Native Carrageenan Is Derived from Red Seaweed

We recently launched our new Honest Toothpaste and Honest Kid’s Toothpaste and we’ve been getting a lot of questions about our decision to use carrageenan, a thickener made from seaweed. Why? Because various sites claim it causes cancer.

But here’s the honest 411…

The source of confusion and misinformation regarding carrageenan stems from people not knowing that there are two different types that result from different ways of processing the polysaccharides that are extracted from seaweed.

  • Carrageenan (aka “native” carrageenan or “food-grade” carrageenan) requires minimal processing of seaweed to release and purify carrageenan. This type of carrageenan has been used since 600 B.C. in China, and you can even make it at home using the same recipe that’s been used for centuries. Essentially, you boil the seaweed, then add cold water, then cool, and strain. After it chills for about a day, you have a natural batch of gelatinous carrageenan. Industrial processing of carrageenan, which requires a few more steps depending on the type of refinement (like purification and concentration for easier shipping), has been around since about the 1930s. Since then, carrageenan has been widely used in foods and cosmetics to improve texture and stability.

  • Poligeenan (aka “degraded” carrageenan) requires an aggressive chemical process using strong acids and high temperatures over an extended period of time. It starts as carrageenan, but the end result is very different, does not have the same thickening properties as carrageenan, and its sole use today is as a component of an X-ray imaging diagnostic product (not food or cosmetics).

Unfortunately, prior to about the 1980s, poligeenan was referred to as “degraded carrageenan” and for a short time the word “carrageenan” was used interchangeably to refer to either substance. This resulted in carrageenan receiving the bad rap of toxic results (including carcinogenicity) found through studies on poligeenan. Due to this confusion, the U.S. Adopted Names Council determined that “poligeenan” was a more accurate name for the chemically degraded form of carrageenan.

But the confusion persists and it’s perpetuated by the media, social media, and some well-intentioned organizations and advocates. We deeply respect and appreciate the efforts of those fighting for safe foods and products — we’re on the same mission! But, as always, we’re here to help clarify some facts for you:

Poligeenan = Possibly carcinogenic according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Not allowed in food or cosmetics.

Carrageenan = Repeatedly tested and reviewed over decades and consistently deemed safe for food and cosmetics by agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the E.U. Scientific Committee on Food, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization.

And guess what? The carrageenan used in Honest Toothpaste is NOT poligeenan or degraded carrageenan; it is a very high-quality, food-grade (GRAS) native carrageenan. We stand behind its safety in our formula 100%.

By the way, if you want to know more about why carrageenan keeps ending up as a public health target, check out this comprehensive assessment, “Public health and carrageenan regulation : a review and analysis.,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It cites decades of studies demonstrating carrageenan’s safety and delves into the fascinating world of public discourse and public policy. The author closes with a truly poignant observation: “However, there is also the paradox that the more safety is proven, the more controversial that proof becomes.”

Have any other questions about carrageenan? Let us know in the comments. It’s part of our mission to translate the science, end the confusion, and empower parents to make the best choices for their families!

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who has expressed concern about our use of carrageenan. We sincerely appreciate hearing from our community — in all instances. Every piece of feedback helps refine our approach, products, and services to help us do better!

In this situation, it appears a lot of comments have been spurred by a report and blog post by The Cornucopia Institute and we’d like to respond to that directly.

First and foremost, we do NOT think our customers are “dim-witted.” Not in the least. We know for a fact that you’re some of the savviest, concerned, and informed consumers out there, and we are so proud of your support as you propel us to achieve the highest standards.

We apologize for oversimplifying the science behind carrageenan. We were only trying to clarify that there are two types of carrageenan (a fact that is indeed confusing and has led to a lot of misinformation for consumers) and our assessment of “native” carrageenan was more so in reference to Honest’s use of it — at very low levels.

We certainly don’t think carrageenan should be consumed to the degree it is in processed FOOD these days, but as a thickener in toothpaste, our formulation team / QA / science advisors didn’t feel the evidence showed a risk for children or adults. Even Cornucopia’s report is aimed at FOOD usage, and the studies are all based on much higher exposure levels. As mentioned in our blog post above, it’s been used safely at low levels in cosmetics and for pharmacological reasons for hundreds of years. It’s only been recently that it’s been added to a stunning array of processed foods and consumed at higher levels never before experienced in history and, we agree, that’s concerning.

