St. Ives Apricot Scrub Lawsuit Exposes Raging Controversy Over Product

St. Ives facial scrubs are a popular inexpensive beauty product, and the subject of some controversy. Is the product as wholesome and healthy as it’s advertised, or is it bad for your skin? The issue has come to a head (not a blackhead) in a class action lawsuit filed this month accusing Unilever, parent company of St. Ives, of false advertising.

If you want to scrub your face with something gritty, the apricot scrub remains a popular choice now that similar exfoliating products with microbeads have been banned, and the promises are right there on the tube: it exfoliates, it’s non-comedogenic (meaning that it doesn’t block pores) and it’s been “dermatologist-tested.”

The lawsuit [PDF] accuses the brand of something very basic: promoting it as good for customers’ skin when it isn’t. Removing dead skin from your body or face feels good, but detractors allege that it actually causes accelerated aging, sun damage, and even infections by causing micro-abrasions on the skin. Even the name of the product isn’t quite accurate, claim the plaintiffs, who point out that the grit in the scrub comes from walnut shell powder, not from apricots.

“Walnut shell powder creates microscopic tears in the top layer of the skin,” one esthetician wrote in her blog, as quoted by the initial complaint in this class action. “This allows surface bacteria to enter into deeper layers of the skin. The action of scrubbing the skin also causes inflammation…”

It turns out that a lot of estheticians and dermatologists don’t want people using the stuff on their faces, but there’s no medical consensus on whether using the product makes you age faster or not, or causes other damage.

The lawsuit is about false advertising, and the two lead plaintiffs bought their scrubs in California and in New York. Their allegation: the scrub is being sold as wholesome and healthy when it’s bad for users’ skin, clogging pores and causing those alleged micro-tears.

The question is: do dermatologists, in general, recommend using the product? The attorneys say that Unilever dodges the issue by playing up natural ingredients and saying that the product is “hypoallergenic” and “dermatologist-tested.”

“Defendant knows about this issue, as is evidenced by its ambiguous representation that the product is ‘dermatologist tested.’ But Defendant omits the fact that St. Ives causes skin damage and is not recommended by dermatologists,” the lawsuit claims. Well, some dermatologists recommend it, though not necessarily for use on your face.

Remember that cosmetic preservative, methylisothiazolinone, that we reported can cause terrible rashes and other problems in a small number of people? Yep, that’s in the scrub. It also contains some ingredients known to clog pores, even though unclogging pores is one of the main purposes of the product.

What do the plaintiffs want? They want the cost of their scrub back, and they want Unilever to stop advertising the product in an allegedly misleading way.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.