Story of Skin Deep

Published: July 2014

It started with a simple question – how many personal care products do people use every day?

It turns out that when Jane Houlihan, then EWG’s vice president of research, asked this question 10 years ago, she was starting a movement that would change the way people view personal care products – a movement that is changing markets and inspiring healthier living.

As a cosmetic industry executive remarked to EWG president Ken Cook, “Before the EWG database [Skin Deep] came along, women thought they were putting on makeup. Now they think they’re putting on chemicals.

Houlihan and EWG’s research team discovered that on average, women and men use nine personal care products every day – usually shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, hair conditioner, lip balm, sunscreen, body lotion and, depending on gender, shaving products or makeup. Parents might rub, spray, or pour some combination of sunscreen, diaper cream, shampoo, lotion, and maybe insect repellant onto a child’s skin.

EWG concluded that people applied an average of 126 unique ingredients on their skin daily. That’s a lot of chemicals. Until EWG’s report, most people had not given the chemicals in their personal care products a second thought, believing that the government was policing their safety. But, as EWG’s reports made clear, they were wrong. The government does not require long-term safety studies or pre-market testing for most of the ingredients in these products.

Moreover, some ingredients had the potential to harm the health of humans and animals.

EWG decided to take on this public health issue. If we are exposing ourselves – and our families – to hundreds of ingredients, don’t we have a right to know what they are and if they are safe?

Yes, we have a right to know.

EWG launched Skin Deep to inform people exactly what was in all those bottles and jars.

“We will rate them all,” Houlihan told Cook.

Ken sat there pondering this notion, nodding slowly – all personal care products on the market? It sounded like a monumental endeavor. But EWG’s research team, spearheaded by EWG senior analyst Sean Gray, who later became known as the “Wizard of Skin Deep,” delivered. The first report rated 7,500 products and almost 7,000 ingredients. Today, Skin Deep rates 70,000 products and almost 11,500 ingredients.

Along the way, EWG learned that nearly 85 percent of the ingredients approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in personal care products had not been evaluated for safety by the agency, the industry’s Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel or any other regulatory body. We knew we had to dig deeper and rely on science to tell this story.

We issued reports on chemicals in cosmetics, such as BeautySecrets and have partnered with organizations like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Since EWG launched Skin Deep in 2004:

  • More sunscreens on the market contain ingredients that protect from damaging UVA radiation. 
  • Some sunscreen brands have removed vitamin A after EWG released findings of a government study that showed that it may speed the development of skin cancer. 

More chemicals used in cosmetics are being assessed for safety. But while the number has certainly decreased over the last decade, there is still a lot of work to get it to where it needs to be – zero.

  1. Federal (In)action
  2. Dibutyl phthalate in Nail Polish: The Beginning
  3. Consumers Demand Change from Companies
  4. Skin Deep goes Mobile: Knowledge at Your Fingertips

Federal (In)action

The law governing the ingredients allowed in personal care products is the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which is only two pages long and has not been updated since 1938. It doesn’t give the FDA enough power to ensure the safety of cosmetics.

According to the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, “a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.” The FDA does no systematic reviews of safety, instead authorizing the cosmetics industry to self-police ingredient safety through its Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel. Over its 36 years, the industry panel has rejected only 11 ingredients as unsafe in cosmetics. By contrast, the European Union has taken action on hundreds of chemicals in cosmetics.

EWG is pressing Congress for reform. EWG’s Skin Deep has helped to educate Americans to demand reform and lawmakers about the need for Congress to take action. Last year, nearly 45,000 people signed EWG’s petition asking Congress to reform cosmetics legislation and pass the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2013, which would give FDA more authority to ensure consumer safety.

Skin Deep has served as a resource for lawmakers working to update cosmetics regulations. It has influenced state policies. The 2005 California Safe Cosmetics Law was the first state statute to attempt to regulate chemicals in cosmetics and requires companies to disclose the presence of chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive harm or developmental toxicity.

In April 2011, EWG released an analysis showing high levels of formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout and other top brands of hair straighteners. EWG published FDA consumer reports of adverse events such as hair loss, scalp burning, corneal abrasions and vomiting. The FDA did not act, but in November 2012, using the 2005 California Safe Cosmetics Law, the California Superior Court in the County of Los Angeles ordered the maker of Brazilian Blowout to stop selling dangerous products in California and prove that its reformulated hair straightener met state air quality standards.