Clearly, a lot of you feel that using it in toothpaste is worrisome, as well. And, if you’re concerned, we’re concerned. So, we are reviewing the studies again (and others), and investigating and testing potential alternatives.

We’re a small company, we listen, and we can be nimble with our formulations to quickly respond to customer concerns. Which brings us to a larger issue we’d like to point out: we’re not “big industry” trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes or cut corners and costs at the expense of children’s health (as Cornucopia seems to be implying). We are honestly trying to do better everyday, with every decision.

We see our customers as peers, we see non-profits as peers, anyone working for the health and well-being of children and the planet — we’re on the same side — and we are parents of babies too. Many of those on our staff — even our co-founder — come from working at non-profits advocating for children’s health and the environment. We collaborate with those same non-profits (and many others) on finding solutions because we have the same mission — despite being a “for-profit” entity. Fundamentally, we view all of our customers as collaborators, too because we ALL have the same mission. And only working together can we really do things better, make things better, and create a better world for our children.

That said, we want to hear from you as we explore this issue deeper. What toothpastes do you like? What alternatives for a thickening ingredient do you think we should consider?

(And sorry in advance for those of you asking for clay. Our product team and focus group testing unfortunately found that not many people cared for clay-based toothpaste — taste, texture, and efficacy. The majority of our customers are people transitioning away from the conventional big brands and they simply aren’t ready to make that far of a leap. But we’ll keep looking!)

Let us know what you think. Together, we can make it better!

  • Lisa

    Thank you for clarifying this issue with sound scientific information. Social media can make food choices confusing when there is conflicting information. I’m relieved that my favorite almond milk is still “safe” even though it has carrageenan :)

    • Audry Strain Pettit

      Don’t be fooled in to thinking it is safe. They are just trying to cover their butts. http://www.cornucopia.org/carrageenan-2013/

      • Lia Garcia

        Most public health and social policy experts are more concerned with other higher doses of chemically laden ingredients that are present in most products today. Cornucopia Institute is considered to be some what biased in their research and statistics initiatives primarily because of their organizational agenda and practices. Naturally they will most likely study the effects of over-processed large scale farming practices and non-organic properties but as a Public Health and Social Policy experts we still need to continue on with studying the effects of degraded and high quality carrageenan properties. Until then it’s important to understand how studies and statistics are assessed from a public health perspective. Every well researched article will have a think tank behind it and will inevitably be some what biased. So we shouldn’t be as naive in suggesting that The Honest Company and other certified organic products are trying to cover their butts. They are simply offering an alternative to the many chemically-laden products out in the market now and bless their honest hearts for allowing an open dialogue with their consumers. There are far too many corporations out there that don’t even educate and they don’t follow any rules when it comes to properly labelling their ingredients and they get way too much shelf room in our grocery stores. I think I will continue to stick with my Honest products because I understand what the ingredients are on the labels.

  • Gifted Seven

    Interesting reading. I have been curious about this substance. I have repeatedly experienced a consistent reaction to consuming any food with carrageenan. It makes my intestines react by swelling, and is painful, requiring me to stop solid foods until it clears up. I thought I had food allergies of all sorts until I figured out it was this one ingredient. I’m not affected by toothpaste, just internal consumption of it.

  • Melody Morrell

    Honest Co. states that the “source of confusion stems from people not knowing there are two different types” of carrageenan. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health has repeatedly shown that both types are harmful. Dozens of studies by several different teams of scientists have found that food-grade carrageenan is linked to gastrointestinal inflammation, ulcerations and lesions. Several studies have found carrageenan (again, not poligeenan) to be a promoter of colon cancer in laboratory animals. And recent studies funded by the American Diabetes Association have linked the consumption of food-grade carrageenan to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.

