ArtNaturals was among these newcomers. The company, a brand of skin and hair care products, was founded in 2015 “out of a desire”—according to its website—“to free beauty from high prices, toxic chemicals, and all-around bad vibes.” Its formulations, tagged with wellness buzzwords like “plant-based” and “globally sourced,” are found at Target, Walmart, and especially Amazon. “We were born online, born on Amazon,” Joseph Nourollah, the CEO of ArtNaturals, once said at a beauty conference.

According to Emily Castellanos, a former copywriter at the company, opportunism was in ArtNaturals’ DNA. She says the company hired third-party agencies to offer select shoppers products like shampoo for as little as a dollar in exchange for Amazon reviews. “Usually they were great reviews,” she says. ArtNaturals often got new product ideas, Castellanos says, by copying what was already trending on Amazon, then making “the quantity bigger and the price point lower.” As new products went on sale, “huge jugs of jojoba oil, tea tree oil,” and the like would arrive by the truckload, to be bottled and labeled manually by primarily immigrant workers in the ArtNaturals warehouse, next to the mobile home park. 

The company shared the facilities with at least three other businesses, all run, according to court records, by Nourollah and members of his family. Their companies Day-to-Day Imports and OxGord have sold everything from car parts to knives to ladders to pregnancy pillows. Several of these products have been the subject of lawsuits by competitors alleging that Nourollah’s companies stole their designs. Numerous customers have claimed that Day-to-Day Imports and OxGord ladders suddenly collapsed and left them severely injured. The company settled with one roofer in 2019 and with two more individuals in 2021 and 2022; one other ladder injury lawsuit is pending. (ArtNaturals and its attorneys did not respond to repeated interview requests or questions submitted by email.)

ArtNaturals submitted paperwork to the FDA to sell hand sanitizer starting on April 8, 2020. By the summer, 8-ounce bottles of its “scent-free” sanitizer were sold at Walmart and other retailers. Osher Netkin, the company’s chief operating officer, posted on LinkedIn that ArtNaturals was giving hand sanitizer away to “hospitals, nursing homes, law enforcement and fire departments.” In another post, he wrote that he had access to truckloads of ethanol alcohol “that are able to ship today.” In Carson, members of the city council included bottles of ArtNaturals sanitizer in Covid care packages donated to families.

Within weeks of the FDA’s move to deregulate hand sanitizer, complaints started pouring in to the agency. Poison Control Centers across the country received thousands of reports of people seeking treatment for exposure to hand sanitizer that contained methanol, a highly toxic form of alcohol used in antifreeze that can cause skin and lung irritation, nausea, vomiting, headache, or worse. That summer, 17 people died after drinking sanitizer with methanol; a telltale sign was that people who ingested it showed up to hospitals with seizures and sudden loss of vision. (Although sanitizer made with pharmaceutical-grade ethanol isn’t safe to drink, it is not usually deadly.)

By mid-June the FDA had received so many complaints that it started compiling an online list of “hand sanitizers consumers should not use.” Because the agency does not have recall authority for over-the-counter drugs, the offending companies themselves were expected to pull products marked as unsafe. Consumers had to go out of their way to find the list and stay up to date as it got longer and longer. By the end of that first pandemic summer, nearly 200 types of sanitizer appeared on the list.

Read More