Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Question: Cosmetics Info vs. EWG

Cordy wrote this comment in this postHi Susan, I get what you're saying (and would tend to agree with you that there's a lot of "greenwashing" out there, or pseudo-science) but I have a question: 
The website you linked to is funded by cosmetics companies. Now, that may not mean that there's a conflict of interest there, BUT, and for me this is a pretty big "but", what do you do when a place like contradicts information on, say, the Skin Deep database? Sometimes the EWG data can seem overblown ("In rat studies, this ingredient did bad things when the rats were forced to eat hundreds of pounds of it!") but on the other hand, to be honest, takes a very "there can be no possible downside" approach... and is funded by people who want me to buy their products, which isn't the case for SkinDeep. 

So what's your approach here? Thanks!

From their "about us" page: is an information Web site that includes factual, scientific information on ingredients most commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products in the United States. The Personal Care Products Council (the Council) and its member companies sponsor this Web site to provide consumers with easily accessible comprehensive safety information on cosmetics and personal care products and to help consumers make informed purchases.

Thanks, Cordy. I am aware that the page is funded by companies that also make products, and I use them as my starting point for research, not as all the information I might find. They have some great resources - such as the safe as used chart - that I highly recommend. What I like about them is that they are coming from a position of science, and that's what matters to me.

To answer your question: What do I do when the information on contradicts the information on Skin Deep? I consider what has to say and continue on my merry way to do more research! I never ever trust the opinion or information from one source. I always go out and find another source to back it up, and often times three or four sources.

I don't consult Skin Deep because I don't trust them. I've written about them before, but my main concerns are the data gaps and the use of old studies to support their positions. (This is an older post on much-maligned ingredients that includes my position on the EWG and why I feel this way.) They might not have a specific product to sell, but they have an idea to sell and a cause they need to fund.

This is a perfect illustration of why I don't trust the Skin Deep Database. If you have a few minutes today, please read this post at LisaLise - Natural Skin Care (Hi Lise!), then this post at Truth or Scare, then this entry at Skin Deep on polyparaben. This ingredient doesn't exist, yet they managed to find some studies that make it seem that they've done their homework. How can you find data to support a position about an ingredient that doesn't exist? 

I'd like to share with you an example of why I don't trust the EWG or Skin Deep.

I found this section on the Skin Deep Database, a section that claims to help you "Lather up with better brands. Skip the fragrances and cancer-causing contaminants." There's a list of all kinds of shampoos from various companies with a rating (generally 0), then a claim as to how much data they have on the product (low to limited in the first eight pages). What is their definition of data? "Data availability rating: the scope of ingredient safety data contained in Skin Deep, and the number of studies available in the open scientific literature." So my guess is that someone is looking through the ingredient lists and comparing those lists to the Skin Deep's database on what allegedly causes cancer?

What is the definition of fragrance? I would consider an essential oil a fragrance, yet almost every product in this section claiming "skip the fragrances" I chose at random in the first eight pages had some essential oil in it! Anyone who knows essential oils knows they can cause all kinds of wonderful effects, so to ignore said effects on - say - a pregnant or breastfeeding woman, an ill person, a small child, and so on is foolhardy at best!

This is what upsets me so much. The fear mongering. "Skip the fragrances and cancer-causing contaminants"? The picking and choosing of what words mean - fragrance not meaning essential oils. The use of dubious data or the huge data gaps. I like my science the way I like my skating rinks - hard and transparent. I get neither from EWG or Skin Deep.

I have no vested interest in any group or company. No one pays me to write anything on this blog - I don't take advertising or sponsorship - and I am beholden to no one, except you, my wonderful readers! This doesn't make me more right or more wrong than anyone else, but it does mean that I can write what I want and damn the consequences!

I don't care if you use "all natural", organic, vegan, non-vegan, carnivorous, minimally processed, maximally processed, hypoallergenic, or any other ingredients - all I care about is providing information and gentle prodding to help you to make a safe, well preserved product that makes you or someone you love happy! If you've been a reader for a while, you'll know that I do care about accurate information, which is why I continually suggest that you, my wonderful readers, learn to research the information from various sources.

I think what frustrates me is the idea that organic = awesome, not organic = awful. There really is no evidence that organic ingredients in our products are better than non-organic ingredients (I mean overall - we might find some evidence that an organic oil contains more of something than the non-organic version, but there's no evidence that shows organic products perform better, offer more moisturizing or conditioning, or improve the condition of our skin through objective measurements).

But that's just my opinion! What do you think? (Everyone can join in the conversation! Feel free to disagree, debate, and argue without the ad hominem attacks or insults I've seen on other sites! No meanies allowed at Point of Interest!)

And in case you're wondering why this post is illustrated with a picture of my adorable Blondie-dog trying to steal eggs from a basket, it's because I figure we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket by trusting one website? Because greenwashing is like having a dog lick your eggs before you package them - they get clean, but how clean are they really? Because life is like a basket of eggs. You don't know what you're going to get until you bite into one and find out they're all eggs? I'm sorry. I can't make anything up! She's just so cute and I liked the picture!


Lise M Andersen said...

Oh thank goodness for the voice of reason! THANK YOU for this posting-- it can't be said enough!! You go girl!!

mamafrog said...