    The statement by Honest Co. that food-grade carrageenan has been “repeatedly tested and deemed safe” is false. Some studies indeed defend the safety of carrageenan, but those have all been funded or commissioned by the food industry or by carrageenan manufacturers. When a Chicago Tribune reporter asked the carrageenan trade lobby group for studies that were not funded or commissioned by the industry and that did not find harmful effects from consuming food-grade carrageenan, they were unable to present even a single study.

    For an independent review of the scientific literature on food-grade carrageenan, please The Cornucopia Institute’s report: http://www.cornucopia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Carrageenan-Report1.pdf.

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      We apologize that we oversimplified a complex subject. Our blog about carrageenan was more so in reference to its use in cosmetics and pharmacological uses, as opposed to its use in food. It does appear to be a situation where the dose makes the poison and the studies cited by the Cornucopia Institute and others demonstrate risk with levels of carrageenan ingestion much higher than what’s the case with toothpaste. Still, clearly consumers are concerned and we respect that, so we’re doing a deeper review of the science and we’re exploring the benefits and drawbacks of alternative thickening agents. Thanks for sharing your concerns, Melody. We’re listening!

  • Lindsay

    Thanks for doing your homework and providing safe products!

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  • Celia

    I appreciate that the Honest toothpaste sounds much better than most popular toothpastes, but I’d be curious to know why the product isn’t even more “natural.” For example, Earthpaste (http://www.earthpaste.com/) is an interesting toothpaste that I’ve been using without any problem, and it doesn’t use carrageenan. Why bother using carrageenan if you don’t have to?

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hi Celia,

      Thanks for the question! Simply put, in informal focus group testing, we found that not many people cared for clay-based toothpaste. The majority of our customer base are people transitioning away from the conventional big brands and they simply aren’t ready to make that far of a leap. But we’re always listening to our community and looking for ways to meet your needs — and you’re not the first to express concern about carrageenan. We’re doing a deeper review of the science (though much of it’s much more relevant to high exposures that are more reflective of food-use of carrageenan — not cosmetic, like toothpaste). And we’re exploring the benefits and drawbacks of alternative thickening agents. Thanks for sharing your concerns. We’re listening!

      • Crystal

        Honestly I think that clay based toothpaste is a pretty big leap but it’s a good idea. While something like earthpaste is very different than commercial toothpastes, once I found out how horrible commercial brand toothpastes are I made the switch over in a heart beat. Don’t be so quick to underestimate your customers. I know for me personally I want what’s best for my family and I would rather try something a little different such as earthpaste than get something like your toothpaste that contains carrageenan and even glycerin i’m a little hesitant about. i did get your toothpaste before I read the ingredients (stupid on my part but I felt like I could trust honest). Something like earthpaste doesn’t taste funny, it more so looks funny and is different in the sense that it doesn’t foam. But it does what it’s supposed to do and contains great ingredients. Anyway with having said all that I still love your company and you have a customer in me :) just not for toothpaste….for now.

  • Marc

    If a lot is dangerous, so is a little. Research has consistently taught up that reducing amounts of toxins does not make them less toxic.

  • kjfreeze

    I surely hope you guys get rid of it. Just another product that has a toxin, even if it IS in small amounts. I was using natures-gate and they don’t even have carageenan listed on the product itself, but if you go to their website, it is listed as one of the ingredients. Pretty sad how they hide it.

  • Carly Valverde

    Thank you for asking, I am a member for your cleaning supplies and diapers and wipes. The tooth paste I use for myself and my family is Weleda. Infact, We are huge into bio dynamic plant based products for our skin. I use Dr. Hauschka and weleda for all my moisturizers and masks toners etc but tooth paste is a gel and it’s key ingredient is sea salt. is a more natural alternative to baking soda. my son uses the children’s teeth gel. We love that your trying to improve yourselves! way to go. Happy fourth!

  • Lisa Ferguson-Sells

    I like arm & hammer with baking soda. Thanks for all your info on carrageenan.

  • To-be-Auntie

    For toothpaste I use coconut oil + baking soda. I’ve read carrageenan, whatever amount and type, is an inflammatory agent in our bodies. No bueno!

  • TheSeaweedBoy

    RE This type of carrageenan has been used since 600 B.C. in China.Traditional [home made] blancmange is obtained from a seaweed known as Irish moss which there is none in Asia. This is pure unadulterated industrial propaganda . . .

