent because it is a gentler alternative that is less irritating and safer to use.”

Quartz reached out to Alan Stone, an environmental chemist at Johns Hopkins University, to clarify the difference between the ingredients. “The chemical structures of ‘sodium lauryl sulfate’ and ‘sodium coco sulfate’ are exactly the same,” he wrote in an email. “My guess is that the new name ‘sodium coco sulfate’ was invented to make it sound ‘less chemical’ and more friendly, and to imply that it is derived from natural sources (e.g. coconut oil) instead of synthesized from petroleum feedstock.”

The good news is, SLS has not been shown to be carcinogenic, though it may irritate the skin at high levels. Because they have a similar chemical structures, SCS is likely equally benign. Stone says that these chemicals also do not cause any problems to the environment, either.

Quartz has reached out to Honest for comment, but has not heard back yet.