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Big Win for Beauty Industry as Judge Throws Out Sephora Clean Beauty Lawsuit

Published March 17, 2024
Published March 17, 2024

Class-action complaints alleging “consumer deception” as it relates to “clean” beauty claims have plagued the beauty industry. In November 2022, Sephora found itself in the class-action crosshairs of a law firm notorious for filing complaints in New York federal court against major companies for deceptive practices.

Spencer Sheehan of Sheehan & Associates, P.C. of Great Neck, New York, filed a class-action complaint requesting a jury trial filed in the Northern Federal District Court on behalf of Lindsey Finster, a resident of Oneida, New York, and “others similarly situated” over confusion about products sold as “clean” under Sephora’s “Clean at Sephora” program. According to the complaint, the alleged damages were said to exceed $5 million, including statutory and punitive damages but excluding interest and costs.

While the path of least resistance might have been to settle rather than get embroiled in costly litigation, Sephora decided to fight the complaint. In a motion to dismiss, Sephora argued that allowing the case to move forward would “leave no word safe from linguistic manipulation.”

On March 15, Judge David Hurd of the US District Court for the Northern District of New York US sided with Sephora. The 14-page response stated that the plaintiff “failed to plausibly allege that Sephora misled reasonable consumers when it marketed and sold its 'Clean at Sephora’ cosmetics,” or that Sephora "made any explicit or implied promises that its ‘Clean at Sephora’ cosmetics were all-natural and free of any potentially harmful ingredients.”

The ruling continued, “The plaintiff’s complaint leaves the Court guessing as to how a reasonable consumer could mistake the ‘Clean at Sephora’ labeling and/or marketing to reasonably believe that the cosmetics contain no synthetic or harmful ingredients. Nowhere on the label or in the marketing materials the plaintiff cites does the defendant make any claim that the products are free of all synthetic or harmful ingredients.” 

Kelly Bonner, associate at Duane Morris, shared, “I think it was a relatively straightforward decision for the court. The retailer very clearly stated its criteria for inclusion in its clean beauty program—'formulated without parabens, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oil, formaldehyde,; and other identified ingredients; not 'free from synthetic ingredients.'” Simply because the retailer’s criteria for clean beauty differed from plaintiff’s doesn’t make it misleading. It means that currently there are varying definitions of clean beauty.”

Sephora's win, in this case, is also a win for the industry, drawing a line in the sand and better insulating similar programs from the threat of consumer complaints seeking lucrative damages and settlements. 

The dismissal of Finster’s complaint included leave to amend and refile by March 29, 2024.


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