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


statia said...

This is why I've stopped recommending the database in general. Their recommendations sometimes aren't the best, and with new formulations, it's sometimes not always accurate. I figure that a lot of the general population isn't going to weed through every single ingredient and base the average off of there.

Unknown said...

Thanks Stephanie, for that clarification on things...I remember when I first when to that data site, I was really really have to look into some of the labeling as it can be misleading, like you said, and give a false score. LOVE LOVE LOVE your products...couldn't be more happier!! Thanks so much and keep up the GREAT work!!

Anonymous said...

The Database allows you to enter ingredients that you see on a label. Although time consuming, in this way I get the most updated information on a product. I often go to company websites for their ingredients lists, and copy and paste into the Database. I use this feature because new formulations are not often updated (as Statia mentioned above).

I am glad you mentioned that the Database ofen doesn't recognize ingredients, and will give a false positive or negative score based on what the Database refers to as, "insufficient data" on that ingredient. Often, there is a large percentage of ingredients not considered in the score.

Case in point, I entered the ingredients for one variety of Secret deodorant. The Database gave a score of 2, but a large percentage of the ingredients (about 85%)were not used in the calculation because there was insufficient research to score the ingredients. So, this particular score was based on only about 15 percent of the ingredients listed.

Good reason to stick with Pit Putty. Pit Putty is one of only two natural/organic deodorants that actually work, and has fewer than a handful of ingredients.

It is so important to use the safest ingredients on that delicate area of the body that is close to lymph glands and breast tissue.

Thank you, Stephanie. Your work is appreciated.

Anonymous said...


Once again, your knowledge about chemicals, or their natural and safe alternatives, is amazing. Personally, I have stopped looking at EWG for all my body care product information, and have been shopping exclusively from you. You do what you do extremely well and that is deserving of my customer loyalty. Thanks. Christina from Chicago

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this post! It is very helpful. And yes, I found that I have to do much more investigating and calculating than the database may lead one to believe. But I feel like I've earned some kind of honorary degree in chemistry (jokes) and can scan for many of the hazardous ones with my naked eye at the store.

Thanks so much for your peace-of-mind products. The more your catalog expands, the less shopping around I will need to do!

Anonymous said...

Oh my God, I think I love you. This should be posted at the top of the EWG Database word entry location. You rock.

Anonymous said...

This seems very useful...
About the Aloe Vera and AV gel. Could the data base maybe be factoring in how the two ingredients are made? I'm just wondering if a package says Aloe Vera Gel, is there a possibility that they are doing some extra, unhealthy things to it? I haven't had a chance to look at the site yet. Does it explain these factors on there?
Thanks for your great blog!

Katherine said...

I have thought for ages that this was a big gap in the database, and one which some companies have taken advantage of to make their products seem safer than they really are! It goes both ways though, as you say, and some things are perfectly healthy as well. A good reminder too that simply being "natural" doesn't necessarily make something safe. Thanks for the article.

Dene said...

Sorry that this is so late in the day, but I have only just found your blog. The Skin Deep database is even less useful that you think. Check out this link for details of the truth behind the claims:

BTW, hydrogenated coconut has nothing whatsoever to do with hydrogenated trans fats. Just because they are both hydrogenated, there is no other connection, and hydrogenated coconut is safe in cometics.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Thanks for sharing, Dene. I agree---I don't think that just because an ingredient has a 100% data gap, it should score a 0! So many people just choose 0 and think that a 1 or a 2 is a bad score when they're not.

Regarding the hydrogenated oil--the Cosmetics Database doesn't only score topical data, but internal data. We all know that eating extra virgin coconut oil is better than eating hydrogenated coconut oil (and we'd all probably agree that it's better for our skin, too) but for some reason the database thinks it's the other way around. I'm not saying that hydrogenated coconut oil is a bad cosmetic ingredient--but I'd prefer extra virgin over hydrogenated.

Dene Godfrey said...

Thanks for responding Stephanie - unexpected as I am late joining the discussion. It doesn't really matter if the database does have things the wrong way around - and there are so many actual factual errors contained within its depths - the main issue is that is simply cannot give any indication of the safety of the product, as it only quotes the hazard of the ingredients, not the exposure (and, hence, the risk involved). I state this for the benefit of anyone reading this thread that can't be bothered to follow the link I provided. The ONLY useful function of Skin Deep is for someone who only wants to know the ingredients present in any specific product - safety just doesn't enter into the equation. Even the SD disclaimer states this (in so many words), but they contradict their own disclaimer by claiming that the database DOES assess safety. They really have no clue about the science, but they are very good at micleading people!