Use Skin Deep Database the Right Way
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If you have been following me for some time, you might have noticed that some of my product and ingredient ratings differ from those of the Skin Deep Database powered by the Environmental Working Group. No doubt, the online EWG cosmetics database is a great resource that has rated over 90,000 products, including personal care products, beauty products, and skincare products. In addition, the EWG Skin Deep Database is an ingredient database meaning that it rates product ingredients. So, I understand the confusion the difference in our ratings may cause. Therefore, in this post, we will discuss the reasons behind my rating choices. Also, you will learn how to use this product and ingredient database without getting potentially misleading information.
Use Skin Deep Database the Right Way
To begin with, the Skin Deep Database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a US non-profit organization. It is dedicated to making sure humans live healthier lives and to protecting the environment. And, its Skin Deep Database is a good way to estimate the safety of products you consider buying. Nevertheless, it has its limitations, and I believe that knowing them can help you understand how products and ingredients get their ratings.
The EWG cosmetics database expresses an opinion
The first point I would like to stress is that the EWG database ratings are a reflection of an opinion, not an indisputable truth.
In other words, the ratings are a result of an understanding of the various scientific sources that I use, too. They include but are not limited to, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel reports, medical studies in the National Library of Medicine, European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety reports, and reporting from European Chemicals Agency. Oftentimes, my opinion about an ingredient or product type is different from that expressed in the Skin Deep Database, and I believe it is ok, for the following reasons.
A product rating should first make you ask the question, “What is the basis for this rating?” Instead of just looking at the given rating as the ultimate truth, choose to check the literature upon which the EWG cosmetics database forms its opinions and formulate your own opinion. This is what I do before making my final judgment about an ingredient.
In my experience, there have been instances when I did not see sufficient reasoning for the EWG rating in the referenced sources.
For example, the EWG states that the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List has ranked Rosa Canina (Dog Rose) Hips Oil as expected to be toxic and harmful. So, I searched the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List but found no evidence of that. Dog Rose Hips Oil is, in fact, on Canada’s Domestic Substances List (DSL), an inventory of over 28,000 chemicals, but has no restrictions.
In other words, the DSL is a list of chemicals that have been investigated by the Canadian government. The DSL contains both harmful chemicals and chemicals deemed to be safe. In this case, the Canadian government doesn’t note that Dog Rose Hips Oil poses any threat to human health or the environment. Thus, it’s unclear why the EWG chooses to diminish it. In all likelihood, it’s simply because the EWG has chosen to undertake a gargantuan task and a mistake was made. I understand that they are constantly monitoring and upgrading the Skin Deep Database, but it’s not infallible.
Skin Deep database changes its ratings
Another point I consider worth covering is the fact that the EWG cosmetics database has been changing its ratings lately.
To demonstrate, such preservatives as methylchloroisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone used to have ratings of 6 and 6-7 respectively (with 10 as most toxic). Then, for a period, methylchloroisothiazolinone had a rating of 2-5 and benzisothiazolinone had a rating of 3-6. Now, methylchloroisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone are back to 6. The chemicals themselves haven’t changed; only the database has changed.
Another example is Citrus Paradisi (Grapefruit) seed extract, which the EWG used to rate 6. Now, Citrus Paradisi has a rating of 1-3 depending on its use.
As far as I know, the scientific data on the toxicity of these ingredients has not changed. That is to say, methylchloroisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone are still allergens and sensitizers. Also, I have not seen any studies that show that grapefruit seed extract is now free of possible contaminants such as benzalkonium chloride, triclosan, or methylparaben.
That means that ratings are not permanent, so check back often. And I say this without taking away anything from the important work the EWG cosmetics database is doing – I have a lot of respect for them and their opinions, as I am sure you do, too, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
Therefore, when I rate the products containing these ingredients, I take into consideration many scientific and regulatory sources rather than relying on the ratings of the Skin Deep Database.
