How I Use EWG’s Skin Deep Database

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Last updated on November 28th, 2017

How I Use EWG Skin Deep database

I know that many of you are familiar with the Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and use it to look for safer skin care and personal care products. I use it too. 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 I use it to bring the most accurate information to you.


Verification of product ingredients


The first step to understanding a product rating in the Skin Deep database is to make sure that the ingredients of a product are current. Sometimes a product manufacturer changes its product formulations and the Skin Deep database might not reflect the latest information. By the way, I learned that Amazon or other re-sellers might not have the updated information as well. I always check with the manufacturer directly.


0 Rating is not always safe


If a product ingredient has a rating of 0, it does not mean that it is safe. Every ingredient is rated on scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is the most toxic. However, if an ingredient has not been studied for safety, it receives a rating of 0. It is important to look for the data availability, which is displayed underneath the rating. If an ingredient has no data available, I look for information outside of the Skin Deep database and adjust the rating of 0 accordingly. If I do not find enough information to make me comfortable, I avoid the product, if possible.


Taking into consideration ingredient amounts


The ratings of ingredients do not take into consideration their amounts. It simply flags them in the presence of information on the 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 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, derivation from a natural source is not enough for an ingredient to be 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.


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 how products are made. Often, I am able to spot missing or hidden ingredients. 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 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


The Skin Deep database rates products on a scale from 0, 0 being innocuous to 10, 10 being most toxic. While a number of products have the same rating, they might not be the same on a scale of toxicity. Which ones are safer? When I created a baby wipes rating list in the order of least toxic to most toxic, I scrutinized every ingredient to come up with an index that would help compare products to each other better.


Essential Oils and European Labeling Requirements


Sometimes the way a company discloses its product ingredients, may work against the company.  Here is an example.  Dr. Hauschka mascara is rated 6 in the Skin Deep database but I like it and use it.  And here is why.  The only ingredients that downgraded Dr. Hauschka mascara’s rating are fragrance (parfum), citronellol, geraniol, and linalool. 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. Dr. Hauschka does not use synthetic fragrances in any of its products; hence, they meet rigorous natural standards 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. And again, per European requirements, they have to be listed separately from the essential oils they are 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 Skin Deep database


I hope this blog will help you find safer products. Finding products that won’t harm your health and the environment is a lot of work. It took me a long time to put together a rating list of baby wipes. 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. Subscribe to my blog so we can do it together.


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  1. Feli

    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!

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