Drunk Elephant

5 Beauty Industry Scandals & Controversies

03 December 2023


Skincare scandals an cosmetics controversies- because the internet does not forget.


 Making a list and checking it twice for Christmas… because Santa and the internet don’t forget beauty industry’ scandals and controversies. Welcome to a Christmas special on the blog- where we get reminded of bad behaviour in the beauty industry.  From beauty brands sneaking in toxic ingredients, stealing secrets; to skincare companies faking tests results; and more unethical behavior- I’ve got the tea and receipts that expose these misbehaving cosmetic companies.


L’oreal vs Drunk Elephant lawsuit


L’oreal sued Drunk Elephant for infringing its patent in 2018. Š

Drunk Elephant is a clean beauty brand that gained consumer popularity rapidly since its inception. Marketing itself as an effective skincare brand free of its “suspicious 6” ingredients, Drunk Elephant’s aesthetics of bottle caps in striking, bold colours and its constant engagement with consumers has made the brand a favourite among younger consumers.


In 2018, Drunk Elephant was embroiled in a lawsuit that damaged its credibility of providing “clean clinical” products. L’oreal, the parent company of Skinceuticals, sued Drunk Elephant for infringing its patent. (L’Oréal USA Creative, Inc. v. Drunk Elephant, LLC, 1:18-cv-00982 (W.D.Tex.)


Skinceuticals, is a skincare brand that has won many beauty awards and the endorsement of dermatologists for its C E Ferulic, a vitamin C serum. It’s high price point of SGD$280 for a 30ml bottle has made Skinceuticals CE Ferulic a target for dupes. As I’ve shared in Topical Vitamin C: One of the Best Ways to Protect Your Skin, vitamin C in skincare has been shown to lighten dark spots and boost collagen levels in the skin. The founder of Skinceuticals, dermatologist Dr Sheldon Pinnell, had patented his methods for stabilising the delivery of active vitamin C for optimal dermatological results. Drunk Elephant’s vitamin C, the C-Firma serum was hailed as a cheaper dupe for Skinceutical’s CE Ferulic by fans, at just half the price.


In its November 2018 complaint, L’Oreal claimed that Drunk Elephant’s C-Firma Day Serum contained components that replicated Skinceuticals’ patented CE Ferulic Serum, infringing on Skinceuticals’ patent (no. 7,179,841)1. According to L’oreal, despite informing Drunk Elephant of this violation, Drunk Elephant continued to infringe upon Skinceutical’s patent2.


Fast forward to 2020, this controversy reached an end, with Skinceuticals and Drunk Elephant settling this lawsuit out of court1. The details of this arrangement remain confidential. In November 2019, prior to this resolution, the court dismissed Drunk Elephant’s counterclaim of inequitable conduct that questioned the validity of Skinceutical’s patent1. It is worth noting that in 2021, Drunk Elephant has reformulated its C-Firma serum.


In 2019, Sunday Riley hit the news headlines for the wrong reasons- creating fake online reviews of their products to boost sales. 


Sunday Riley Found Guilty of Faking Sephora Reviews

Another cult beauty brand, Sunday Riley, fell out of consumer favour when its employees exposed that they were made to post fake, positive reviews of the brand’s products on Sephora’s website3-6.


Best known for its Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment, Sunday Riley will need more than a good exfoliation to clean up its reputation.


 Related blogposts:

A Complete Guide to Acids in Skincare & Chemical Exfoliation

Review of Face Exfoliating Acids in Skincare


Excerpts from the New York Times on the Sunday Riley herself encouraging staff to leave falsify positive reviews and the lengths that went to conceal their identities.


In 2019, Sunday Riley was found guilty by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of posting false reviews on Sephora.3-7 The FTC is an agency of the US government that protects consumers.


According to news reports and FTC investigation, employees of Sunday Riley were tasked with posting false glowing reviews of Sunday Riley from 2015 to 20173,5,7. This scheme involved the founder, Ms Riley herself3,4,7. In a letter released from FTC, Ms Riley “directed her employees to write glowing reviews and bury negative ones, while offering detailed instructions on how to avoid detection”7. Ms Riley and her staff also went to lengths to hide their identities online, by creating fake accounts and using “an Express VPN” (virtual private network) in order to conceal their IP addresses4,6.


