Kimberly-Clark sued for claiming Baby Wipes are "natural"

Kimberly-Clark (KMB) is facing a federal lawsuit for claiming that Huggies Natural Care Baby Wipes are “natural,” “gentle“ and “hypoallergenic.” That’s because the product contains a synthetic chemical called phenoxyethanol, which the Food and Drug Administration says “may cause vomiting and diarrhea” in infants. 

The suit, filed March 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, on behalf of San Diego resident Brittany Sebastian, is seeking damages for unlawful business practices and acts and deceptive advertising, among other things.  

Sebastian purchased a package of Huggies Natural Care Wipes from a Target (TGT) store in Encinitas, California, between August and November 2016. Had she known the “truth” about the wipes, she would have purchased another product, according to the filing.

Irving, Texas-based Kimberly-Clark, whose products include Kleenex tissues, Depend adult diapers and Kotex feminine care products, denies wrongdoing and intends to “vigorously defend our products and brands.”

“Nothing is more important to Huggies than the safety and well-being of those families that use our products, and we stand behind our claims that Huggies Natural Care baby wipes are safe, having passed rigorous internal and independent safety evaluations that support our confidence in the quality and safety of this product,” wrote Terry Balluck, a spokesperson for Kimberly-Clark, in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. 

“This complaint does not allege a single safety event or evidence of any injury to a consumer,” he said, “and any allegation of a safety risk to our consumers is without merit.”

Attorneys for Sebastian didn’t return an email seeking comment for this story.

According to the suit, phenoxyethanol, which keeps the wipes fresh, can lead to skin irritation and is poisonous if ingested. Moreover, regulators in France have urged consumers not to use wipes containing the chemical on children under the age of three because of concerns about “reproductive and developmental toxicity.” Repeated, long-term exposure has been has been linked to organ damage, according to the court filing.

Phenoxyethanol has been around for years. Actor Jessica Alba’s Honest Co. uses the chemical in “very low concentrations” in five products (Stain Remover, Multi-Surface Spray, Dish Soap, Hand Soap & Laundry Detergent) as an alternative to parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, both of which have been linked to cancer. Whole Foods (WFM) also permits the use of phenoxyethanol in its Premium Body Care products.

“We regularly hear from customers concerned about this ingredient because there’s quite a bit of online controversy about its safety,” according to Honest Co.’s blog. “Most of the studies that have found significant negative health impacts are based on full-strength or high-dose exposures. In real life usage, exposures are quite small.”

Sebastian’s suit noted that Huggies Natural Care Wipes have other synthetic chemicals such as caprylil glycol, a skin conditioning agent and preservative; skin cleanser cocamidopropyl betaine; and sodium citrate, which help keep the sheets white. 

“Consumers have become increasingly concerned about the effects of synthetic ingredients in personal-care products,” the 22-page lawsuit said. “Indeed, consumers, including Plaintiff are willing to pay and have paid, a premium for products advertised, marketed, and labeled as ‘natural’ over products containing nonnatural, synthetic ingredients.”

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