Drunk Elephant: The Controversy Around The Popular Skincare Brand Explained

It's perfectly normal to see people challenge each other's views on various aspects of life. But nowhere do we see these interactions transpire more unreservedly and vehemently than in the late 2010s and the early 2020s. The growth of social media has made it easier than ever for people to call out and thrust out public figures and normal people alike for doing things or sharing views that deviate from accepted norms. Brands are no exception. Per a 2018 Edelman study, about two-thirds of consumers around the world support or boycott a brand based on its social or political philosophies. Many brands have found themselves roasted at trial by the Twitter and influencer jury for thinking things that anger the netizen gods — and the skincare brand Drunk Elephant is one of them.

Founded by Tiffany Masterson in 2012, Drunk Elephant carries the mission of creating a solution-focused, demographically diverse brand for all skin types. Drunk Elephant quickly rose to fame and garnered a cult-like following thanks to effective word-of-mouth marketing and less-is-more approaches to "clean beauty" skincare, promising to use ingredients that do not cause irritation or allergic reactions. However, with success comes scandals. In recent years, Drunk Elephant has repeatedly found itself embroiled in controversies and is struggling to restore its glory. Here's why Drunk Elephant could be the next rise-to-ruins story in the beauty business.

Skinfluencer Hyram Yarbro said Drunk Elephant lacks accountability

Drunk Elephant is known for not relying on influencer endorsements or sponsored content to promote its products but rather on word of mouth and keeping an open line of communication with its followers on social media. This is the reason why Drunk Elephant has gained the trust of the skincare community and has risen through the ranks meteorically. When Drunk Elephant first arrived in the U.K., beauty director of British Vogue Jessica Diner waxed lyrical about its products, saying she would start her skincare regime with the brand's versatile B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum.

Another beauty bigwig who patronized and spoke positively of Drunk Elephant since day one was Hyram Yarbo, an influencer with over four million YouTube subscribers who look to him for product reviews and skincare advice. In 2019, Yarbo set the skincare community aflame with his YouTube video titled "No More Drunk Elephant," which has since garnered over two million views. In it, Yarbo addressed the elephant in the room that many customers had encountered: the way Drunk Elephant rarely takes accountability for the complaints of customers saying they experienced irritation after using its products. "I have seen so many posts ... articles, [and] comments from you guys in my comment section saying that the customer service was terrible and that they're actively saying that the only type of irritation you can experience is from using other skincare products that are not their own," Yarbo said in the video.

Drunk Elephant was sued by L'Oréal for patent infringement

In 2018, beauty conglomerate L'Oréal filed a claim against Drunk Elephant for alleged patent infringement, Women's Wear Daily reports. The product in question is Drunk Elephant's C-Firma Day Serum, which sold for half the price of the $166 list price of SkinCeuticals' vitamin C serum, a product that works to minimize the damage of free radicals on the skin and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Pertinent to know here is that SkinCeuticals falls under the L'Oréal umbrella. Beauty enthusiasts hailed Drunk Elephant's serum to be a cheaper substitute for SkinCeuticals' serum for the same volume.

The "single-phase solution composition" of C-Firma Day Serum — Drunk Elephant's best-selling item — is identical to that in L'Oréal 's patented formula, consisting of a cinnamic acid derivative chosen from "p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, caffeic acid, and sinapinic acid; cis and trans isomers; an alkanediol; and water," per The Fashion Law.

L'Oréal couldn't sit still in face of such a dupe. In a statement to Vox, a L'Oréal USA representative said, "We believe that the scientific inventions which make our products so innovative are a strategic and competitive advantage and we are committed to protecting our valuable intellectual property." In 2019, Drunk Elephant was acquired by Shiseido, raising the specter of changes regarding product formulations. Two years after the filing, the high-stake case was settled with the terms of the settlement being confidential and the C-Firma Day Serum appearing to still be on sale.

Drunk Elephant faced backlash amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

The social and political impact of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests was core-shaking. At the heart of the protests were the many pledges, with a great number of brands calling for progress toward diversity and racial justice. Joining many other brands in supporting the ongoing efforts of civil rights organizations, Drunk Elephant, according to its Instagram post, made donations to Black Futures Lab, Campaign Zero, Movement for Black Lives, Broken Chains Awareness, and The National Black Justice Coalition. While these gestures carry warm sentiments, eagle-eyed netizens soon notice that something was amiss about the post.

Per beauty and skincare blogger Small Town Beauty Addict, many Instagram users, including themselves, asked Drunk Elephant in the comment section to back up its pledge by disclosing its workforce diversity. But the comments kept disappearing. "They did this all day on Saturday 6th June to give the impression that there was only a positive response and to hide the question they didn't want to answer. But why if they didn't have anything to hide?" the blogger wrote. After much backlash, the brand finally made a reply that kept its followers none the wiser: "We feel very strongly that making a 'human inventory' of our team and then using that information for marketing purposes is an incredible ethical violation of our employees right to privacy. It is just not something we would ever do or feel right about doing." Still, no proof!

Drunk Elephant is feisty, and its cruelty-free philosophy is shaky

A little competition is healthy in any business, but the ones that Drunk Elephant have gotten embroiled in are a little short of scandalous. Back in 2018, the brand was caught red-handed attacking its competitor Glossier's product using a fake Instagram account. According to a screenshot circulated on Reddit, it looks like someone with access to Drunk Elephant's official Instagram handle went to Glossier's page under another name to attack its skincare chemicals, claiming the company had copied Drunk Elephant's products. The bashing got so heated that the individual behind the negative comments seemed to forget to switch accounts. And voila! The comments appeared to have been written from Drunk Elephant's Instagram account. Instagram mishaps are normal, but this B2B one is definitely a trainwreck.

Another question that many skincare fans have about the future of Drunk Elephant is its stance on animal testing. Drunk Elephant has always marketed itself as a cruelty-free brand, meaning itself and its supplies don't test finished products or ingredients on animals. While Drunk Elephant has sworn by it, its parent company might not. Shiseido is not entirely cruelty-free. The Japanese multinational cosmetic company clarified on its website that it permits animal testing of its ingredients as required by law, including when selling in stores in mainland China where certain items are obliged to undergo animal testing. Now that Shiseido has bought Drunk Elephant, who can be sure that things won't change?