While beauty industry consumers are busy fighting against the natural effects of aging, some are also fighting the claims their skincare products make about having the ability to turn back the clock.

The Southern District of New York dismissed a consumer’s false advertising suit against beauty brand Algenist over its products’ claims of containing vegan collagen offering “advanced anti-aging” benefits. The plaintiff said she was unhappy with her purchase of one of the products at issue because she did not experience any “anti-aging or skin-firming benefits” after use, claiming topical collagen cannot provide such benefits.

The case against Algenist was decided shortly after another New York federal district court judge denied L’Oreal’s motion to dismiss similar claims regarding the advertised anti-aging effects of its products, allowing the suit to proceed. 

So, where do the lawsuits differ? The answer: collagen.

What is collagen, you ask? Collagen is a structural protein that occurs naturally in the human body,  which is said to give the skin “a firm, plump, and youthful look,” according to the plaintiff's complaint against Algenist. The popularity of collagen-based beauty products stems from their purported ability to combat the natural loss of collagen that occurs over time, which causes wrinkles and weakened joint cartilage. The plaintiff argued that Algenist’s products were falsely advertised as containing "vegan collagen” providing “advanced anti-aging benefits,” because collagen applied in a cream, she said, is comprised of molecules too large to penetrate the top layer of the skin and therefore cannot provide such benefits.  

An article the plaintiff provided to support this argument, however, actually ended up undermining it. It explained that regardless of whether or not collagen can penetrate the skin, collagen is still “an effective moisturizer that can improve the appearance of lines and wrinkles.” So, if moisturizing the skin can reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles, and the reduction of lines and wrinkles are considered "anti-aging effects," do collagen's moisturizing benefits still constitute "anti-aging effects"? The court thought so. It found that Algenist's collagen products could perform as advertised, and that there was no actionable misrepresentation.

The court explains that this specific conclusion is consistent with that of the Southern District in a similar suit against L’Oreal.  There, the L’Oreal court considered how the product labels could mislead a reasonable consumer into believing that the product’s collagen mimics the effects of naturally-occurring collagen in the body.

In September, L’Oreal was denied its request to dismiss consumers’ claims that it misled consumers about the skin-smoothing and cushion-restoring effects of its “Collagen Moisture Filler” moisturizer. The plaintiffs said that they paid a substantial price premium for the product based on its labeling, but did not receive the associated value due to its false and misleading claims. L’Oreal argued that a reasonable consumer would understand the product’s “collagen” claims as a reference to its use as a moisturizer, which the court determined to be an unreasonable interpretation.

On the one hand, the L’Oreal court acknowledged -- as it did in the Algenist case -- that collagen’s inability to penetrate the skin does not necessarily make the products’ anti-aging claims untrue. On the other hand, the court said that the language on L’Oreal’s moisturizers’ labels – including “smooth wrinkles,” “restore skin’s cushion,” and “filler” – may serve to associate the products with “the skin-plumping benefits of natural collagen.” The court found it was “entirely plausible” for a reasonable consumer to associate L’Oreal’s products with the natural benefits of collagen, and thus the case was allowed to proceed.

As the Algenist decision explains, the differences in the outcomes of these two cases are due to the differences in the packaging of the products at issue. L’Oreal’s products made specific representations about the effects the collagen-infused moisturizers would have, which “closely paralleled the effects of naturally occurring collagen” and thus could lead a consumer to mistakenly believe that the product would provide identical effects to natural collagen. Algenist’s products, in contrast, merely touted general “advanced anti-aging” claims, which the court said did not create that same association between artificial and natural collagen.

Nguyen v. Algenist, 1:22-cv-00013, No. 35 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 28, 2022) 

Lopez v. L'Oreal, 21-cv-7300 (ALC) (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 27, 2022)