Many conscious consumers rely on low ratings on the Skin Deep website before shopping for new personal care products—but buyer beware. A low rating on EWG may not be the green light you thought it was. ⇐ Tweet this!
Skin Deep is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) searchable database of toxic ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products. Items from sunscreens to shampoos earn a score starting at “1” for products containing ingredients valued as non-toxic to “10” being highly toxic, often carcinogenic.
For some, this rating system is the gospel. Several companies use their low scores on EWG as selling points to promote the safety of their products.
At first glance the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been doing groundbreaking work for the consumer. As one of the only organizations to tackle rating toxicity levels in the products we use daily, they have an enormous responsibility to deliver information accurately and to raise awareness over the mounting environmental and health concerns associated with ingredients.
Without a doubt, they have succeeded, but there are some major glitches in the system that you need to know about. These are glitches that companies can use to their advantage to get lower ratings that make them appear cleaner than they are.
Let me say from the get-go, that I am grateful to the EWG for their efforts. They do an outstanding job of making change happen. This post is not about knocking them down, but rather about learning how to use the rating system with discernment and finding out why many stringent, natural brands won’t work with them.
Chemist and founder of Blissoma Holistic Skincare & Apothecary, Julie Longyear is one of them. I’ve been following Julie with groupie-like loyalty since I first discovered her company years ago. Her knowledge of formulas and ingredients surpasses many others in the industry. I attribute much of that to her chemistry background and diligent research. But that also makes her less tolerant of loopholes and the companies that benefit from them.
I asked Julie to share her insights on my blog because this is information that we as consumers need to know. It is my good faith that this post will serve as education and not as defamation.
Q: When a company claims to only offer products with low ratings on EWG, why do you get suspicious of them?
A: I know right away that they have just made sure to play the ratings game properly, as many quality products that I know to be safe and authentically natural are rated unfairly high. A low rating doesn’t actually always mean natural or totally non-hazardous. It just means that brand has decided to take advantage of a flawed system and the overwhelm of consumers in trying to shop for safe products. It is also not an indicator of quality, as many low hazard ingredients have no nutritional or health-promoting value for the body.
Q: What is the next step for a consumer who wants to check the score of a particular product?
A: They would proceed to Skin Deep and put in either the brand or a unique part of the product name. I would never go by the overall product rating and instead would proceed to the detail page to see which exact ingredients are the problem and then really think and do some more research before deciding something is definitively “bad.”
Fundamentally I think Skin Deep is a more useful resource for simply getting a bit more information on individual ingredients. You can at least find out what the purpose of a particular ingredient is and they do list where their information is coming from. I’d still hit Google and look up other sources though.
Q: How can companies manipulate the ratings system so that they appear to have low numbers but in actuality they’re working the system?
A: In order to manipulate the ratings system companies can either create new, unrated compounds with no data available or they can work from a palette of only ingredients that Skin Deep has already given low numbers. The new compounds with no data available are generally rated a 0 or 1, so playing fast and loose with chemistry is rewarded and consumers are given the inaccurate impression that there is no risk.
Development of new compounds should be treated with care and caution as often the health hazards are not known until years after they are initially introduced into the market. As well companies would make sure to only use whole essential oils in their products and ingredient declarations, not individual essential oil isolates because as I’ve described these get penalized harshly.
The listings in Skin Deep are totally voluntary and rely on either the ingredients panel of a product or a list of ingredients supplied directly by the manufacturer. As there are no third party testing requirements in the USA this means the ingredients listing could be totally falsified and consumers would never even know.
I have definitely known some brands to just not list ingredients either due to inexperience or lack of knowledge, or the fact that they didn’t want customers to be asking hard questions about. No one is checking and the general public is unlikely to send their items to a lab and have them analyzed, so it is all left up to trust.
When manufacturers are torn between the performance characteristics of an ingredient and the public perception of it as “bad” this is a road that some may take as a solution to their problem. They just don’t list it. ⇐ Tweet this!
There are also labeling loopholes right now where companies do not have to declare some of the preservatives in a product.
For example if they use a water based botanical extract in a product, say it has an INCI* name of Leontopodium Apinum Extract. The manufacturer of the extract does not necessarily have to include any preservatives used in the extract in the INCI declaration, and those then are generally not declared on the final ingredients panel of the product.
