Better Goods brands

Is Kiehl’s a Clean & Sustainable Brand?

Better Goods

Aug 14, 2022

Kiehl's is an American cosmetics brand founded in 1851 as a single pharmacy in New York City's East Village by John Kiehl. The original Kiehl's location—which still exists—was known for its natural and effective formulas. But is this still the case today?

As of the year 2000, Kiehl's is now a subsidiary of the French cosmetics company L'Oreal and has over 400 stores worldwide. Kiehl's products are available in most major department stores and online retailers.

The brand's marketing strategy still evokes the original image of being a natural brand, but is this still the case?

We took a close look at Kiehl's and rated them on the three pillars of the Better Goods Clean Standard: ingredients, sustainability, and animal welfare.

As of the year 2000, Kiehl's is now a subsidiary of the French cosmetics company L'Oreal and has over 400 stores worldwide. Kiehl's products are available in most major department stores and online retailers.

Our Methodology

At Better Goods, we rank brands on our three pillars: ingredients, sustainability, and animal welfare.

Brands are rating on the three pillars as follows:

Best

This ranking is for the best of the best. Only exemplary brands will receive a ranking of best for any category.

Good

This ranking is for brands that are typically quite good, but don’t go above and beyond like our best choices.

Iffy

This ranking is for when we find something we find iffy. Not a good sign.

Avoid

This ranking is reserved for the worst of the worst.

Ingredients (Rating: Avoid)

Let's get one thing out of the way quickly: Kiehl's is not a clean brand. Their formulas contain several ingredients we recommend avoiding, and those looking for a clean cosmetics brand should steer clear. Their ingredients are comparable to brands like L'Oreal,

We analyzed the ingredients in 25+ Kiehl's products, and here are some of the ingredients of concern that we found.

Chemical Sunscreens

Kiehl's sunscreen products use chemical UV absorbers with significant health concerns. At Better Goods, we strongly recommend against using chemical sunscreens because of the potential risks.

A 2020 study by the United States Food & Drug Administration (1) found that when applied according to the product's recommended use as per the label, the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens can remain in the bloodstream at levels that exceed the maximum concentration that is considered safe by the FDA.

While the FDA is currently investigating the potential risks associated with chemical sunscreens, we believe that it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid them altogether.

And potential impacts to our health aren't the only issue with chemical sunscreens—they've also been linked to destroying our coral reefs. (2) Large areas of our coral reefs have been dying in recent years, and chemical sunscreens have been blamed for some of it.

For example, Kiehl's Super Fluid Daily UV Defense SPF 50+ contains the full gamut of chemical sunscreen absorbers: avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocryele and oxybenzone.

We strongly recommend avoiding any Kiehl's sunscreens with chemical UV absorbers.

Fragrance

Chemical fragrance is another common cosmetic ingredient that we strongly recommend avoiding.

The problem with fragrance is that it is used as a catch-all term for a mixture of hundreds or even thousands of different chemicals. And, because these mixtures are considered trade secrets, companies are not required to disclose the individual ingredients that make up their fragrances.

This lack of disclosure makes it impossible to know what you're putting on your skin—and that's a problem because fragrance chemicals have been linked to various health concerns, including endocrine disruption, cancer, reproductive toxicity, and more.

Triethanolamine (TEA)

TEA is a common ingredient in cosmetics that is used as a pH adjuster, emulsifier, and surfactant. It can be derived from either chemical synthesis or natural sources, but the vast majority of TEA used in cosmetics today is synthetic.

TEA has been linked to cancer in animal studies (3) and it is also a known skin and eye irritant. TEA can also form nitrosamines—a type of carcinogenic compound—when it reacts with certain other ingredients.

For these reasons, we recommend avoiding products that contain TEA.

Kiehl's products we analyzed that contain TEA:

  • Ultra Facial Cleanser
  • Ultra Facial Moisturizer
  • Since 1851 Facial Fuel Energizing Face Wash

Parabens

Some Kiehl's products contain parabens—a class of synthetic preservatives that have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity. (4) While some have disputed this danger, at Better Goods, we believe that since safer alternatives are available, there is no reason to take the risk.

Kiehl's products we analyzed that contain parabens:

  • Kiehl's Since 1851 Facial Fuel Energizing Moisturizer for Men
  • Since 1851 Creme de Corps
  • Since 1851 Close-Shavers Squadron Ultimate Brushless Shave Cream

Sustainability (Rating: Iffy)

Like most companies that have been operating for such a long time, Kiehl's falls flat when it comes to sustainability practices.

On the sustainability section of their website, they mention:

"Over 80% of our packages are made with post-consumer recycled materials."

This might sound good on paper, but they don't say what percentage of post-consumer recycled materials are going into the bottles. For all we know, this could be as little as 1%.

In reality, most of Kiehl's products are housed in plastic packaging, which is not recyclable or biodegradable. And, even though they use some recycled materials, they don't offset the environmental impact of their packaging by using recycled content at a higher percentage.

"98% of our formulas are made with at least 3 renewable ingredients – which means they can be replenished or regrown."

Sounds great, but does this mean that the rest of the ingredients aren't renewable?

In our opinion, this brand isn't doing enough to reduce its environmental impact, and it definitely falls short compared to other brands leading the charge on sustainability.

Animal Welfare (Rating: Avoid)

Not Cruelty-Free

Kiehl's is not a cruelty-free brand. They allow the possibility of animal testing to occur in jurisdictions where the practice is required by law, and therefore cannot be considered a cruelty-free brand.

Not Vegan

While Kiehl's has some vegan-friendly products, most of their formulas contain animal-derived ingredients, such as beeswax, lanolin, and carmine.

Final Brand Ratings

Our rating scale ranges from "Best" (for having the best practices) to "Bad" (for having unacceptable practices). We rated Kiehl's as follows.

INGREDIENTSAvoid - Kiehl's is guilty of greenwashing and their products contain several ingredients we recommend avoiding.
SUSTAINABILITYIffy - All products are housed in disposable plastic, and there are no meaningful initiatives to increase the brand's sustainability.
ANIMAL WELFAREAvoid - The brand is 100% cruelty-free, but is not a vegan brand.

Overall Rating: Avoid

Kiehl's is not a clean or sustainable brand. Their products are often formulated with toxic ingredients that have been linked to health concerns, and they use unsustainable packaging that is not recyclable or biodegradable.

They are also not a cruelty-free brand, as they allow animal testing to occur in jurisdictions where it is required by law. While they do have some vegan-friendly products, most of their formulas are not vegan.

For these reasons, we do not recommend Kiehl's products.

 
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