The EWG rating system does not distinguish between organic and nonorganic ingredients
The Skin Deep Database treats certified organic ingredients in the same way as those that are conventionally grown. I choose to rank organic ingredients better. If a rating system does not identify products by the difference between organic and non-organic ingredients, it gives the same rating to both categories. However, there is a difference between them.
Thus, non-organic ingredients may have pesticide residue whereas organic ingredients should have none. In addition, non-organic extracts and oils may have contaminants associated with their extraction as well as inferior supporting ingredients such as solvents and preservatives. Thus, I believe this fact should affect the safety of ingredients. Therefore, in my rating lists, I differentiate between organic and non-organic plant oils and extracts.
The EWG Verified Program Accepts Phenoxyethanol
Because the EWG cosmetics database verifies products that contain phenoxyethanol, I do not consider it the ultimate judge of product safety. In other words, “EWG verified” does not automatically mean “safe” for everyone.
Although I call phenoxyethanol a “middle-of-the-road” preservative because it is not the worst one, I prefer not to recommend or use products with this ingredient. Hence, you will see that reflected in my product rating lists. You can find out why I feel this way about it in my post called Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care.
The lowest EWG Skin Deep hazard may not reflect ingredient Safety
If a product ingredient in the Skin Deep Database has a hazard score of 1, it does not mean it is safe.
For instance, the EWG cosmetics database issues every ingredient a hazard score on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is the safest. However, if scientists have not studied an ingredient for safety yet, the EWG database assigns it a rating of 1 anyway. Although I don’t know this for certain, my husband, who is an attorney, theorizes that this may be to limit the EWG’s liability to manufacturers for defamation. My approach is different, for the reasons below. I develop my opinions based on the availability of data from various sources around the world. I ask two questions: (1) how much information is available, and (2) what does the information say about the ingredient?
Therefore, it is important to look for data availability on the Skin Deep Database, which is displayed underneath the rating, indicating “no data,” “limited data,” “fair data,” or “robust data.” So, when I rate ingredients for my rating lists, I take the data availability into account. Hence, my rating can differ from that of EWG cosmetics database.
For instance, the EWG rates 2,6-diaminopyridine, an oxidative colorant used in permanent hair dyes, at 1 with limited data. However, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) has classified it as an extreme sensitizer. That means it can cause a severe allergic reaction in tiny concentrations even if you have previously used it without any problem. In my Permanent Hair Color Rating List, I rely on the EU SCCS reports, not the EWG, to compare the ingredients of hair colors for safety to deliver more accurate and actionable information to you.
The Skin Deep database rating scale has limitations
The EWG cosmetics database rates beauty products on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being innocuous to 10 being the most toxic. While some products may have the same final rating, they might not be the same in terms of toxicity. So, how can you determine which products are safe?
it is important to look beyond the final product rating at the ratings of each ingredient in the product.
I have some examples of why you should always check the ratings of the ingredients, as opposed to just paying attention to the final rating for a product.
But before I give you the examples, it’s important to understand what “EWG Verified” means. The EWG cosmetics database has a process whereby a product manufacturer can submit (for a fee) a product that will be reviewed by the EWG. If it meets EWG’s standards, it will verify that the product is, in its opinion, safe for use.
Example 1: Dimethicone
As an ingredient, the rating of dimethicone is 2-4, but in products that are not EWG Verified, dimethicone gets a rating of 4.
Crunchi Beautifully Flawless Foundation recently received an EWG Verified rating of 4 (it used to be 3, with the same ingredients). When you look at the ratings of individual ingredients, you see only one ingredient that got a rating of 4 – dimethicone. However, dimethicone, a necessary ingredient in well-performing makeup, is approved and accepted in the products that are “EWG Verified.”
My other favorite liquid foundation by Beautycounter has dimethicone, too, and EWG does not flag it anymore. To learn more about this common ingredient, read my blog post about dimethicone here.
In other words, the EWG is not always consistent with its treatment of products and ingredients, and this can distort its ratings. (For my rating lists, I first develop a mathematical algorithm which is then applied to each product across the board, so as to remain as consistent and objective as possible. I explain how I developed the algorithm in the e-book itself, and then set forth the results. Sometimes, even I am surprised by the results.)