    As for the industrial carrageenan being similar to home-made blancmange . . . Would like to know which kind of Kool-Aid are you drinking . . . .

  • Britni

    I was so thrilled to see that you guys are offering toothpaste now, but like many others, as I went through the ingredient list I had a few questions. What is the abrasiveness rating? Why use carrageenan? An article I found on it seemed to indicate both degraded & undegraded can cause problems: http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA401181/Is-Carrageenan-Safe.html
    For now I’m going to stick with what I’ve been using, OraMD. It’s just oil extracts. Even though my kids hate how strongly minty it is…which is why I was hoping that Honest toothpaste might be a good route to go for them. For now, I’m not convinced on the formulation & won’t be purchasing, but I love that you guys are still working toward reformulation and I will def reconsider if the ingredient list changes! I love so many of your other products!

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Thanks so much for the open feedback and resources, Britni. We truly appreciate learning about your concerns, and we’ll pass this on to the product team. Please don’t hesitate to stop by again with additional ideas regarding our toothpaste of other products—we’re here to help!

  • Fernando

    Please remove carrageenan completely!

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      We appreciate your concern about the carrageenan. We have gone ahead and passed this along to our Product team. Thank you again and please keep the suggestions coming!

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  • Meg

    Agar agar is another type of seaweed that had the same gelatinous effects, yet zero nutritional value. However it’s safe to ingest as far as I’ve seen and read. Please use AGAR! :)
    Thanks

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Meg, we appreciate the suggestion regarding ingredients and will share this feedback with our Product Development Team.

  • TheSeaweedBoy

    allo allo Meg

    Pls let us not confuse the majestics with the gymnastics! Let us not geet too complicated and stick to commercial products. Carrageenans need counter-ions [Calcium, Potassium, etc] to form gels. Agar does not. It is a purely thermal gelling system. More importantly, the rheology [i.e. flow & gelling properties] of commercial agar and carrageenan are very different

    You cannot replace carrageenan with agar in a toothpaste. But the question remains why use products that contain additives?

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Thanks for sharing your concerns – we’re listening! We’ll pass this information on to the Product Development Team.

  • Connie

    We simply won’t buy products containing Carrageenan, we’ll check back when that is changed. Thanks!

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Thanks for letting us know your concerns, Connie. Your feedback is incredibly important as we develop and improve existing product formulations. We’ll keep you updated on any changes.

  • Marie

    I absolutely LOVE and HIGHLY recommend The Honest Line of products, except for the toothpaste, which contains the Carrageenan. I hope your current formula will change. ~ An Honest Consumer

  • Sara A.

    I hope you guys come out with a nice toothpaste that’s Carrageenan free. It’s been already a year, hope you guys are coming with something even better and I would love it if the price could be affordable, up to at least $5.00 I just found out your brand and I’m waiting for your latest toothpaste that’s Carrageenan free as that ingredient is hazardous and even the littlest amounts of it can lead to harm. Keep releasing awesome products!

  • Sara A.

    Also if it helps, try getting rid of the Glycerin and SLS, because those ingredients aren’t beneficial whatsoever… I don’t know why companies are having a hard time with producing the RIGHT and beneficial toothpastes to the customers. The companies implementing hazardous ingredients should be sued, oh wait, that will never happen since the government is a deceptive piece of shit.

  • Erica

    Regardless of what the studies show(in mice) I know that carageenan causes painful mouth sores for me when an ingredient in toothpaste. Even small quantities in food cause me huge GI distress and pain. I believe my Crohn’s disease exacerbates my reaction to carageenan. There are so many people being diagnosed with Crohn’s/IBS/IBS that companies need to listen to what we know affects our bodies.