I definitely agree--always check your sources several times over. Even when I'm researching other things I go look for several sources or opinions. The end result is still mine--but I'm satisfied about the amount of research that backs it up.

melian1 said...


Kathy said...

I love the "carnivorous" ingredients ...hmmm...let me see if I have any flesh eating extracts in my cupboards! Agree with Lisa - a voice of reason.

C.E. said...

"I like my science the way I like my skating rinks - hard and transparent." What an awesome line!

I would also recommend the person who wrote in this question browse the archives of Truth or Scare. They have plenty of evidence that EWG have their own vested interests.

I'm really glad people are at least asking questions like this, but I just wish more people would move on from thinking EWG offers worthwhile information at all. It is unscientific and alarmist, but there seems to be the misconception that they offer a perspective that is more fine-tuned to the concerns of health and the environment. That is simply untrue.

I think we have a responsibility to get out of this us-vs-them mentality, and start to pursue more nuanced ways of taking in information. Just because an organisation has 'environmental' in its name, doesn't mean they're the good guys. Just because a piece of scientific information comes from the cosmetics industry, doesn't mean it's worthless or untrustworthy.

Robert said...

Susan , my congratulations for your wonderful long-term blog about the cosmetic industry and the wide scope of important topics you cover.
As a professional cosmetic formulator, the Skin Deep database is an important and influential reference site. But, quite honestly, we use it more for marketing purposes rather than as a primary source of scientific ingredient information. To us, the site represents a huge population demographic of similar thinking ‘health-conscious’ consumers whose voice should be taken into consideration when choosing ingredients for commercial products.
For example, it is hard to say whether the parabens are harmful or not as there are conflicting studies , but we have not used a paraben in a cosmetic product in the past three years because a great many consumers won’t purchase a product which contains parabens. It is also hard to say with any certainty whether a product containing an organically certified version of chamomile extract performs better or is safer than the standard version of chamomile extract but the product containing the organic version will certainly sell better.
The decision of which ingredients to include in a commercial product is a balance between science and marketing. For this reason, we review many references before finalizing our ingredient choices as all are useful and important in their own way.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I had way too much fun reading the arguments in the comment section of the PCT link, I almost forgot why I followed the link. If you didn't read the comments, its worth the second read.

Neil said...

In the US, Whole Foods Market has published their "Premium Body Care™ Quality Standards" ( To me, their list of "unacceptable ingredients" seems to mirror a lot of what's on the EWG site, which I find troubling since they are a pretty influential grocery store chain.

I think Robert makes a really valid point regarding balancing science and marketing, and I think that WFM's list also reflects much of this thinking: because their eco-conscious consumers probably wouldn't buy products with these ingredients, they simply preclude them in the first place.

I've tried some of these "premium body care" products, and must say for the most part I'm not impressed.

Susan and others- any thoughts on the list and on the fact that a major retail outlet has established these "standards"?

Robert said...

I am really glad Neil brought up this Whole Foods list of ‘unacceptable ingredients’. While I could comment at length on the particular ingredients which are and are not on the list, in the end it is only a game. If a manufacturer wishes to get a product listed within Whole Foods this list must diligently be followed.

With the enormous spectrum of ingredients available it is fairly easy to formulate good products which do not include any of the ingredients on the ‘unacceptable’ list. Following this list to the letter will not necessarily make the resulting products any better, worse, greener, safer or more natural than any other products. While the list is surely well intentioned, we consider this to be mainly a marketing list for those companies who which to market their products within the Whole Foods chain (which has great distribution).

Randi said...

Wow! How did I miss this post? I am constantly trying to get people to do their research and not take everything said by David Suzuki, Skin Deep, etc as gospel. The half truths drive me insane! Marketplace just about made me smash a vase through my TV (you know the episode)... I actually found SkinDeep refer to a study about a product that they interpreted backwards... the positive outcome in the experiment was a good thing! Yet their analysis said it was the reverse. David Suzuki has many valid points about many things, but he twists things to suit him and only speaks half truths. If people were to investigate the whole situation, they might find that one sentence about a particular ingredient is not an explanation. Yet people continue to jump on the bandwagon. If I don't like an ingredient, I say why I personally do not after doing my research. My personal rules of thumb for researching a product or ingredient are:
(1) anything I read about a product has to have both the positives and the negatives... (let's face it, all ingredients have both positives and negatives) and if it only states one side it is exactly that... one sided and biased.
(2) I do not start on the first page of my Google search, I find that the extremists and radicalists get those positions, knocking the good information out of site, for the most part. I start on page 2 and then read.
(3) I check to see who that site is affiliated with. It sometimes puts the reason for the content into perspective.

Since I found the Cosmetic Ingredient Review site I have been a little more confident in giving out safety information about a product.

SO thank you for this post Susan! Many of us appreciate it!

Cari said...

Hi Susan,
I've stumbled into your world, (this page), just now after following an exhaustive search for the "truth", as can be found thru the touches on my iPad, about ingredients in sunscreen. The "truth", of course, being quoted by so many sources from EWG. And I was getting sleepier and sleepier....... under their spell. Suddenly I remembered who I was....that girl who ALSO researches multiple sources, front and back...realizes there are 2 sides to every story, %s and ratios.......

I feel SOOOOOO good here!!!!! And can't wait to read back posts and look forward to new!