Another example is how the EWG cosmetics database treats iron oxides. Iron oxides are necessary and the safest choice for pigments in clean makeup products. Without them, it is impossible to create clean makeup because the alternative is petroleum-based dyes/pigments, which I don’t recommend.
In non-EWG Verified products, iron oxides rate 3, but they are accepted in the paid EWG Verified.
Example 2: Sodium Hydroxide
Sodium hydroxide is used in very small amounts to adjust the pH of a product to make it non-irritating and make it safer. In non-verified products, it gets a rating of 4, whereas in the EWG Verified products, it is accepted and rated more favorably.
As you can see, the EWG Verified products look much safer whereas they might not be safer than non-verified products. Therefore, it is important to look beyond the final product rating as well as the ratings of each ingredient in the product. The truth is not every company can afford or believes that it is beneficial to pay hefty fees for the EWG Verified program. And those companies’ products might not look as good in the free EWG Skin Deep Database.
How I use Skin Deep database effectively
When I rate products or ingredients, I use the EWG cosmetics database as one of my sources of information. But it is not the only one and not the main one. Here are the steps I take to utilize this resource efficiently.
Confirming product ingredients
The first step to understanding a product rating in the EWG cosmetics database is to confirm that its ingredients are current. Indeed, in all my years of research, I have seen quite a few manufacturers change their product formulations. (That is why I verify the ingredients of products on my Baby Wipes Rating List, Diaper Rating List, and Permanent Hair Color Rating List at least once a year.)
As a result, the cosmetics database may not reflect the latest information. Amazon or other re-sellers may not have the latest updated information, either. So, I always check with the manufacturer directly.
Verifying ingredient safety
I take into consideration the EWG rating, but I also read credible sources of information (listed here). Sometimes, the Skin Deep Database either does not include the latest information or reflects inaccurate information. For example, the EWG cosmetics database rated cocamidopropyl betaine at 1-5, whereas cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, its very close relative that has the same impurities as cocamidopropyl betaine, is rated 1 with limited data. I learned that information by reading Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel reports. To learn more about these two ingredients, read my blog post about cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine safety.
I also look into how the ingredient is derived. Thus, if it is a natural ingredient and certified to the ECOCERT standard, chances are it is not too bad.
Next, I look for safer alternatives. If there is no safety data in the EWG cosmetics database or other sources, but the ingredient is indispensable, I make a judgment call as to whether to use and recommend the product.
When I do not find enough information to make me comfortable, I avoid the product, if possible. I say “if possible” because not using a particular product can be stressful, and stress is the biggest toxin.
Taking into consideration ingredient amounts
Unless it is an EWG-verified product, the Skin Deep Database hazard scores of ingredients do not reflect their amounts.
While we might not know the exact amounts used (sometimes even small amounts may be dangerous), there are some relatively straightforward adjustments I make. For instance, citric acid may burn the skin if applied directly to the skin. However, often it is used in tiny amounts, just enough to adjust the product’s pH. So, I reflect that in my rating lists.
The same goes for essential oils. I think the safety of essential oils depends on their concentration. In bigger quantities, they can be allergens. However, in a highly diluted form, they can have powerful benefits for the skin.
Understanding ingredient derivation
Furthermore, I study not only the function but also the derivation process of the ingredients in the EWG cosmetics database. Is the ingredient natural or synthetic? Was it organically grown? (I choose organic because I support organic farming.)
To qualify as natural, the ingredient must be derived from a natural source. However, a derivation from a natural source is not enough for an ingredient to be truly natural. Sometimes a manufacturer starts with a natural ingredient (e.g., coconut oil) but then adds toxic chemicals. Consequently, it makes the chemical structure of the ingredient very different from that of the source. Besides, it must be derived without the use of solvents or chemicals that may cause residue in the final product.
Making sense of ingredients
To begin with, the Skin Deep Database rates products based on the list of ingredients provided by manufacturers. Because I have looked at countless products and worked with companies to help them develop new products or reformulate their existing products, I have developed an understanding about the way many products are made. Often, I can spot missing or hidden ingredients.