Reddit user that claimed to be former Sunday Riley employee leaked an email from the company. This email revealed that the employees were told to  create fake Sephora accounts and post good reviews of their products. Image credit: Reddit.


The scheme came to light when whistleblowers shared on Instagram and Reddit the deeds of Sunday Riley’s team5,6. Following FTC’s investigation of Sunday Riley’s fake reviews, the brand has agreed not to write fake reviews7. Sunday Riley did not receive any punishment, admit wrongdoing or apologise to consumers for misleading them.



Mario Badescu Steroid Lawsuit

Mario Badescu is a skincare brand that is popular for its botanical products; and said to have won celebrities like Serena Williams as a fan. Mario Badescu himself is a chemist and facial therapist originally from Romania, who later moved to New York City to start his own skincare line. Since his passing, his skincare line has been helmed by his grandchildren.


In 2013, Mario Badescu was found to have used steroids in his products; without disclosing this information. According to documents from a class action lawsuit (Choi et al. v. Mario Badescu Skin Care Inc. et al., Case No. BC501173, Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles), Mario Badescu concealed 2 types of steroids, Hydrocortisone and Triamcinolone Acetonide, in his Healing Cream and Control Cream products8. These creams were marketed as facial moisturisers for daily use and suited for patients with rosacea and acne8,9.


Related blogposts:

Acne: Types, Causes, Treatments and Tips for Prevention

5 Skincare Ingredients for Acne & Acne Prone Skin

Acne and Diet: Foods to Avoid for Less Pimples

Rosacea: Symptoms, Triggers, Skincare and Treatments

5 Skin Care Tips for Sensitive Skin and Rosacea


Mario Badesecu’s Healing Cream was found to contain undisclosed steroids.


Steroids are prescription only medications for treating inflammation for a limited period of time. As the presence of steroids was not indicated on the product or declared by the brand, the affected users were not aware of the presence of steroids in these products from Mario Badescu8-10. Affected users alleged that as a result of the undisclosed steroids in Mario Badescu products, they suffered from steroid related complications such as glaucoma and Cushing’s disease; as well as steroid withdrawal symptoms8,9. As these consumers were unaware of the presence of steroids in their skincare, their diagnosis by their physicians were also delayed8,9.


In 2013, based on tests conducted by South Korea’s Korea’s Food and Drug Administration, Mario Badescu’s Healing Cream was found to contain steroids. South Korea’s government issued a recall of Mario Badescu’s Healing Cream8,10. Despite being exposed for steroid use in their products in South Korea, Mario Badescu continued to sell their existing stock that contained steroids to the public8.


A class action lawsuit was filed against Mario Badescu in 2013 for failure to disclose the presence of steroids in their Healing Cream and Control Cream products as well as false advertising8-10. Mario Badescu reached a settlement with certificates for $45 off any Mario Badescu product or service or product at Mario Badescu’s New York Spa10.



Korean Sunscreen Scandal: Fake SPF Ratings

In 2020, the Korean beauty industry was hit by a major scandal that affected the credibility of Korean sunscreens in what came to be known as the Purito Scandal. In an expose by IncideDecoder, Judit Rácz, published the findings of independent sunscreen tests that revealed that a popular sunscreen by popular Korean cosmetics brand, Purito was less than advertised.


This scandal led to several popular Korean sunscreens being withdrawn from the market; as they shared the same manufacturer as Purito. I’ve shared about this saga in detail; as well as how ratings from sunscreen tests can vary across countries in this post Can Asian Sunscreens Be Trusted? The Purito Controversy Explained.


Related blogposts:

Sunscreen Reviews 2021

Sunscreen Reviews 2019



SK-II Suspension in China due to Banned Substances

 SK-II is one of the most well known Japanese cosmetics brands in the world. The brand is best known for its facial treatment essence, which contains a special ingredient called “Pitera,” a fermented extract derived from sake fermentation. The SK-II brand is a household name in Asia. I’ve shared about the science of Pitera and my review of SK-II’s facial treatment essence in I Stopped Using SK-II Products. Here’s Why.


In September 2006, China suspended the sales of SK-II products following allegations of consumer fraud and the presence of banned substances in its products11,12. The responses by Procter and Gamble (P&G), the parent company of SK-II, were perceived as arrogant and evasive by the Chinese audience, snowballing the public relations (PR) crisis for SK-II and P&G. This PR debacle is cited in case studies in corporate image restoration13,14.


