How Should Kosas React To Social Media Allegations That Its Concealer Is Moldy And Smelly?

Released in 2020, clean beauty brand Kosas’s Revealer Concealer became a smash hit last year as plastered-on complexion makeup was sidelined in favor of natural-looking, skin-enhancing foundations and concealers.

TikTok has been instrumental in Revealer Concealer’s success, and a #YourSkinRevealed campaign the brand ran on the platform from September to October last year to promote the product racked up more than 13 million views across 115 videos. Large TikTokers such as Meredith Duxbury, who has 1.3 million TikTok followers, Mikayla Nogueira, who has 14.4 million TikTok followers, and Stephanie Valentine, better known as Glamzilla, who has 1.7 million TikTok followers, plugged it, and shout-outs from Hailey Bieber, who has 11.1 million TikTok followers, didn’t hurt. One of the concealers was being sold every minute. 

But social media love can be fleeting. A TikTok user with the handle @danihidaa shared on Jan. 30 that her entire FYP or For You Page was about the Kosas concealer “growing mold, expiring fast, smelling like crusty feet, and causing acne.” She chucked the product in the trash. The TikTok stir follows allegations made on Reddit in June 2022 by a self-professed fan of Revealer Concealer who discovered a sample had a “blue cheese” stench after nine months. Worse, it later had “black spots” and caused a burning sensation when applied.

In its reply to journalists seeking comments on the allegations, Kosas is directing them to a product FAQs section on its website, where it says, “We use safe, effective preservatives and antimicrobial stabilizers which prevent against mold, yeast and pathogens.” The brand isn’t ignoring criticism on social media about possible problems with preservation that could’ve led to mold. On Instagram, it wrote, “As a clean makeup company, we take the quality of our products very seriously and everything must pass rigorous testing to bring a product to market.”

We were curious about beauty, public relations and marketing experts’ takes on the Revealer Concealer ordeal and Kosas’s behavior during it. So, for the latest edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we asked 11 PR professionals, marketing specialists, cosmetic scientists and doctors the following questions: How do you think Kosas should respond to this situation? What lessons should indie beauty brands draw from it?

Krupa Koestline Founder And Clean Beauty Formulator, KKT Consultants

Concealers or any makeup products with high use and high pigment loads can be difficult to preserve properly. This formula contains three different preservatives: sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and phenethyl alcohol. All three of these preservatives, although not broad-spectrum by themselves, have shown good synergy and broad-spectrum effect when paired together.

However, their strength and efficacy are affected by many factors, including formulation pH and electrolytes. These are hard to control and monitor over time, especially if the product has a doe tip that touches non-sterile skin every day, it introduces bacteria in the product at every use. Products like this are considered high-risk products. They need to be replaced three months after opening in order to avoid infection.

With regards to the formula itself, this is a great example of what may happen if the industry moves away from broad-spectrum preservatives like phenoxyethanol entirely. The risks of potential contamination and product degradation increase quite a bit.

At KKT Consultants, we stay away from phenoxyethanol whenever we can. However, we ensure all high-risk products are preserved appropriately with a broad-spectrum, low-risk preservation system to avoid this exact scenario that Kosas is experiencing.

Sonia Elyss Founder and Digital Marketing Strategist, Sonia Elyss Consulting

When a beauty brand has product issues pop up, it tends to spread like wildfire, especially in comments on social media. My team has managed social channels for skincare, haircare and color cosmetics brands, and when customers are angry about a product, they don’t shy away from letting you know in the comments of each post.

From what I have seen, I believe Kosas is doing a good job of responding to complaints. They are friendly in tone and personal in nature as often as they can be. Additionally, the FAQ page they are sending customers to does an excellent job of educating and addressing the issues. Each statement ends with, “We would be happy to replace your product.”

Merging customer service, product education and social engagement is very difficult. Often it takes coordination across multiple departments to craft a response and action plan that satisfies the brand and the consumer.

I have always recommended three key steps to clients: 1). Respond to everyone, never delete comments. 2). Take the conversation to email as quickly as possible. 3). Make sure the consumer feels seen and heard. Replace product or refund whenever possible.

It’s not an easy situation to be in, but I think the Kosas team is handling it very well.

