In September, Slate’s Heather Schwedel sought to understand one of the internet’s most curious vendettas, namely, the r/SkincareAddiction subreddit’s fiery hatred for St. Ives Apricot Scrub. This month, the vendetta migrated from the web to the U.S. district courts, as two consumers filed a class-action lawsuit against Unilever claiming that the product is “unfit to be sold or used as a facial scrub” and “completely worthless.”
A bit of background, in case you haven’t been following: St. Ives describes its signature product as “THE multi award winning apricot scrub that deeply exfoliates for clean, smooth and glowing skin.” Some dermatologists and skincare aficionados, however, claim that the product’s primary exfoliating agent, walnut shell powder, actually tears tiny holes in the skin, leading to irritation and infection. This opinion is particularly popular—mandatory, really—at the aforementioned subreddit, where St. Ives Apricot Scrub has been called “St. Ives Devil Scrub.” “You may as well go and rub gravel or crushed glass on your face,” one r/SkincareAddiction user wrote.
Kaylee Browning and Sarah Basile, the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit against Unilever in the California Central District Court, agree. “Unfortunately for consumers, use of St. Ives as a facial exfoliant leads to long-term skin damage that greatly outweighs any potential benefits the product may provide,” their complaint states. “St. Ives’ primary exfoliating ingredient is crushed walnut shell, which has jagged edges that cause micro-tears in the skin when used in a scrub.” The plaintiffs, who bought the scrub in California and New York, quote several dermatologists and aestheticians railing against the use of walnut shell powder as an exfoliant. The complaint alleges that St. Ives knows that its product is harmful—after all, the scrub is prominently labeled as “dermatologist tested”—and that the product is misleadingly labeled as “non-comedogenic.” In a letter attached to the complaint, Browning says that if Unilever had “disclosed that St. Ives is not fit to be used as a facial scrub because it causes skin damage, I would have been aware of that and would have not purchased St. Ives.” (What a radically transparent marketing strategy that would have been!)
Predictably, the denizens of r/SkincareAddiction are rejoicing at the news of the lawsuit. “THIS USED TO DESTROY MY FACE! Thank god they're finally being sued for this,” exclaimed one redditor in a discussion of the lawsuit. Meanwhile, St. Ives users who are just now learning of the long-simmering controversy over the scrub are dismayed. In the comments section of an article about the lawsuit on Top Class Actions, a website that connects consumers with relevant class action settlements, one former St. Ives consumer writes,
I have used this product intermittently (between once and twice a week) since it was first introduced and at least I now know why my skin was frequently bright red and burning like it was on fire! Guess what’s going out in the trash this week? Yikes!!!!!
“I thought it was supposed to burn and that meant it was working,” writes another.
Of course, there are plenty of perfectly satisfied St. Ives Apricot Scrub users, underrepresented on anti-St. Ives forums, who would like to continue exfoliating their faces with walnut shell powder. And it remains to be seen whether the California Central District Court will agree that St. Ives is “unfit to be sold or used as a facial scrub,” or whether a judge or jury will attribute the plaintiffs’ bad reactions to the fact that cosmetic products’ effects vary from individual to individual.
What is clear is that anyone looking for eternally flawless skin is probably not going to find her desired results in a jar. One Top Class Actions commenter offers a thought that most of us can probably relate to, but that may not be attributable to St. Ives Apricot Scrub: “I’ve used this for years. I want a new face. This one looks really old.”