Unless the personal care brand has been making detailed inquiries with their suppliers and then has a policy of declaring all preservatives used in their extracts there may be 1-5 or more different hidden preservatives in final products. These could be phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, benzoate, or possibly parabens or others.
You just don’t know as a retail consumer, and they are hidden by this legal loophole. That means there are hidden preservatives in the Skin Deep ingredients lists as well, so some brands may not be as clean as they might appear.
*International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. This is a standard system used for cosmetics worldwide based on scientific names to identify the ingredients in cosmetics.
Q: What’s an example of an ingredient that gets a low rating on EWG because of not enough data?
A: I was able to find a technological ingredient from Croda, a maker of many performance cosmetic ingredients, in the database.
Their trade name is Arlasilk™ PTM and the ingredient’s INCI name is Myristamidopropyl PG-Dimonium Chloride Phosphate (and) Aqua.
It claims to have conditioning and sensorial benefits and to also have antimicrobial and preservative boosting benefits.
Looking it up online in Skin Deep gives us this page:
It is listed as a 1 and data: none.
I was also able to find a hair volumizing compound with the same rating:
Q: Is the converse also true that a product can get a high rating but still be “safe”? Do some “natural” ingredients earn high numbers and throw off a product’s rating?
A: The way the Skin Deep Database rates products it penalizes especially European brands, which already conform to a much safer cosmetics standard than in the USA due to the EU restrictions on ingredients and testing requirements, and also especially products that include essential oil isolates.
Citronellol and Geraniol are two of the major aromatic chemical constituents of rose essential oil, which is present in many natural skincare products.
If you look at page 2 of this study you can see a chart where Gas Chromatography analysis has been done of a sample of rose oil:
The content of Citronellol is 38.52% and the Geraniol is 31.05% of the oil. Geraniol rates a shocking 7 in the Skin Deep database and Citronellol rates a 5. Both are higher numbers than most consumers would like to see on their products, as according to Skin Deep these numbers indicate some risk.
However if we look at the rating for just rose oil, which these compounds are in, we see that rose oil is rated at just a 1.
If the individual chemical components of this oil are so hazardous, then the whole oil should be as well but in a grand error of logic, Skin Deep has chosen to ignore that essential oils are made up of many compounds which they have rated separately.
The main hazard for these essential oil fractions is simply allergic reaction, not long term toxin buildup. While allergic reactions can be serious they are not an issue for everyone, and this is a broad and detrimental way to depict these ingredients to all consumers who may not have the ability to discern that the rating of a 5 or 7 is largely for allergy issues.
Many people can still use both rose oil and products with citronellol or geraniol safely, but if people are reactive to geraniol in isolated form then they are going to react to it in rose oil as well.
Further, the same study that I’ve noted above concluded that both Citronellol and Geraniol actually have helpful effects in inhibiting COX-2. COX-2 plays a role in inflammation and lifestyle disease in our bodies, and these compounds have medicinal effects in modulating inflammation in the body, so for non-allergic people these compounds are proven healthful, yet Skin Deep ignores this fact and focuses only on the possibility of allergy.
For European brands the Skin Deep system is terribly detrimental. The EU has a much stricter cosmetics standard than the USA, which already means the products made there are safer than many USA based products.
In addition there are also natural certification groups like BDIH which do independent third party testing of products to determine their naturalness, and certify them to their natural standard.
Despite these precautions and the rigor with which European products are made they have a separate set of labeling requirements that penalize the products in Skin Deep. Primarily this relates to the EU convention of labeling scents in products.
Their labeling requirements dictate that aromatics used in products for scent must be labeled using the word Fragrance which has become a dirty word to many American consumers and is also rated very poorly in EWG as an 8.
In cases of USA made products this is with good reason, as fragrances can contain any of 500 or more aromatic ingredients that are undisclosed and it is a big source of hazardous pthalates and allergens.
However in Europe, especially if the brand is BDIH certified, they would be using only natural ingredients to create their scents and would have been tested independently to prove the product’s purity. The word Fragrance is used simply as a labeling requirement. When the products are imported to the USA the word Fragrance remains on their ingredients panel and if they are listed in Skin Deep this becomes a ratings problem for them.
An example would be a product like Lavera’s Mattifying Balancing Cream with Wild Rose.
This product ends up with a total rating of 5, which is unappealing to many concerned American shoppers.
The rating is basically entirely due to the Fragrance ingredient rating an 8 and then the inclusion of Sodium Lactate, which rates as a 4 due simply to “usage restrictions” which if are followed it is non-hazardous.