In 2008, the state of Washington approved the Children’s Safe Products Act, which limits the amounts of lead, cadmium and phthalates allowed in children’s products sold in the state. The law requires the state Department of Ecology to develop a list of chemicals of high concern to children that manufacturers must report. Maine adopted a bill in 2008 that identifies chemicals of high concern and requires reporting on usage and replacement with safer alternatives.

Legislators in New York and Minnesota are trying to move legislation to limit or prohibit the use of triclosan. Lawmakers in Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Vermont have introduced legislation this year to disclose and regulate chemicals in cosmetics.

While progress at the state level inspires us, federal action remains essential to protect all Americans from unsafe ingredients in personal care products. To that end, EWG will keep up the fight to transform the marketplace.

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Dibutyl phthalate in Nail Polish: The Beginning

In fall 2000, Houlihan was astounded to learn that when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested 289 people for the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate, it was found in every single person. This was particularly shocking because DBP caused birth defects in lab animals, primarily to male offspring, including testicular atrophy, reduced sperm count and defects in the structure of the penis. Most startling, the most critical population, women of childbearing age, appeared to have the highest level of exposure. The same CDC researchers published more data in October 2000 indicating that DBP exposures for 3 million women of childbearing age might be up to 20 times greater than for the average person in the population.

But how were people being exposed to DBP?

CDC researchers speculated that the cause might be cosmetics and beauty products. EWG searched drugstores and the U.S. patent office for products that contained DBP, finding the chemical was prevalent in nail polishes, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and sunscreen.

In 2000, EWG published Beauty Secrets, detailing likely sources of DBP.

In 2002, EWG, along with other environmental and public health organizations, published Not Too Pretty, which tested 72 name-brand off-the-shelf beauty products for the presence of phthalates. The laboratory found phthalates in 52 products, nearly three-quarters of those tested. Phthalates were found in nine of 14 deodorants, all 17 fragrances, six of seven hair gels, four of seven mousses, 14 of 18 hair sprays, and two of nine hand and body lotions, in concentrations ranging from trace amounts to nearly three percent of the product formulation.

The EWG research team began to look at all personal care product ingredient labels, putting them into spreadsheets and cross-referencing the ingredients with research about the safety of each chemical. The first edition of the Skin Deep Database launched in the summer of 2004.

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Consumers Demand Change from Companies

Companies heard consumer calls for safer products loud and clear. Thanks to Skin Deep, they realized that consumers were no longer in the dark and were questioning ingredients and searching for safer alternatives.

In 2011, Johnson & Johnson said it would remove toxic chemicals from baby products, and in 2012 it agreed to reformulate many of its adult personal care products. It has vowed to remove triclosan; phase out diethyl phthalate, the only phthalate still in use; reduce parabens; and phase out formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in adult products.

More than 29,000 EWG supporters signed a thank-you letter to Johnson & Johnson. Cook and EWG executive director Heather White delivered it last year.

Earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson announced that it had met its goal “to remove formaldehyde-releasing preservatives from baby products and reduce traces of 1,4-dioxane in… baby and adult care products, everywhere around the world.”

The market is gradually responding to the change in consumer demand by altering formulations. New products are appearing that claim to be “paraben-free” or contain “no phthalates.”

New companies

Thanks in part to Skin Deep’s consumer education, young cosmetics companies dedicated to making safer products occupy a growing niche in the marketplace.

“When we make new products, the [Skin Deep] database is always used as a resource to ensure that the ingredients always meet those safety standards as well as our natural and organic quality standards,” says Emily Schwerin-Whyte, director of sales at Badger.

Before Skin Deep, if a company said its products were safe, consumers had no way to check. Skin Deep holds companies accountable for their safety claims. It allows people to see for themselves that a product lives up to its claims.

“Since Beauty Counter’s mission is to get safe products into everyone’s hands, we encourage our consultants, clients and entire community to use the Skin Deep database to learn more about ingredients and products,” says Mia Davis, Head of Health and Safety at Beauty Counter. “We believe everyone has a right to know what’s in his or her products, and that knowledge is power. To that end, Skin Deep is an invaluable tool."

Companies with safer products want to be featured in Skin Deep – because they know consumers use it as a tool to find better options.

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Skin Deep goes Mobile: Knowledge at Your Fingertips

To give shoppers instant access to Skin Deep, last year EWG launched a Skin Deep Mobile App. This free app allows consumers to look up EWG’s rating and product information at the point of sale by scanning barcodes. The app enables consumers to find safer products on the go.

The app saves scanning history and allows users to star their favorite products. It provides consumers with EWG’s top tips, such as the most important chemicals to avoid.

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