The SK-II controversy first began in 2005; with a consumer suing SK-II for causing her skin to itch and burn after using its products15,16. Investigations by The Guangdong Bureau of Inspection and Quarantine found that SK-II cosmetics contained small amounts of chromium and neodymium15,16. These chemicals are banned in cosmetics in China and Europe15.


Following this news, SK-II’s handling of the crisis, which included denial and evasion of responsibility created an uproar in China13,14,16. P&G denied that it was responsible for the presence of the banned substances in its products and claimed that this was due to an accident13.


In 2006, the sale of SK-II products in China was suspended and P&G temporarily shut the SK-II sales outlets11,16. After an investigation by the Chinese authorities, P&G was fined RMB 200 000 for misleading advertising15. The sale of SK-II products resumed months later in China after Chinese authorities determined that SK-II products were safe for use12.


Conclusion on Scandals & Controversies in the Beauty Industry

Cosmetic companies have a duty of care to their consumers, because consumers are largely reliant on information from product and PR releases. The public has no way of verifying the information, such as the safety of ingredient lists and the results of clinical trials, from the corporations itself. When beauty companies fall short, as the examples in this blogpost have illustrated, consumers have little recourse for justice and compensation. Class action lawsuits are not common; and the outcomes from these rare lawsuits offer victims little compensation. These examples are just a tip of the ice berg of some scandals and controversies in the beauty industry- let me know if you’d like to see part 2 with more examples in the comments. The internet does not forget these misdeeds; and I hope that this expose gives you a perspective on how some (popular) brand names can do better.



1. L’Oreal and Drunk Elephant Settle Suit Over “Patent Infringing” Vitamin C Serum. The Fashion Law, 2020. https://www.thefashionlaw.com/loreal-and-drunk-elephant-settle-suit-over-patent-infringing-vitamin-c-serum/

2. DOWN WITH DUPES: L’ORÉAL PULLS UP DRUNK ELEPHANT OVER PATENT INFRINGEMENT. Global Cosmetics News. https://www.globalcosmeticsnews.com/down-with-dupes-loreal-pulls-up-drunk-elephant-over-patent-infringement/

3. Skin care brand Sunday Riley wrote fake Sephora reviews for almost two years, FTC says. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/22/us/sunday-riley-fake-reviews-trnd/index.html

4. Sunday Riley Settles Complaint That It Faked Product Reviews. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/us/sunday-riley-fake-reviews.html

5. Sunday Riley Formally Banned by FTC From Leaving Fake Reviews. Allure. https://www.allure.com/story/sunday-riley-ftc-report-fake-review-ban

6. FTC Finds Sunday Riley Guilty In Fake Review Scandal. The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2019/10/sunday-riley-fake-review-scandal-ftc-ruling.html

7. STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER ROHIT CHOPRA JOINED BY COMMISSIONER REBECCA KELLY SLAUGHTER. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Federal Trade Commission. https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_statements/1550127/192_3008_final_rc_statement_on_sunday_riley.pdf

8. Restaino, et al. v. Mario Badescu, Inc., et al. https://www.classaction.org/media/restaino-v-mario-badescu.pdf

9. Lawsuit Filed Against Mario Badescu for Undisclosed Steroids. PRNewsWire. h ttps://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/lawsuit-filed-against-mario-badescu-for-undisclosed-steroids-279184841.html

10. Mary Restaino et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MARIO BADESCU SKIN CARE INC (2016). Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 3, California. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/court/ca-court-of-appeal/1739437.html

11. P&G halts sale of SK-II in China. China Daily. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-09/22/content_694757.htm

12. P&G to resume SK-II China sales in early December. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/retail-china-pg/pg-to-resume-sk-ii-china-sales-in-early-december-idUSPEK7362120061115

13. SK-II China and its skin cream scandal: An extended analysis of the image restoration strategies in a non-Western setting. Meng. Public Relations Review. Volume 36, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 66-69.

14. SK-II: Damage Control in China. Havard Business Review.

15. Actress accused of false advertising. China Daily. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-09/19/content_692408.htm

16. SK-II Fallout. Beijing Review. http://www.bjreview.com.cn/business/txt/2006-12/20/content_51357.htm




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