What The Honest Co.'s sunscreen controversy can teach us about innovation and trust

What The Honest Co.'s sunscreen controversy can teach us about innovation and trust

Scathing consumer reviews of The Honest Co.'s mineral sunscreen reinforce the importance of delivering on product promises, especially in a relatively new category.

Recent headlines covering negative reviews of The Honest Co.’s mineral sunscreen are proving the power of social media—and the importance of delivering on product promises. Publications from Forbes to People to Time have reported on the recent controversy surrounding Jessica Alba’s line of eco consumer products that includes diapers, body care and sunscreens.

Over the past week, consumer social media posts and Amazon reviews are lighting up the internet with photos of nasty sunburns that people got while wearing the company’s zinc-based mineral sunscreen.

Alba was quick to respond to the press and consumer backlash, posting a blog on the company’s website that reinforced her position that the product is a safe, effective sunscreen:

We’ve gone through extensive third-party testing in accordance with government regulations and our Sunscreen Lotion passed all SPF 30 testing requirements. It also received the best score possible from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). We care about taking every precaution possible to ensure that your product experience will keep you healthy and happy.

(More information regarding why the sunscreen didn't do its job should unfold over the next few days.) 

The mineral vs. chemical conundrum 

As more consumers grow aware of the ingredients in their chemical sunscreens, particularly oxybenzone, they’re opting for mineral options that are made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Support from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database and the EWG's annual Guide to Sunscreens, which rank these ingredients as the safest and most effective for sun care products, has certainly moved the needle. 

But, there’s an important lesson here: “Nontoxic” alternatives are not exempt from consumer criticism. And "natural" is not enough. In fact, with mineral sunscreen still making up just a small segment of the overall sun care market, it’s even more important for these products to deliver high-performance. This is especially relevant in a category that is so closely tied to health and is top-of-mind for consumers. 

While early complaints about mineral sunscreens were primarily based around their consistency (white, gloppy and difficult to absorb), these recent concerns about the true efficacy of the product could be even more detrimental to the category as a whole. More education around mineral sun care is necessary; unfortunately, defending ineffective products takes time and resources away from formulating superior products that use safer ingredients and educating on how these alternatives work.  

The trust factor

In recent years, consumer advocacy and increased education has led to some of the biggest players in the personal care space reformulating their products and becoming more transparent. Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, along with retailers like Target and CVS, have started to address policies and ingredients. And efforts by the EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have shed light on the potential dangers of chemical-laden personal care products, including sunscreen. 

As a result of this heightened awareness and media attention, natural personal care brands have been in a prime position to become go-to household brands. If they can deliver on their promises.   

While trust in The Honest Company may not be lost, this news is critical for any company in the space. Being nontoxic alone is not enough to earn consumer advocates; and the natural personal care industry—while growing every year—has a lot to lose if brands can’t be totally honest and transparent in delivering a nontoxic product that actually works. 

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