The Skin Deep Cosmetics Database has rated over 73,000 products and is a good way to estimate the safety of products you are considering buying.
While the Skin Deep Database is a great resource, it has its limitations. This post is not about criticizing the Skin Deep database, but about sharing with you how you can use it more accurately and efficiently.
Verification of product ingredients
The first step to understanding a product rating in the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is to make sure that the ingredients of a product are current. Sometimes a product manufacturer changes its product formulations. (That’s why I verify the ingredients of products included in my Baby Wipes Rating List, Diaper Rating List, Permanent Hair Color Rating List, Shampoo Rating List, and Body Lotion Rating List, at least annually.) Thus, the Skin Deep database might not reflect the latest information.
By the way, Amazon or other re-sellers might not have the latest updated information, either. I always check with the manufacturer directly.
A cosmetic database hazard score of “1” does not necessarily mean the ingredient is safe
If a product ingredient has a hazard score of 1, it does not mean that it is safe. Every ingredient the Skin Deep Database reviews is issued a hazard score on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is the safest. However, if scientists have not sufficiently studied an ingredient for safety, the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database assigns it a rating of 1 anyway. Thus, it is important to look for data availability, which is displayed underneath the rating. The cosmetic ingredient database will indicate that there is no data, limited data, fair data, or robust data.
If the EWG’s cosmetic ingredient database indicates that there is no data available, here is what I do.
I look at whether the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel reviewed the safety data on the ingredient. Sometimes, the Skin Deep database does not include the fact that the CIR Panel issued a report. You can find and read the CIR reports here. For example, this popular ingredient in safer shampoos did not reflect the latest information as published in its CIR report. You can read more about that in my latest post called Is Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine Safe?
In addition to the CIR reports, I look for independent medical studies in the scientific journals.
I also look into how the ingredient is derived. If it is a natural ingredient, chances are that it is not too bad, even in the absence of safety information.
And lastly, I look into whether there are safer alternatives. If there is no safety data, and the ingredient is absolutely needed, I make my decision as to whether to use and recommend the product.
If 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 hazard scores of ingredients do not take into consideration their amounts. It simply flags them in the presence of information on toxicity.
While we might not know the exact amounts used (sometimes even small amounts might 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.
Understanding the ingredient’s derivation
I also do my best to understand not only the function but also the derivation process of the ingredients of products I recommend. Is the ingredient natural or synthetic?
To qualify as natural, the first requirement is that the ingredient has to be derived from a natural source. (Was the natural source organically grown? I choose organic because I support organic farming.) 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, which makes the ingredient chemically very different from the source. The ingredient has to be derived without the use of solvents or chemicals that may leave residue in the final product.
As an example, you can read more about this popular shampoo ingredient that is derived from coconut oil but with chemicals that may leave potentially harmful residue.
Confirming that the listed ingredients make sense
The Skin Deep database rates products based on the ingredients provided by manufacturers. Because I have looked at countless product labels, I have developed an understanding of how products are made. Often, I am able to spot missing or hidden ingredients. For example, are the preservatives listed? Some companies do not like to list preservatives, as they believe they won’t be able to market their products successfully. Sometimes preservatives are not listed; sometimes they are missing altogether. I also look at whether a sufficient preservation system is used. Sadly, to avoid synthetic ingredients, companies might end up selling products potentially contaminated with bacteria and mold.
Getting to know the manufacturer and product
It is important for me to become familiar with the product in question, as well as the manufacturer. While I do not have the ability to test products for toxic chemicals, I have my own procedure for evaluating a product.
I begin my critical judgment of a product by examining its packaging. When the manufacturer claims to use organic ingredients but wraps its products in unnecessary layers of plastic, I find it hard to trust the manufacturer.
The way labels are written matters, too. Are the labels confusing and inaccurate? Does a business have sufficient control over what goes into their products, or is it simply slapping its label on something that was manufactured by someone else? Is the product well made or put together in a hurry? Does a manufacturer answer my questions patiently or get defensive and become evasive? How do I feel after using the product over the long-term? Everything matters.
Limited rating scale in the Skin Deep database
The Skin Deep database rates products on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being innocuous to 10 being the most toxic. So, while a number of products may have the same rating, they might not be the same in terms of toxicity. Which ones are safer? When I created my baby wipes rating list in the order of least toxic to most toxic, I scrutinized every ingredient to come up with an index that, in my opinion, helps to compare products to each other better.
Essential oils and European labeling requirements
Sometimes the way a company discloses its ingredients may work against the company. Here is an example. Some Dr. Hauschka products are rated 6 in the Skin Deep database, and here is why. The only ingredients that downgraded Dr. Hauschka mascara’s rating are fragrance (parfum), citronellol, geraniol, and linalool (source). Because Dr. Hauschka is a European company, it is required to adhere to the European labeling rules, which require disclosure of the word “fragrance”, regardless of whether the fragrance is synthetic or comes from natural plant-based ingredients. To my knowledge, Dr. Hauschka does not use synthetic fragrances in any of its products; hence, they meet rigorous natural standards set by the European organization called Natrue.
As for citronellol, geraniol, and linalool, they are not separate ingredients or chemical additives but rather are part of the essential oils used in the product. Again, per European requirements, they have to be listed separately from the essential oils they are a part of, probably because some people have allergies to them. In fact, citronellol and geraniol are major of components of rosa damascena flower oil, which is rated only 1 in the Skin Deep database, while citronellol and geraniol are rated 5 and 7 respectively. Thus, it appears that Dr. Hauschka’s rating of 6 in the Skin Deep database is due in large part to the fact that it has to list its ingredients to much stricter standards than those to which its U.S. counterparts are subject.
Conclusion about the Skin Deep database
While the Skin Deep database is a great starting point for finding safe products, there is more work to be done to evaluate products for safety accurately.
I completely understand that evaluating products takes a lot of time; time that 99% of you do not have. I do this for a living every day and save you a lot of time. For example, I developed a super easy method to look at a product and know right away whether it is one of the toxic ones. To learn more about that, please visit here.
Your Superpower To Read Ingredients
Imagine looking at the ingredients of any shampoo, conditioner, lotion, or cream and in a matter of seconds being able to decide if it is safe to use!
With this easy unprecendented method, you will be able to spot potentially harmful personal care or skincare products that may cause irritation, an allergic reaction, or increase the risk of endocrine disruption or cancer.