US actress Jessica Alba poses before the Christian Dior fashion show during the 2016-2017 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection on March 4, 2016 in Paris.  Picture: AFP PHOTO/PATRICK KOVARIK
The Honest Company, co-founded by US actress Jessica Alba uses a chemical in its detergent which it says it banned. Picture: AFP PHOTO/PATRICK KOVARIK

IN LESS than four years, the Honest Company surged to a $1.7bn private valuation thanks to its marketing of cleaning supplies, diapers and other consumer products that it says are safer and more ecologically friendly than other brands.

The company, co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, is challenging giants such as Procter & Gamble and Clorox with a guarantee that its offerings don’t contain what it says are harsh chemicals found in many mainstream products.

One of the primary ingredients to avoid, Honest tells consumers, is a cleaning agent called sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, which can be found in everyday household items from Colgate toothpaste to Tide detergent. Honest says this can irritate skin.

The company lists SLS first in the "Honestly free of" label of verboten ingredients it puts on bottles of its laundry detergent, one of Honest’s first and most popular products.

But two independent lab tests commissioned by The Wall Street Journal determined Honest’s liquid laundry detergent contains SLS.

"Our findings support that there is a significant amount of sodium lauryl sulfate" in Honest’s detergent, said Barbara Pavan, a chemist at one of the labs, Impact Analytical.

Another lab, Chemir, a division of EAG, said its test for SLS found about the same concentration as Tide, which is made by P&G.

"It was not a trace amount," said Matthew Hynes, a chemist at Chemir who conducted the test.

Honest disputes the laboratories’ findings and says its own testing found no SLS in its products.

"We do not make our products with sodium lauryl sulfate," said Kevin Ewell, the company’s research and development manager.

Honest’s business goes well beyond the detergent, which is the only product the Wall Street Journal examined.

The company, which has raised more than $200m from private investors, sells more than 100 varieties of products.

It has developed a loyal following among its customers, and its line of nappies and other baby-focused products have been particularly popular with young mothers.

It sells products online, but also enjoys shelf space at Target and Costco Wholesale. Honest says its manufacturing partners and suppliers have provided assurances that its products do not contain SLS beyond possible trace amounts.

Honest gave the Wall Street Journal a document it said was from its detergent manufacturer, Earth Friendly Products, which stated that there was zero "SLS content" in the product.

Earth Friendly, in turn, said the document came from its own chemical supplier, a company called Trichromatic West, which it relied on to test and certify that there was no SLS.

Trichromatic told the Journal the certificate was not based on any testing and there was a "misunderstanding" with the detergent maker.

It said the "SLS content" was listed as zero because it did not add any SLS to the material it provided to Earth Friendly and "there would be no reason to test specifically for SLS".

It said the product in question "was fairly and honestly represented" to its customer.

Honest said it did not deal directly with Trichromatic and declined to comment further on the certificate.

Earth Friendly reiterated that it relied on Trichromatic to test the ingredient.

Honest also disagreed with the methods used by the Journal’s labs, and said the labs tested against a sample of SLS that was not the type used in consumer products.

Both Chemir and Impact Analytical said they stood by their test results, used the most precise method for quantifying SLS in a consumer laundry detergent and followed standard scientific guidelines.

P&G said it had "no issue" with the level of SLS the tests found in Tide.

Ms Alba, who is Honest’s chief creative officer in addition to co-founder, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Her attorney, Bert Fields, said: "Jessica Alba and the folks at Honest truly believe that their detergent is free of nontrace SLS and have been assured of that by their suppliers."

While Honest has trumpeted its lack of SLS as a way to distinguish its products as safer than rivals’, there has long been debate about whether SLS is harmful.

In its pure form SLS can cause skin rashes, but many consumer products companies including P&G, Colgate-Palmolive and Seventh Generation have vouched for its safety when used in their products.

SLS is widely used in part because it is inexpensive and creates a foamy lather as it cleans.

It is also sometimes used in pill coatings to help medicine dissolve after being swallowed.

In Ms Alba’s 2013 book, The Honest Life, she lists SLS as a "toxin" that consumers should avoid. She started Honest in 2011 after she said she had experienced an allergic reaction to a popular brand of laundry detergent.

Honest uses an alternative cleanser in its detergent called sodium coco sulfate (SCS), which the company says is less irritating and a different compound from SLS.

"We have evidence that our laundry detergent contains SCS, not SLS, and any contention to the contrary is wrong," Honest’s general counsel, Craig Gatarz, said in a letter.

More than a dozen scientists interviewed by the Wall Street Journal said SCS, which is made from palm or coconut oil, is a mixture of various cleaning agents that includes a significant amount of SLS.

Chemicals manufacturer Stepan, one of the country’s largest suppliers of SLS and SCS to the consumer-products industry, said SCS contains SLS.

"The general process of making sodium coco sulfate would have sodium lauryl sulfate in it," said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that researches chemicals in consumer products.

Honest said SLS was not a component of sodium coco sulfate.

Janet Blaschke, chief executive of International Cosmetics & Regulatory Specialists and a scientific adviser to Honest, said SCS and SLS were recognised globally as distinct and unique chemicals.

"Sodium lauryl sulfate is refined in a way that sodium coco sulfate isn’t," she said.

During the research on this article, Honest made changes to wording on its website, including revising the description of its "Honestly Free Guarantee".

It used to say its products are "Honestly free of" dozens of ingredients, including SLS. 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.

When asked about the website changes, Honest co-founder and chief product officer Christopher Gavigan said they were to help clarify, educate and accurately represent the company’s position.

He said in a December meeting that Honest was also changing its product labels to match its website and had no plans to reformulate its detergent.

Honest does not make most of its products. Its laundry detergent is manufactured by Earth Friendly, a company that also makes and sells detergent and other cleaning products under its own brand, Ecos.

The lab tests for SLS commissioned by the Journal found Ecos detergent contained significant amounts. Earth Friendly said its detergent contains sodium coco sulfate, not SLS.

"Conducting testing to break up molecular chains to show that one substance ‘contains’ another creates an inaccurate representation of the science," said Amber Enriquez, Earth Friendly’s general counsel.

Rival Seventh Generation lists SLS as an ingredient in its laundry detergent, including a variety made for sensitive skin, and lists sodium coco sulfate as an ingredient in its hand wash.

It says both cleaning agents have the potential to irritate skin but are safe when products are formulated properly.

"In all practicality they act and behave as the same chemical in consumer products," said Tim Fowler, Seventh Generation’s senior vice-president of research and development.

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