We've had many people ask us about the Environmental Working Group. We strongly support and commend the Environmental Working Group on their efforts to create awareness around skin care ingredients and lobby for change. We believe this effort is much needed here in the US to help women and men become more aware of what ingredients are going into their bodies.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database is a site dedicated to providing consumers with information on the safety of cosmetic and personal care products. You can search a product or ingredient and a safety report is generated, including a rating system which ranks products and ingredients with a health score from 0 — 10, 0 being safest.
While the EWG's Skin Deep Database does provide valuable research into toxic ingredients, there are flaws in this rating system, often providing consumers with inadequate or incorrect information on brands, products and ingredients.
The ingredients supplied are voluntary, via an online submission form. Thus it relies on the individual submitting the products to ensure that all the ingredients and percentages have been entered correctly and completely. The minimum percentage value is 1% when many ingredients, especially hazardous ones, can be in quantities much lower than 1%. The system also allows the individual to preview the score as these entries are made.
Skin Deep's rating system does not distinguish between a botanical ingredient that is free from toxic ingredients, due to manufacturing or processing, and those that are contaminated. Nor do they differentiate between organic and natural, cosmetic and food-grade, natural and synthetic ingredients. This all makes a very big difference in determining a product's safety.
As for the Hazard Scores of individual ingredients, its quite confusing. "Fragrance" is a term required by labeling laws to indicate a product has one or more ingredients that impart a scent. This term allows manufacturers to keep the composition of their "signature scents" a secret, preventing other firms from copying it. It does allow synthetic and harmful ingredients to be hidden behind this term. This ingredient listing is given a score by EWG of 8. Understandably so for synthetic fragrances due to the likely present of phthalates in the scent formulation. However, "Fragrance" for many natural products are from natural essential oils. EWG does not make a distinction between Fragrance comprised of essential oils and Fragrance where the composition is synthetic. By listing Fragrance, even when used in minute amounts, any natural products with essential oils labelled under INCI or CTFA guidelines are given the Hazard Score of 8.
An ingredient named eugenol is extracted from clove oil, used for hundreds of years as a flavor agent, antiseptic, and for medical purposes. In fact, up to 90% of clove oil is made up of Eugenol. Alternately, EUGENIA CARYOPHYLLUS (CLOVE) ESSENTIAL OIL is given a hazard score of only 5. In the Eugenia page, it lists the goverment studies where this ingredient is known as EUGENOL. According to Wikipedia, clove is known by the scientific name of Syzygium Aromaticum and Eugenia Caryophyllata is a synonym. Interestingly, Syzygium Aromatica is listed in Skin Deep with a Hazard Rating of 0. Products listing Syzygium on SkinDeep have a 0(good) Hazard Rating. You can see how researching the SkinDeep database can enable one to create an ingredient listing optimized for good Hazard Ratings that otherwise, for a very similar formulation, might have received a score of 6 or more.
Eugenol, along with other essential oils in natural products is at <1% of the product composition. Yet Eugenol has a Hazard Ranking of 7, whereas an ingredient like propylparaben that is something we DON'T want in our cosmetics, gets a rating of 4. Utilized usually in small amounts for scent or product preservation — eugenol, citral, lemonene, coumarin and other natural plant extracts — it is hard to understand how these Hazard Ranking are so high and have such a negative impact on the overall natural product hazard score.
As a consequence, manufacturers of safe, non-toxic products may carry higher (negative) rankings than they should due to the wording of an ingredient label or insufficient information on a particular ingredient used. From our subjective observation, European natural companies seem to suffer more. Dr. Hauschka, Weleda & Lavera, all European natural product companies with long histories of developing safe, natural products, all have high Hazard Rankings similar to those of mainstream brands using synthetic ingredients. This is despite the fact they rank in the top three in most of Oeko-Test's independant lab tests for the individual products and in the top three out of 36 natural and mainstream manufacturers reviewed for ingredient safety.
A case in point: Sunscreen lotions chock full of ingredients with hazard scores ranging from 0 thru 9 are given overall rankings of 3, while a Dr. Hauschka all natural sunscreen lotion with 1 ingredient ranking 8 (Fragrance — from essential oils), is ranked 5 overall. Quite confusing and certainly does not help the cause of companies that are trying to look out for public safety.
Makers of products containing harmful chemicals can actually be rated as very safe (even at a 0 risk) because the submissions are taken at face value. Some may be given the same ranking as a truly nontoxic product because they use a minuscule amount of an all natural plant derived ingredient. We are not aware of any independent lab tests to verify the true composition of submitted products, unlike the results given by Oeko-Test magazine.
At this moment, even FDA regulations do not require full and complete disclosure of all ingredients in skin care or cosmetics, nor do they govern the issue of contaminants that may find their way into the product. For example, in September of 2009, the FDA released their own study that found lead in all 20 lipsticks they tested. Also, phthalates often do not show up on the ingredient list because it is lumped in with many other synthetic ingredients under the term "Fragrance" which we discussed earlier. Also in the US, FDA rules state that "Trace ingredients" do not need to be listed if a substance is considered "an incidental additive and has no function or technical effect" in the finished product. For instance, sulfites are considered to be incidental only if present at less than 10 ppm. This is not the case in INCI.
A global safety rating system for cosmetic and personal care products on a submission basis is highly complex and cannot be relied upon without careful scrutiny. At this time Skin Deep is best used as an instrument to help guide you toward products that are less hazardous. But the bottom line is not only READ THE LABELS, but also RESEARCH THE COMPANY. Find out more about the company who's brand you are purchasing — what is their commitment to product safety, how long have they been honoring this commitment?