“Natural” cosmetics are no longer limited to organic retailers; they are ubiquitous from Target, which advertises its wide selection of “clean brands” — to Sephora, with its “Clean at Sephora” campaign. A 2019 Beauty Survey by Euromonitor International found that natural ingredient formulation is a trait associated with premium beauty products.
Indeed, in January 2020, luxury-brand Hermes announced its first-ever beauty collection—a range of lipsticks derived from natural ingredients. While consumers are willing to pay a premium for products labeled “natural,” the uncertainty surrounding such a claim presents concerning litigation risks.
What Constitutes “Natural”?
Webster's Dictionary defines "natural," as "existing in nature and not made or caused by people" and "not having any extra substances or chemicals added." However, this dictionary definition does not establish a legal requirement governing the use of the word “natural” on cosmetic or other products.
Neither the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) nor the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have adopted a definition of "natural." This lack of a legal definition can lead to costly litigation and/or enforcement actions by regulatory agencies.
The most common basis for “natural” false advertising claims against cosmetic makers is that a product labeled “natural” contains synthetic or chemical ingredients. These allegations are often not founded in science, as many synthetic and chemical ingredients are in fact considered safe. But without any definition or standard governing the use of the term, whether or not a “reasonable consumer” acting reasonably under the circumstances would be deceived by a given “natural” product or brand remains subject to costly legal debate.
Recent Government Efforts to Provide Needed Guidance
Bipartisan bills to update current cosmetic regulations have been floating in Congress for several years. Most recently, in November 2019, the Natural Cosmetics Act was introduced to, among other things, bring much-needed guidance to the term “natural.”
Specifically, the pending bill proposes that cosmetic products bearing the term “natural” on their packaging must (1) contain at least 70% natural substances, excluding water; (2) not contain a fragrance ingredient other than a natural substance or naturally-derived ingredient; and (3) other than natural substances and water, contain only naturally-derived ingredients.
So long as there is ambiguity as to the legal definition of the term “natural,” companies continue to be exposed to often frivolous class action lawsuits from consumers claiming that the use of the term to describe their products is misleading.
Although there is no guaranteed way to avoid such litigation, manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and retailers can minimize their litigation risks by consulting with an experienced lawyer to (1) advise on labeling and advertising language and (2) ensure that all ingredients are being clearly disclosed on packaging, websites and promotional materials.