Today, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced proposed settlement agreements and consent orders with four companies for falsely marketing shampoos, sunscreen, and skincare products as “all natural” or “100% natural.” A fifth company was issued an administrative complaint for marketing “all natural sunscreen” that contains “a synthetic ingredient,” dimethicone. Other ingredients cited as “synthetic” by the FTC in the proposed consent orders include ethylhexyl glycol, phenoxyethanol, polyethylene, polyquaternium-37, polyquaternium-7, and caprylyl glycol. The complaints against all five companies allege that using such “synthetic” ingredients renders “all natural” claims false or misleading.
In these cases, the FTC’s proposed orders bar the companies from making misrepresentations in marketing a product about the following:
- Whether the product is all natural or 100% natural;
- The extent to which the product contains any natural or synthetic ingredient or component;
- The ingredients or composition of the product; or
- The environmental or health benefits of the product.
However, representations about these subjects are allowed under the proposed consent orders if the company “possesses and relies upon competent and reliable evidence” or “competent and reliable scientific evidence” that is “sufficient in quality and quantity based on standards generally accepted in the relevant fields when considered in light of the entire body of relevant and reliable evidence, to substantiate that the representation is true.”
Notably, today’s actions are not accompanied by an Enforcement Policy Statement or other guidance for companies not subject to the consent orders. FTC has raised questions in these enforcement actions such as: Which other commonly used ingredients in personal care products are “synthetic”? How does FTC determine whether a substance is “synthetic” or “natural”? Do plant-based versions of caprylyl glycol, for example, count as “synthetic”? Are processes and production considered as part of the “synthetic” vs. “natural” distinction, or just the sources or raw materials of the ingredients?
“All natural” claims are particularly difficult to substantiate because such claims are interpreted by consumers in a variety of different ways, and the various federal agencies that have jurisdiction over such claims in the United States have not provided much clarity. When issuing the revised Green Guides in 2012, for example, the FTC declined to provide guidance on “all natural” claims, citing the lack of data on how consumers interpret such claims. A December 2015 survey [PDF] by Consumer Reports found that misunderstanding about the meaning of “natural” in the food world was widespread; more than 80% of shoppers thought that in the context of processed foods, “natural” meant no pesticides were applied in production, no chemicals were used in processing, and that the food contained no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or artificial ingredients or colors. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still collecting public comments, through May 10, 2016, on using the term “natural” in food labeling.