2 Apps Help You Identify Toxic Ingredients in Skin Care and Personal Care Products

Cosmetics beauty skin care product on transparent plates

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Did you know that more than half of the cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada contain toxic chemicals linked to serious health effects? According to a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, the list of offenders includes foundations, mascaras, lip products, and other types of eye makeup.

Regulations in the United States are rather lax when it comes to product toxicity in the beauty industry. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market," and only 11 ingredients are considered toxic and banned by law—compared to over 1,300 banned ingredients in Europe.

What you put on your skin matters, but researching and understanding what's in your beauty products can be a challenge. That's why there are a couple of science-based certification and rating systems to help you identify toxic ingredients in skin care, cosmetics, and other personal care products: the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep Database and the Think Dirty app.

 EWG's Skin Deep Database

EWG Verified Seal

The Skin Deep database has been run by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group since 2004. The service provides ratings and a certification called EWG Verified for products that earn the best ratings. EWG's database has a total of more than 79,000 rated products, including over 1,900 that have earned the stamp of EWG Verified.

To research specific brands, you can enter the name on the database website or on the EWG Healthy Living app. The app also allows you to scan a product's barcode and search the database that way.

EWG Ratings and Certification Criteria

Almost 80,000 products have been assessed for potential health hazards and data gaps in ingredients by comparing their listed ingredients to information in nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases by EWG staff scientists. Those databases include "government agencies, industry panels, academic institutions, or other credible bodies. Collectively, these data sources detail more than 1,535 unique chemical classifications."

The products' ingredients are rated on a score of 1-10 (with 10 being more potentially hazardous) and the product is given an overall rating based on the ingredient scores. There's also a note on each product about the quality of the data availability used to judge the ingredients and the product's animal testing policies.

Of the EWG-rated products, almost 2,000 are EWG Verified, which means the "product meets EWG's strictest criteria for transparency and health." To be deemed verified, the product must undergo the above rating system process and meet the following additional criteria:

  • Avoid the EWG's Chemicals of Concern: "Products cannot contain any ingredients on EWG's 'Unacceptable' list, meaning ingredients with health, ecotoxicity and/or contamination concerns."
  • Provide Full Transparency: "Must meet EWG’s standards for ingredient disclosure on the label, provide full transparency to EWG, including fragrance ingredients."
  • Use Good Manufacturing Practices: "Product manufacturers must develop and follow current good manufacturing practices to further ensure the safety of their products."

How to Find EWG's Skin Deep Database

The database is available online. The EWG Healthy Living app, which is also free, includes cosmetics and information about other products and food as well. It's available on the Apple and Google Play app stores for the iPhone and Android.

Think Dirty App

Scanning products on Think Dirty app.

Think Dirty is an independent for-profit company that was given foundational funds by the Canadian government in 2012, some non-profit organizations, and "investors who have no affiliations whatsoever with any beauty industry," according to the site's partnership page.

The app launched in the summer of 2013 with 68,300 products listed.

In order to be listed in the app, brands have to pay per product reviewed and an ongoing fee to be evaluated under the brand's criteria. While the app is for-profit, the organization claims to be mission-driven.

Once a product is submitted to the site for rating, evaluations are performed by the company's chemistry team and advisory board.

Ratings and Certification Criteria

The Think Dirty rating system is based on a number of sources, including peer-reviewed scientific studies and governmental and non-governmental organizations. Information from new studies and product reformulations can mean that ratings change over time on the same product.

Each ingredient listed on the product label or manufacturer’s website is evaluated and given a number rating for documented evidence of carcinogenicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and allergenicity and immunotoxicity. The company's "Dirty Meter" uses a 1-10 scale, with 10 signaling the highest level of potential negative health effects.

Verified brands use the same criteria as the rating system, but must rate 0-3 overall and go through an additional vetting process.

How to Find the Think Dirty App

Think Dirty is a smartphone-based app that is downloaded onto your device. The information on it isn't available online. The free app (with in-app purchases) is available on the Apple and Google Play app stores for the iPhone and Android.