  • Lia Garcia

    The carrageenan used in Honest Toothpaste is not poligeenan or degraded carrageenan; it is a very high-quality, non-chemical processed food-grade (GRAS) native carrageenan. Please also note that the glycerin used in Honest’s products is a non-toxic and plant-based glycerin. Unfortunately, confusion still persists with those labels and it is often perpetuated by the media but fortunately there are healthier alternatives that @The Honest Company and many other certified organic companies use that are not harmful to the public. As a Public Health and Social Policy Practitioner we are constantly studying the effects on toxic chemicals and environments that can affect individuals. Natural health practitioners are mostly concerned with Degraded carrageenan, as it well known that any individuals who have sensitives or suffer from gastrointestinal disorders should avoid the chemically laden version. It’s important that we all do our label researching about the products we buy and use but we can’t be naive to think that every natural study that comes out is well founded and accurate. It only ceases to confuse and discredit otherwise safe and natural products that are being used instead of the harmful ones that are safe to use.

  • TheSeaweedBoy

    RE “The carrageenan used in Honest Toothpaste is not poligeenan or degraded
    carrageenan; it is a very high-quality, non-chemical processed
    food-grade (GRAS) native carrageenan”

    I do not have the will or the time to get involved with the “carrageenan issue”; been there and done that. But from a seaweed-process-chemist point-of-view, I have several comments:

    1] Have you ever seen a recent paper reporting the Molecular Weight and the Molecular Weight Distribution of so-called “poligeenan”? So how can you make a quantitative differentiation between carrageenan and poligeenan?

    2] Sure, we can talk about varying degrees of degradation but claiming that processed carrageenan is undegraded carrageenan is a chemical impossibility.

    3] The great majority of processed carrageenan go through several rather harsh chemical treatments during manufacturing.

    4] Native carrageenan refers to the carrageenan present inside the live seaweeds. This compound has very little resemblance to industrially-processed carrageenan.

    • Guest

      Having a PHD in Public Health and Social Policy requires me to study the effects of everything public health and population health – particularly health IT, women’s health, environmental health, health policy, social policy, social determinants of health, health marketing, health initiatives and epidemiology. In my line of field we are more concerned with other chemically-laden ingredients that individuals are ingesting everyday in higher doses. We wish we had the time to study molecular weight distributions stats but we are too busy studying the factors that go beyond individual genetic and behavioral characteristics. Which means we have to make quantitative decisions about studying reports and statistics that are strongly associated with socioeconomic conditions, equity and access issues, national wealth and social support systems. Because those are the daily determinants that are continuing to make Americans sick everyday and unfortunately studying ingredients found in Honest products aren’t really a main concern for most health practitioners in my field.

    • Lia Garcia

      Having a PhD in Public Health and Social Policy requires me to study the effects of everything public health and population health – particularly health IT, women’s health, environmental health, health policy, social policy, social determinants of health, health marketing, health initiatives and epidemiology. In my line of field we are more concerned with other chemically-laden ingredients that individuals are ingesting everyday in higher doses. We wish we had the time to study molecular weight distributions stats but we are too busy studying the factors that go beyond individual genetic and behavioral characteristics. Which means we have to make quantitative decisions about studying reports and statistics that are strongly associated with socioeconomic conditions, equity and access issues, national wealth and social support systems. Because those are the daily determinants that are continuing to make Americans sick everyday and unfortunately studying ingredients found in Honest products aren’t really a main concern for most health practitioners in my field.

  • Yami

    http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA44833. When I read this I became concerned, could you shed a light on this? Thanks

    • Citizen Group

      I would try to avoid both carrageenan AND soy.
      “Myths and Truths About Soy” – http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert/myths-and-truths-about-soy?qh=YToyOntpOjA7czozOiJzb3kiO2k6MTtzOjU6InNveSdzIjt9

      Studies Showing Adverse Effects of Isoflavones, 1950-2010 – http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert/studies-showing-adverse-effects-of-isoflavones?qh=YToyOntpOjA7czozOiJzb3kiO2k6MTtzOjU6InNveSdzIjt9

      That site has many more articles on soy, and some on carrageenan too.

      Did you know carrageenan can contain hidden MSG, an excitotoxin. Aspartame and hydrolyzed vegetable protein are also excitotoxins.