Valerie George President and Cosmetic Chemist, Simply Formulas

No brand should rely on a preservation system as a determinator of product quality. I’ve lived through contamination in manufacturing (and an FDA recall), it’s a nightmare. Even the best-preserved products that pass preservative efficacy testing can have contamination.

Manufacturing isn’t perfect, and it only emphasizes the need for manufacturing audits, good quality systems and the right quality people at the manufacturer and the brand. Every complaint should be taken seriously and investigated with resolution.

I see all too often that independent brands don’t invest in quality control and assurance, either taking for granted that someone else is doing it for them or they simply don’t know. There is a price and a cost for quality!

Jennifer Thomas Founder and CEO, Beauty Results PR

Unless “buying” a positive review, in the world of social media, it’s the Wild West in terms of anything goes and can be said. It’s difficult for brands to monitor all of the social chatter about its products, but, when it becomes clear that an issue exists, a brand needs to respond and give, if nothing else, the illusion of compassion and understanding.

In the case of Kosas, responding with a link to an FAQ page which clearly states the opposite of what an influencer or a journalist is experiencing with its product is putting its head in the sand and tone-deaf.

First, I would question, did its communications team follow up with the journalists along the way to garner feedback to the products sent? If so, was the concern raised during a one-on-one exchange? If not, that is one thing Kosas could have done to potentially avoided this train wreck.

Once the negative reviews begin pouring out, the right thing to do would be to offer everyone who had purchased or received that batch to return to them at Kosas’s expense so their lab could do testing into what might have caused the issue being experienced. Kosas also should offer a refund to all who might have actually purchased the product.

Those journalists or influencers who received the tainted product should at minimum receive an explanation of the findings once their lab studies the infected samples. Furthermore, Kosas should come out with a statement that addresses something about their quality control and commitment to using the best ingredients in its products and that they are concerned that anyone had less than a stellar experience using their products.

Showing empathy and communicating a sense of urgency to discover what went wrong and to correct any found issues from happening in the future is nothing less than the basic crisis communications 101. A link to an FAQ is disrespectful to the beauty community and more importantly to their customers.

In social media comments, they are using a standard canned line that the ingredients don’t cause X when in fact they did. So, they need to take responsibility to realize that something went wrong in their quality control and, more importantly, that they’re trying to resolve it. Right now, it’s appearing that they’re not going to do anything to change the formulation or even look into it.

Ginger King Founder and Cosmetic Chemist, Grace Kingdom Beauty and FanLoveBeauty

As a beauty brand, it is expected that the company uses safe and effective preservative systems and passes the micro-challenge test. Simply asking consumers to refer to the website does not solve the issue that the fact the product is smelly and potentially moldy.

What I would have preferred to see is they pull out the micro-content check record for the particular batch to show they did the testing and also issue an immediate recall on the particular lot.

There are two different micro tests in beauty. One is the micro-challenge test that means, no matter how dirty the consumer's finger is when they dip the product, the preservation system is good enough to kill all bugs.

There is also a three-day micro-content check to make sure, when the product is made, the particular lot is clean. Their website information is possibly just the micro-challenge test they did, but is not related to the particular batch.

So, tracing back to the batch and showing the consumers they did due diligence to investigate and recall the batch back will be ideal.

Esther Olu Cosmetic Chemist And Aesthetician, The Melanin Chemist

For Kosas to say their preservatives are safe, clean and effective is not enough as consumers are starting to/trying to become more informed about ingredients and formulations. This would be a great time for Kosas to emphasize consumer education and discuss why they chose the preservatives they use in their formulations over others, provide challenge testing data and publicize it to show the preservative tests did indeed pass stability and/or consult a cosmetic chemist to better explain the technicalities of why some products may have a smell (I.e., some raw materials tend to give off a putrid odor if not masked by fragrance and other ingredients).

The biggest lesson that indie brands should draw from this is that consumers are not taking information they (brands) relay at face value anymore. They are trying to become better informed. Clean beauty is starting to get kickback, and it is consumers that are starting to become skeptical alongside this “anti-movement.” It is imperative to have consumer and science education at the forefront to effectively relay information to your audience.

