Monday, July 28, 2008

Navigating the EWG Skin Deep Database

I am so grateful that so many of you found us through the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database. It is an invaluable tool in helping to spread the word about the dangers of chemicals in every day personal care products. For those of you who have never been to the database, you can find it at There, you can look up just about any personal care product or ingredient and generate a full safety report. The database draws upon study data from five different national and international databases. No where else can one find such a vast collection of information on brands, chemicals, and products. But at times browsing the database can be confusing. It has been a topic of lively discussion with many of you and lately I've been bombarded with questions about ingredients and products. My aim today is to help you navigate the deep waters of the Skin Deep Database. Armed with my advice and some common sense, you'll be on your way to choosing the very best, safest products you can find.

Tip #1 for using the Skin Deep Database: Choose natural over synthetic. Let's look for shampoo and compare two products in the database...Terressentials Cool Mint Pure Earth Hair Wash vs. Giovanni Magnetic Energizing Shampoo. Both score a "2" risk score, but they couldn't be more different. On the one hand, Terressentials Shampoo is completely synthetic-free. It's basically an herbally-infused mud you put on your hair. Giovanni's shampoo is a synthetic detergent diluted with water infused with herbs. It uses cocamidopropyl betaine as its main lathering agent. Cocamidopropyl betaine scores a 5 risk score as an individual ingredient for its contamination concerns. (It can be contaminated with carcinogentic nitrosamines, a group of chemicals that it can come in contact with during its synthesis.) However, because the shampoo contains so many herbal extracts that rate a 0, the overall risk score of the shampoo averages out to a 2.

Now let's look at the Terressentials. The main objection that the database has to the shampoo is the fact that it has "clay minerals." The database doesn't recognize "clay minerals," as an ingredient so it gives it a risk score of 4. However, there are no side effects, warnings, or problems listed with the ingredient. Just the fact that the database didn't recognize it gave it a bad score. If you look up other clays, like Rhassoul or Kaolin, they get low risk scores. But because the ingredient was listed on the label as "clay minerals" it put up a red flag. With all the other ingredients, the shampoo averages out at a 2, just like the Giovanni. But let me ask you--which one is more natural? Which one would you choose? One with a truly problematic ingredient, or one that the database flagged? The Terressentials, naturally.

Tip #2: Look for errors. Let's continue to look at shampoo. One shampoo that comes out with a "1" score is "Phyto Phytoneutre Rebalancing Cream Shampoo." If you click on it and read the ingredients listed in the database, it looks like they're pretty safe---we have some herbal extracts and proteins. But let's look closer....up above the database of ingredients is the actual list of ingredients, which includes sodium laureth sulfate. Somehow, the full list of ingredients didn't get entered in to the database (and with the thousands of products they have to monitor, it's a forgivable oversight) so the score is incorrect. Don't just look at the score, look at the label ingredients and the ingredients listed in the database.

Tip #3: 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 database, not a person.

Another case in point is aloe vera. "Aloe vera" gets a risk score of 2, and "aloe vera gel" gets a risk score of 1. While there really is no difference, the database somehow sees them as two different ingredients. The risk score of 2 that aloe vera receives may scare some people off, especially with the bad sounding "reproductive toxicity" and "cancer" risks. However, we have to take this rating with a grain of salt. Aloe vera is known to be one of the best things you can put on your skin. It has been used safely for hundreds--maybe thousands--of years to heal bruises, cuts, lesions, blisters, and so on. So why does it get a bad rating? First off, the database could be citing studies done on the effects of aloe taken internally, which has been controversial for years. All it takes is one study that says that aloe vera caused mutated cells in a lab and the database will flag aloe as a cancer risk. (There could be ten studies that conclude aloe cures cancer and it won't show up in the database because it only reports negative information. And who knows who funded the negative study!) Second, there are hundreds of varieties of aloe. Which variety is this study looking at? Third--is this certified organic aloe that they've studied, or aloe that has been grown commercially, with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers? Could these pesticide residues be affecting the outcome of the study?

So, as you look at these natural ingredients that get a less than perfect score, the biggest question to ask yourself is this: has this ingredient been used safely for hundreds of years? If the answer is yes you can breathe easy.

If you haven't ventured over to the Skin Deep Database, do it soon. Your eyes will be opened to the many chemicals out there. 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 some common sense, an eye for details, and a naturalistic point of view, you'll be able to find safer alternatives for you and your family for years to come.

I'm always happy to answer your questions about ingredients. Because the database is just that---a database--and not a person, it can be quirky sometimes. So sometimes its helpful to have someone off which you can bounce your questions. Keep 'em comin'!

Now it's your turn--tell us what you think!


Environmental Working Group

Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Database