Skin Deep tries to bring up some concerns about cancer in this compound’s rating and then further down the explanation says that it is not likely to be carcinogenic, which is a contradiction. Either it is or it isn’t. They also have no proof that this manufacturer is somehow violating the usage restrictions, so the high rating is very unfair.
Overall the rating of this product is an unfortunate smear campaign against a product formulated to a very respectable natural standard, and does American consumers a disservice.
Q: What about safe synthetic ingredients? How do they rank? Is a certain level of synthetic ingredients necessary in a formula with water in it?
A: I’m not 100% sure how to answer this question, as if it is a “safe” synthetic then one might assume the rating would be low there and what you and I would consider a “safe” synthetic might be certain, relatively simple emulsifiers or “green” chemistry surfectants.
To try and get some examples I looked up Max Green Alchemy and was able to find their Matte Styling Paste. There are several ingredients included that could be considered natural yet are also slightly synthetic as they are one step removed from the original plant material.
These would be ingredients like Sucrose Cocoate, or possibly Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate. Both of these required some chemistry to get from the original plant material to the cosmetic ingredient. Both are rated a 1.
It really depends the stringency of how the word “synthetic” is defined whether synthetics are necessary in a water based formula or not. An extract like the Aspen Bark extract that is now available for use as a preservative is derived directly from tree bark, so would not be synthetic likely by any definition.
It is an effective antimicrobial, but may not be suitable used alone for some water based preparations. The choice of preservative is unique to each product and depends on the amount of sugars and material in the recipe that might prove to be food for microbes.
Many clean, natural manufacturers do use Potassium Sorbate and/or Sodium Benzoate which both are approved to the Ecocert organic cosmetics standard.
Sodium Benzoate rates a 3 due to the fact that in the presence of strong acidic conditions it can decompose to form Benzene which is cancerous. Potassium Sorbate is rated a 3 as well which seems to be stated as due to skin irritation, however at concentrations up to 10% Potassium Sorbate has been found to be only mildly irritating to skin, which is a level that no cosmetic that I know of uses it at. It is generally used at 1% or less.
Q: It seems that there are many loopholes in EWG. What are ways the EWG can improve the system?
A: Skin Deep could rate allergens differently than bio-accumulative toxins, as these two hazards are very, very different. Toxins are a long term problem for everyone while allergens are a problem only for some people.
They could also rate new ingredients with a higher number until the company is able to provide proof that the new compound is actually safe, or create a special rating such as a color or a symbol that would accompany the rest of the rating to give the system more finesse.
Not everything about chemistry can be reduced to a simple number, and a lot of the problems come from this vast oversimplification.
Q: What other suggestions can you propose for reform in beauty labeling? (Too big a question? Maybe another post?)
A: Phew, yes probably better for another post. 🙂 Although I can say it would be really helpful if there was a single, mandatory world standard for cosmetic labeling. The fact that Europe has different standards than America is confusing for shoppers, and the FDA is far too loose with cosmetic labeling regulations in the USA.
Brands in the USA routinely use completely non-standard names for ingredients such as trade names instead of scientific names. There is an international nomenclature for ingredients but especially smaller manufacturers here don’t use it either due to ignorance or a desire to make their products seem more friendly, natural and approachable, as INCI requires Latin names for botanical ingredients rather than common names.
It is more time consuming to look them all up, and Latin names look “foreign” and hard to pronounce. Writing “Chamomile” instead of Matricaria recutita sounds so much easier and is recognizable to consumers, but isn’t really proper for an ingredients declaration.
Europe also requires lab testing for all products entering the marketplace, as does South Korea and I think that consumer protection would be vastly better if testing were mandatory here as well to determine levels of certain ingredients or the presence of contaminants. The honesty in labeling would go up dramatically if that were instituted.
Right now manufacturers can put whatever they want on their ingredients declaration and no one can really know any different as no one is checking on behalf of consumers. I have seen egregious fibs on behalf of manufacturers that would have been caught if testing or some type of review were required.
However this would seem prohibitively expensive and difficult for many small crafters that currently enjoy selling their wares in the USA. Consumer protection and labeling accuracy would be vastly better though.
Thank you so much, Julie. You’re clearly an expert in your field and one who is not afraid to share the truth when it benefits us. Let’s make these words count and put her advice into actionable steps to improve the system.