For example, are there preservatives on the list of ingredients for a cosmetic product that lists water as an ingredient? If not, either the company does not disclose preservatives, or it does not use antimicrobial preservatives. The latter would be very concerning because an insufficient preservation system can lead to the growth of bacteria, which can be very harmful, especially to newborn babies or people with compromised immune systems. You can read more about that in my post about WaterWipes baby wipes. The post describes what happened to newborn babies when they were exposed to bacteria in personal care products.
Getting to know the manufacturer and the product
Despite its favorable rating in the EWG cosmetics database, I like to get to know both the product and the manufacturer. While I cannot test products for toxic chemicals, I have my own procedure for evaluating manufacturers.
First, I examine the product packaging. When the manufacturer makes product claims that they use organic ingredients but wraps the products in unnecessary layers of plastic, I find it hard to trust them wholeheartedly. This detail may affect my rating of the product and differ from that of Skin Deep Database.
Second, I pay attention to the labels. Are they confusing and inaccurate? Does a business have sufficient control over what goes into its products? Or does it simply slap its label on a product that was manufactured by someone else? (This happens a lot!)
Third, I look at the quality of the product. Is it well-made or put together in a hurry? How do I feel after using this product over the long term?
Next, I evaluate my communication with the manufacturer. Does the manufacturer answer my questions patiently or do they get defensive and become evasive?
Thus, to me, everything matters.
Conclusion about Skin Deep database
In conclusion, the EWG cosmetics database is a good starting point for finding safe products. However, accurate safety evaluation calls for more work and time.
I have tried to reach out to the EWG cosmetics database customer service with some questions about their ratings, but I have never received a response. It is my understanding that they do not have funds for customer service, and I get that, speaking from personal experience.
However, when I finally reached Nneka Leiba, an EWG specialist, with the help of Ken Cook, the founder of EWG, she simply recommended that I try my search again, which was not super helpful. Again, it’s a big organization that adds a great deal of sunlight to the often murky world of skincare products. But I would not consider it to be the be-all and end-all as to the safety of products or ingredients. I don’t even consider my opinions to be that, either. Rather, we are both doing the best we can, given the limitations we face, to bring you as much information as we can so you can make the right choices for you and your family.
I hope you have found this post helpful in understanding why my ratings are often different from those of the EWG cosmetics database.
For more ways I may be of service, check out our unique and easy Savvy Consumer Superpower Method to gauge products’ safety in a matter of seconds. In addition, browse the Shop section of my website for healthy products. Finally, if you need to identify products that are safe for you, take advantage of our popular Product Ingredient Review by Email service.
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I recently noticed an inconsistency when looking up an ingredient on the EWG database. When you look up “anthemis nobilis” (chamomile), for example, it lists it as both 0 and 4. As such, some of the products with this ingredient have very different ratings. This made me think twice about just taking the ratings at face value. Your tips are super helpful!
I recently have become extremely disappointed with the EWG certified products regarding Everyone for Everybody and Herbal Essence. I thought I could rely on the EWG organization to be forthcoming on trustworthy products. I bought several product for my family. Only to find out this past weekend all certified products have phenoxyethanol!! At a lost for words and really discouraged. Not to mention wasted a lot of money.
Hi, Anneliese: I know it is frustrating. That’s why I created the Savvy Consumer Circle to help people like to make an informed decision with ease and stop wasting money. I think you will benefit from it a ton! I hope to talk to you there. You can check it out here: https://ireadlabelsforyou.teachable.com/p/savvy-consumer-circle ~Irina
My husband and I are in the food manufacturing business. We also had this issue when the “heart healthy” label came out. We wanted to put that logo on our label to show that our product was heart healthy but being a small manufacturer we didn’t have the $$$$$. To pay the very large fee. So the question is, do cosmetics companies have to pay to show they are EWG friendly (of course they do), so it’s all a money making deal in the end for this “non-profit” company.