Sunday Riley is a skin care brand that has exploded in popularity over the past few years.
The line was founded by Texas entrepreneur Sunday Riley, who shares a name with her brand.
Riley, a cosmetic chemist, founded her line in 2009 after finding other skin care products unsatisfactory. She formulates the products herself, she told Allure in 2017.
"I think a lot of luxury skin-care brands are very glossy and all about buying into the brand. We’re the opposite of that. We’re selling something that works," Riley told the magazine.
The brand also found success in developing a cult-like following through social media.
Riley told Allure that when they started out, they "put products in the hands of social influencers" instead of spending a ton of money on advertising.
Word of mouth seems to have worked for the brand.
The brand's arguably most famous product, Good Genes, has more than 130,000 "loves" and 2,000 reviews on Sephora's website alone.
Many of the reviewers rave about the product, with many saying the results helped them get past the high price tag — $158 for 50 milliliters.
"I can honestly say I’ve never used a more effective facial product. The improvement to the skin on my nose alone is worth the hefty price tag," one reviewer wrote.
So many fans of the brand were stunned this week by a post on Reddit's hugely popular skin care subreddit, /r/SkincareAddiction, from a person claiming to be a former employee of Sunday Riley.
The ex-employee wrote that they were forced to write fake Sephora reviews for the brand's products — and they had the receipts:
Sunday Riley did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment. The employee who sent the email referred BuzzFeed News to two contacts at the company, neither of whom returned a request for comment.
On Wednesday, Sephora said in a statement that it "has very strict brand rules regarding our Ratings and Reviews, which we know are an important decision tool for our clients." Sephora has been in touch with the skincare brand and "they have committed to adhering to our review policy," the statement said.
"Additionally, we have teams dedicated to protecting the integrity of our Ratings and Reviews, ensuring through detailed moderation that it’s a constant trusted, unbiased, authentic source for all. We do not believe this incident is representative of the Sephora Ratings and Reviews culture, or the countless hours our clients have spent sharing their product experiences with us and others," Sephora stated.
BuzzFeed News has been in contact with the anonymous poster, who told us they would like to remain anonymous. The former employee said that they worked at Sunday Riley for two years, and provided the email in question to BuzzFeed News in full.
In the leaked email, the Sunday Riley employee who sent the email provided the team with specific directions, and encouraged the company's workers to create multiple aliases to make their reviews seem more authentic.
The email also instructed employees what to say to appear authentic to potential customers:
It helps to make yourself seem more relatable, like you know how hard acne is and you’ve tried everything, and this one actually works or mention things like, yes it’s a little more expensive but works incredible [sic] well compared to the cheaper masks out there. If you need any help with things to come up with to say, feel [free] to ask myself, Sunday, or Addison. As reviews come in, read them too. If you notice someone saying things like I didn’t like “x” about it, write a review that says the opposite. The power of reviews is mighty, people look to what others are saying to persuade them and answer potential questions they may have.
She also provided employees with detailed instructions on how to mask their IP addresses, so the reviews would not be flagged as coming from the company's office.
The reaction in the skin care community was swift and damning:
Many people take reviews of products seriously, especially when they cost hundreds of dollars, and they said they felt betrayed.
Many said the practice should be investigated.
Some people said they believed the practice was widespread, not just contained to Sunday Riley.
But no matter what, the "sketchy" practice did not sit right with many.
Sunday Riley has not addressed the controversy on its social media platforms.
The company did respond, however, to Estée Laundry, an Instagram account dedicated to exposing drama in the beauty industry.
In a comment from Sunday Riley's verified account, the brand admitted the leaked email was legit.
The comment read:
As many of you may know, we are making an effort to bring more transparency to our clients. The simple and official answer to this Reddit post is that yes, this email was sent by a former employee to several members of our company. At one point, we did encourage people to post positive reviews at the launch of this product, consistent with their experiences. There are a lot of reasons for doing that, including the fact that competitors will often post negative reviews of products to swing opinion. It doesn’t really matter what the reasoning was. We have hundreds of thousands of reviews across platforms around the globe and it would be physically impossible for us to have posted even a fraction of these reviews. Client word-of-mouth, sharing how our products have changed their skin, has been the cornerstone of our success. In the end, our products and their results stand for themselves.