      “Foods containing hidden MSG include sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, yeast extract, textured protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed flour, malt extract, malt flavoring, bouillon, broth, stock, “flavoring,” “natural flavoring,” “seasoning,” “spices,” carrageenan, enzymes, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. Various types of hydrolyzed protein are actually the precursors for MSG and are possibly more toxic.”
      - http://www.westonaprice.org/thumbs-up-reviews/excitotoxins?qh=YToxOntpOjA7czoxMToiY2FycmFnZWVuYW4iO30%3D

      Weston Price Foundation is an independent non profit group about optimal human nutrition and health.

    • http://blog.honest.com/ Honest

      Hello Yami,

      Thanks for sharing your concern and giving us the opportunity to answer your question! As we mentioned above, we certainly don’t think carrageenan should be consumed to the degree it is in processed FOOD these days (just as Dr. Weill states), but as a thickener in toothpaste, our formulation team / QA / science advisors didn’t feel the evidence showed a risk for children or adults. It’s been used safely at low levels in cosmetics and for pharmacological reasons for hundreds of years. It’s only been recently that it’s been added to a stunning array of processed foods and consumed at higher levels never before experienced in history and, we agree, that’s concerning.

      Please let us know if you have additional questions. We’re happy to help!

  • mn

    I would want to know the price for raw material for the extraction by the seaweed.can anyone suggest/quote a price

  • http://smarterspoonfuls.com Regina Mize_ Smarter Spoonfuls

    I am very interested to hear your company’s views on research studies that showed that degraded carageenan (ie:polligeenan) is produced in the gastrointestinal tract as undegraded carageenan is digested. It is a well-known fact that children often swallow toothpaste during brushing and could therefore be ingesting polligeenan as a result of this degradation in the digestive tract. Some researchers have cited as much as 10-20% of ingested carageenan could be degraded into polligeenan during digestion.

    I am aware that most research connected to cancer and gastrointestinal inflammation has been performed on rats and mice, and that because of the lack of research on human cells, that the FDA and other regulatory agencies have deemed undegraded carageenan as safe, but that is also what was said about aspartame, MSG, transfats, and many other food additives that have now been proven to cause cancer and other harmful effects in humans.

    However, these reviews have mostly ignored more recent research that are now also linking these same effects to undegraded carageenan.

    Until there is “sufficient” research to definitively prove or disprove carageenan’s harmful effects in human cells, isn’t it a better company policy, especially a company that claims to put consumer safety as a priority, to err on the side of the consumer, especially when there is so much controversy and questionability about the safety of this additive?

    I personally, in the absence of such data, choose to avoid any food or food additive that may produce harmful effects, and I recommend that other consumers do the same, and only buy products from companies that also follow this same logic.

  • TheSeaweedBoy

    Hi there R M S S

    Re “as undegraded carageenan is digested.”

    Say what? Equating UN-DEGRADED carrageenan to FOOD GRADE carrageenan is pure unadultareded industrial propaganda! High Molecular Weight undegraded carrageenan exists only in-vivo; that is, while the seaweed is alive. If you review the industrial manufacturing process you will see that harsh chemical conditions are used and it is impossible to preserve the original integrity of the carrageenan molecules.

  • Anonymous

    This blog does address the science, and scientific literature on the link of carrageenan to cancer. However, nowhere does it address carrageenan as a source of GI inflammation. It seems to be a substance that causes more harm than good. Agreed, the more proof you have of it’s safety, the more evidence there is to the contrary. So why no just remove it?! There are alternatives, which your chemists should be aware of!

    • Ashley

      My doctor told me that carrageenan is used to CAUSE leaky gut in mice.. so that treatments can be studied. As we are suffering greatly due to leaky gut, I was hoping that your company would offer a product without carrageenan.

  • TheSeaweedBoy

    Are there alternatives? But of course they are! Regretfully many of the chemists you are referring to, derive their livelihood from companies that process/use carrageenan.

    So long corporations first interest is the welfare of their shareholders and not the welfare of their customers; there will be no changes . . .

  • Sherry

    I enjoy many honest products and was very disappointed to not be able to use their toothpaste. We are currently using kiss my face tooth gel. It does not contain this ingredient, but their children’s version does so we only use the adult. We will not purchase things with this ingredient in it, I hope that the honest company will find an alternative soon.