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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Navigating the Cosmetics Database guest post by Stephanie of Bubble and Bee

Since I am not an expert, this year I decided to call upon those who have helped me understand the world of gradually green. My first post is by Stephanie Greenwood, the founder of my favorite lotion, soap, face products on the market -- a little secret everyone should know about .... Bubble and Bee. Stephanie reached out to me when I was having problems with my skin products and sent me a few samples. Turns out, I'm allergic to putting certain things on my face but Honey and Rosehip Facial Cleanser is working out and not making my face all angry red! I'm in love!

I asked Stephanie if she would talk about the Cosmetic Database and help me and my readers navigate it! Enjoy and THANKS Stephanie! You get today's awesome award! created by the Environmental Working Group can be a largely helpful tool when trying to navigate the crazy world of cosmetic and personal care safety and ingredients. There, you can look up just about any personal care product or ingredient and it will give you a "hazard score" that ranges from 0 to 10 (10 being the most hazardous.) The database draws upon data from fifty different national and international databases. No where else can one find such a vast collection of information on brands, chemicals, and products. At times, however, browsing the database can be confusing, and information can be incomplete. Armed with my tips for navigating this resource, you'll be able to be an ingredient sleuth to keep you and your family safe!

Tip #1: Know thine checkmark.
It can be scary to see a checkmark for "cancer" or "reproductive toxicity" on an ingredient...but not all checkmarks are the same.  In the database as you look at ingredients you'll see three different types of checkmarks.  

The thin grey: weak evidence

The thin purple: moderate to strong evidence

The medium purple: strong evidence

The thick purple: caution!  

So, just because an ingredient has a checkmark next to something, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's true or pertinent to an ingredients cosmetic use.  Take for instance baking soda.  It has checkmarks for both cancer and reproductive toxicity.  But, it's overall score is a 2 ("low risk") because the checkmarks are both "thin grey."  The evidence for these risks are very weak or don't really apply to cosmetic use.  (The studies were done on animals who ingested large amounts of the ingredient that wouldn't apply to human use.)  Contrast that with Genistein, which also shows checkmarks for the same two things, but the checkmarks are "thin purple," meaning moderate to strong evidence.  Combine the stronger evidence with some other risks and you've bumped the risk score up to a 5 ("moderate risk") for Genistein.

Tip #2: Consider the benefits and positive information
One major flaw to the Database is that it doesn't consider any positive information.  For instance, if there was one study done in 1964 on random animal cells and an ingredient caused them to mutate, the ingredient would be flagged for mutation in the Database.  There could be five credible studies done that proved the same ingredient cured cancer, but the database doesn't take them in to consideration, and that ingredient would be sitting in the database flagged for causing cancer.  Consider healthy benefits of ingredients that can outweigh any negative weak evidence.  (Such is the case for aloe vera juice, which scores a 1-2 with flags for cancer, even though numerous studies have found it to be healing to skin and have anti-tumour properties.)

Tip #3: Consider the Data Gap
Most people just look at the hazard score without considering the data gap.  Most people would consider a "0 hazard" ingredient a better score than a "2 hazard," But in some cases, I'd rather use a "2" ingredient than a "0."  The Database scores an ingredient based on the information available from different databases.  If there's no data on an ingredient, it automatically scores a 0...but it still has a 100% data gap (meaning it has no safety data).  I believe that an ingredient with a 100% Data Gap shouldn't score a 0, but more of an N/A. How can you give something the apparently safest score rating based on no data?  For instance, Rice Bran oil scores a 2, but it only has a 74% data gap, while Japanese Honeysuckle Extract scores a 0 and has a 100% data gap.  Emerging concerns of Honeysuckle Extract haven't hit any of the source databases, so it has no data and scores a "0."  While Rice Bran Oil has been around longer and has been studied more.  It scores a "2" for concerns with pesticide residue...but if one were to use organic Rice Bran Oil, one wouldn't have that concern.  In this case the "2" beats the "0."

Tip #4: Use common sense
Because it's such an information overload, it's easy to hang on to every word that the database gives you. But a little common sense will go a long way when you're looking at ingredients. One case in point is coconut oil. If you look up coconut oil in the database, it gives you a risk score of "1." Listed in the ingredient warnings is the fact that at high doses it can cause fatty liver degeneration. (What that has to do with applying it to your skin, I don't know). However, if you look up hydrogenated coconut oil, it gives it a risk score of "0" and no warnings. Now, we all know that organic extra virgin coconut oil is better for you than the trans-fat laden hydrogenated version. But because the database has no studies to which it can refer, it gives the hydrogenated oil a better score. That's one thing to remember--this is a large database with thousands of ingredients, and not all have been personally analyzed by the small staff of EWG.

If you haven't ventured over to the Skin Deep Database, do it soon. Your eyes will be opened to the many chemicals in your daily products to avoid.  You can generate a safety report on just about any personal care product out there. Go look up your fingernail polish, hair sprays and other products--you may be surprised to find out what's lurking in your lotion!  Armed with my tips you'll be able to find safer alternatives for you and your family for years to come.


  1. Hello! Lisa Frack here from EWG (and Pdx, Oregon, where I live and work). Thanks for sharing our cosmetics database with your readers. I know it can be overwhemling when you first dig in. If there are other EWG topics you want to cover, let me know and I'd be glad to assist. Best, Lisa

  2. Great post! I'm going to share a link on my blog as I think this information can help so many understand the EWG site.

  3. Thank you for sharing the cosmetics database. I use a lot of cosmetics everyday so this will help me decide what ingredients to avoid when purchasing my beauty products.

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