AJ Addae Founder and Cosmetic Chemist, Sula Labs

This situation provides a critical use case in which the execution of what we know as clean beauty is potentially called into question because of how it ultimately does not always deliver on the promises that the ethos of clean beauty has been built on.

This would be an interesting opportunity for Kosas to potentially lead the way in moving the goal posts of redefining what the future of clean beauty could look like, especially when it comes to critical aspects of formulation such as preservation. I think we can all agree that preservation is a key element of formulation that delivers on safety.

However, the real question remains: How will the ever-growing clean beauty category continue to overcome skepticism regarding efficacy and safety as federal regulations are beginning to hold us further accountable regarding consumer safety measures?

I think it’s OK to give brands grace when they have a slip up because, behind these products, there are humans producing them. With that said, I believe brands also owe it to their consumers to deliver a safe and effective experience.

Thom Weidlich Managing Director, PRCG | Haggerty

Any time a consumer company’s product is targeted for criticism, that company must take the situation seriously. People have emotional connections to the products they use, and their reactions to perceived problems can be emotional. The worst thing to do is to belittle consumers’ concerns.

If the company hasn’t had time to investigate the accusation, it may be appropriate to put out a statement saying that it takes the criticism seriously, is looking into it and will update when more is known. It must follow up with that update. And, of course, it must be honest.

While it’s not wrong to point to a product FAQs section, that should be part of a larger statement. “Holding statements” should be on hand for responding quickly to a crisis. The details and company’s position can be plugged in when the crisis hits.

For a consumer-product company, accusations about a product are a typical crisis that should be prepared for. The statement should respond to the particular concerns, that’s why pointing to a FAQ isn’t enough.

Typically, a company should respond to the crisis in the same media in which it arose. So, if it’s on Twitter, Facebook or another social media platform, that’s the place to provide the company’s answer. If the crisis is large enough, the company may also decide to issue a statement or even a press release to the media.

Konstantin Vasyukevich New York Plastic Surgeon, Konstantin Vasyukevich Facial Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery

I think a major beauty brand like Kosas should handle allegations such as mold with severity and importance. Addressing concerns over social media by lightly responding to the issue is inadequate. Acknowledging rather than confronting the allegation is negligent.

In the healthcare industry, our objective is to treat every person with importance and care, and a brand claiming to be "clean" and "safe" should follow those same standards. Not addressing the issue fully with a statement is problematic and makes you wonder if they're simply avoiding consequences because they're guilty. Brand visibility is based on trust and avoidance does not equate trust.

Kelly Dobos Cosmetic Chemist and Adjunct Professor, The University of Toledo

I'm really thinking about this from my experiences in product development. The brand should already be deep into an investigation, reviewing historical data and retesting retains from suspect batches, looking closely at all raw materials, packaging components and aspects of manufacturing. Determining the source of the issue will really drive the corrective actions. From a business perspective, they can do their best to be transparent and communicate with consumers about that process.

To be fair, no brand is immune from this kind of issue. According to information from the U.S. FDA, approximately 78% of cosmetic product recalls from 2014 through 2019 were due to microbial contamination. But the "clean" beauty movement has promised consumers better, more trustworthy products, and instead the vilification of certain cosmetic ingredients, especially safe, effective preservatives, has led to challenges in actually delivering on those promises.

Many indie brands rely on contract manufacturers. It's important to remember that the marketer is just as responsible for ensuring the safety of the products they are selling as the manufacturer.

Formulating cosmetic products is a complex process. Preservative strategy, stability tests and microbial challenge testing are just a few of the considerations. Scale-up and manufacturing add to the complexity. Quality assurance is just as important as quality control. All of these things add upfront time and cost, but the cost of damage to a brand's credibility later is likely much higher.

Azza Halim Physician and Anesthesiologist, Azza MD Beauty

First of all, let me start off by pointing out that hygiene is definitely two-sided regarding makeup brushes and sponges as well as makeup and skincare. When you purchase a product, it should be sealed and have gone through strict testing on sterility, shelf life and more.

Kosas is clean, and one might think the longevity of a product will be short-lived. Taking this into consideration, the brand should address concerns and clarify its manufacturing process in order to alleviate those concerns and set realistic expectations as no one wants to smell or see black mold in any product.

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