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 EWG cosmetics database is a great resource that has rated over 73,000 products. 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 cosmetics database without getting potentially misleading information.
Why my product ratings differ from those of the Skin Deep database
To begin with, the Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a US non-profit organization. It is dedicated to protecting human health and the environment and 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 emphasize is that the EWG database ratings are a reflection of an opinion, not the indisputable truth.
In other words, they are a result of interpretation 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 is different, and I believe it is ok, especially when you can back it up.
Therefore, a product rating should first and foremost 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 database forms its opinions and make your own opinion. This is what I do before making my final judgement about an ingredient.
In my experience, there have been instances when I did not see sufficient reasoning of the EWG rating in the referenced sources. For example, the EWG states that the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List has classified rose hip oil as expected to be toxic and harmful. So, I have searched the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List, but found no evidence of that.
The Skin Deep database changes its ratings
Another point I consider worth mentioning 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). Now, however, Methylchloroisothiazolinone has a rating of 2-5 and Benzisothiazolinone has a rating of 3-6.
Another example is Citrus Paradisi (Grapefruit) Seed Extract that the EWG used to rate 6. Now, Citrus Paradisi has a rating of 1-3 depending on the use.
As far as I know, the scientific data on the toxicity of these ingredients have 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.
It seems that the ratings seem to be getting more industry friendly. And I say this without taking away anything from the important work the EWG is doing – I have a lot of respect for them and for 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 their health impact rather than rely solely on the new ratings of the Skin Deep database.
The EWG rating system does not distinguish between organic and nonorganic ingredients
If the rating system does not differentiate 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. And 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 cosmetics database accepts phenoxyethanol
Because the EWG 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.”
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 Phenoxyethanol in Skin Care.
The lowest EWG Skin Deep hazard may not reflect the safety of the ingredient
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 cosmetic 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. Therefore, it is important to look for data availability, 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 differs from that of the EWG.
For instance, the EWG rates 3-nitro-p-hydroxyethylaminophenol, an oxidative colorant used in permanent hair dyes, between 1 and 4. 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 used it before 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 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 rating, they might not be the same in terms of toxicity. So, how to determine which ones are safer?
Moreover, the number that represents the EWG final rating of the product does not always represent the simple mean of all the included ingredients. Hence, it is not always clear where the final product rating comes from. For example, Skin Essence Organics Rosehip Seed Oil has only one ingredient, Rosa Rubiginosa Seed Oil, which the EWG rates at 3. But the final rating of the product is 1.
Therefore, it is important to look beyond the final product rating at the ratings of each ingredient in the product.
By the way, in my rating lists, I created a methodology that will only very rarely result in the exact same rating for two different products. When I organize ingredients in my rating lists, I scrutinize every ingredient. I put them in the order from the least toxic to most toxic to come up with an index. In my opinion, my rating index helps to compare products a little better. Thus, you get not only the lists of products. You also get the rating of each ingredient and the explanation of how the final ratings were calculated.
How I use the 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 the product ingredients
The first step to understanding a product rating in the EWG 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, Permanent Hair Color Rating List, Shampoo Rating List, and Body Lotion Rating List at least once a year.)
As a result, the cosmetics database may not reflect the latest information. As a matter of fact, Amazon or other re-sellers may not have the latest updated information, either. So, I always check with the manufacturer directly.
Verifying the ingredient safety
I take into consideration the EWG rating, but I also read the sources of the information. As you saw in the previous examples, while time-consuming, it is very important to do. Sometimes, the Skin Deep database either does not include the latest information or it reflects inaccurate information.
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 are no safety data in the EWG cosmetics database or other sources, but the ingredient is indispensable, I make a judgement 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 the 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 the ingredient’s 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.
For example, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, a popular shampoo ingredient, is derived from coconut oil. However, the process uses chemicals that may leave potentially harmful residue in the final product.
Making sense of the ingredients
To begin with, the Skin Deep database rates products based on the ingredients provided by manufacturers. Because I have looked at countless products and work with companies to help them develop new products or reformulate their existing products, I have developed an understanding of how 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 causes the growth of bacteria. They 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 product
Despite its favorable rating in the EWG cosmetics database, I like to get to know the product and the manufacturer. While I have no ability to test products for toxic chemicals, I have my own procedure for evaluating them.
First, I examine its packaging. When the manufacturer claims to use organic ingredients but wraps the products in unnecessary layers of plastic, I find it hard to trust him. This detail may affect my rating of the product and differ from that of the 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 their products? Or does it simply slap its label on a product that was manufactured by someone else?
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 the 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 database customer service with the questions I had about their ratings. There was no response. It is my understanding that they do not have funds for customer service. And I can totally relate to that. If I replied to every question I get, I would be doing nothing else but that. So, my apologies if your question did not get answered!
Check out my super easy method to promptly determine whether the products you are considering are safe or toxic. In addition, browse my shop for healthy items and book a consultation with me. Also, join the Savvy Consumer Circle to get more empowered in your healthy living journey.
Your Superpower To Read Ingredients
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