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When you pick up a bottle of Honest Company liquid laundry detergent at the grocery store, you’ll see one very prominent  promise on the label. It reads, “Honestly free of,” and proceeds to list the ingredients it does not use in the product. The number one ingredient on that list is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Yet according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, that Honest promise is a lie.

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Ad for Honest Company Inc. (Image via Honest Company)

What Is the Honest Company?

As of last August, Honest Company Inc. was listed at a private value of $1.7 billion. Not bad for a company that’s been around for less than half a decade. Following the birth of her first son, actress Jessica Alba founded the company in 2011 in an effort to establish more toxin-free options for household products.

According to Inc Magazine, building the company was no picnic. Skeptics of the idea were much more enthusiastic about Alba putting her name on a perfume line, but the actress wasn’t having it.

“There wasn’t one person who said, ‘Yeah, that can happen,’” she told the magazine. “I wanted this to be a whole lifestyle brand. Everyone I talked with in Hollywood could not wrap their heads around the idea. Whenever I tried to sit down with them about it, they would just get this glazed look on their faces.”

It would be three years before Alba found partners willing to go into business with her.

The Honest mission statement is fairly simple, explained Alba: “I founded The Honest Company on this idea: Everything that touches you and your family–everything in your home–needs to be nontoxic, needs to be effective and beautiful to look at, and needs to be affordable.”

What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?

Basically, SLS is a cleaning agent that can be found in just about everything, from toothpaste to carpet cleaner. It’s an emulsifier and foaming agent, ranked by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review as an irritant at concentrations of two percent or more. There are a lot of internet rumors out there that it’s directly linked to cancer, but the science says otherwise.

According to LiveStrong, pure SLS can cause skin and eye irritation. If you eat it, it may even cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. And Mercola reports that SLS contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, is “possibly carcinogenic to humans” and may damage the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.

While the percentages found in your household products are usually not enough to cause such harsh reactions, there is a lack of evidence on the long-term, cumulative effect of being exposed to SLS. Suffice it to say, the Honest Company prides itself on not including it in their products.

Honest products. (Photo via Honest Company Inc.)

Honest products. (Photo via Honest Company Inc.)

But Do They?

Right now, it’s a game of he said, she said.

According to yesterday’s WSJ article, two independent lab tests commissioned by the Journal have found significant amounts of SLS in Honest laundry detergent.

“Our findings support that there is a significant amount of sodium lauryl sulfate [in Honest’s detergent],” says Barbara Pavan, a chemist at one of the labs, Impact Analytical. According to the other lab, Chemir, SLS was found in the same concentrations as Procter & Gamble’s Tide.

“It was not a trace amount,” said Chemir chemist Matthew Hynes.

But Honest is disputing the claim. “We do not make our products with sodium lauryl sulfate,” said Kevin Ewell, the company’s research and development manager.

This is not the first time that the integrity of Honest’s products has been questioned. Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the company claiming its labels are “deceptively and misleadingly” marketed to consumers as “natural.” 

Update 3/11/16 14:43 PT: Here is the full statement from Honest Company:

“Despite providing The Wall Street Journal with substantial evidence to the contrary, they falsely claimed our laundry detergent contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). 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.The Wall Street Journal has been reckless in the preparation of this article, refused multiple requests to share data on which they apparently relied and has substituted junk science for credible journalism. We stand behind our laundry detergent and take very seriously the responsibility we have to our consumers to create safe and effective products.”

And the WSJ’s rebuttal:

“The Journal’s report is accurate, fair and meets the Journal’s established and trusted high standards, including giving the Honest Company numerous opportunities to respond to our findings. We took great care in preparing this story, relying on two tests with two different labs and numerous experts during an extensive and lengthy investigation.”

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