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For Consumers, Being Clean Is as Important as Coming Clean

Commentary
Tuesday, March 26, 2019

More than ever, Americans want to know everything about our food, cosmetics, cleaners and other everyday products we bring into our homes.

We want to know what’s in it, why it’s in there, where it’s been and who made it. Mostly we want to be trusted to do our own homework and make our own decisions.

It’s not just consumers who are demanding more transparency. Legislators and regulators are requiring more disclosures and cracking down on misleading claims.

Transparency is sometimes called the must-have ingredient. Study after study shows that consumers will reward brands that play it straight with us and punish those who don’t.

But transparency is not an end in itself. Consumers want to know more because we want to make choices that reflect our values.

We want products that are sustainable and products that are safe. Increasingly, safe means safe from dangerous synthetic chemicals, not just from dangerous organic pathogens. And we are increasingly aware that many of the chemicals used in everyday products are either lightly regulated or not regulated at all.

  • More than 40 nations have restricted or banned more than 1,400 chemicals in cosmetics and other personal care products. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only restricted or banned nine, for safety.
  • More than 2,000 chemicals are directly added to food, but many have been deemed safe by food and chemical companies themselves – not by the FDA.
  • Only two of 16 chemicals in sunscreens have been found safe and effective by the FDA.
  • Roughly two-thirds of pesticides have been approved through “conditional” registrations – that is, without complete health and safety studies.
  • Few of the chemicals in cleaners have been reviewed and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Efforts by Congress to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act have been undermined by the Trump Administration.

Since the government isn’t looking out for us, no wonder we like to do our own homework and make our own decisions.

Here’s what else consumers have figured out. Many of these chemicals are simply unnecessary.

Conventional packaged food can include thousands of chemicals. But fewer than 40 synthetic substances are allowed in organic packaged foods. Organic packaged foods last just as long, taste just as good and look just as appetizing.  

EWG scientists have compiled a list of the “Toxic Twenty” chemicals that should be banned from cosmetics, including formaldehyde, mercury, asbestos and lead. Thankfully, many cosmetics brands already don’t use any of these chemicals. The same is true for cleaning products.

The digital revolution has made it easier than ever for consumers to find the products that reflect their values. In an average week, almost 100,000 people use Skin Deep®, EWG’s free online guide to 70,000 cosmetics and other personal care products.

Twenty-six million people visit EWG’s website annually, consulting not only Skin Deep, but also our Guide to Sunscreens, or our guides to packaged foods and cleaners. Millions more connect with EWG through social media, email or our Healthy Living App, which puts our ratings for more than 120,000 products in the palm of your hand. 

Digital tools have not only changed the way we shop. They have also changed our expectations about access to information. We want more information about our everyday products, not less. We may not always use that information to make choices, but we expect it to be available.

Many companies are reformulating products away from chemicals of concern. More than 100 companies are working with EWG right now to do so. And many are making sweeping disclosure commitments that will raise the bar for the rest of their industry.

Our health, and the health of our families, will always be our top priority.

But increasingly, consumers want to know what steps companies are taking to address urgent environmental challenges like drinking water pollution and the climate crisis. A recent study found that 86 percent of consumers expect companies to act on social and environmental issues, and climate change was high on their list.

Companies are not just being measured by their commitment to coming clean but also by their commitment to being clean. As one expert put it, “Consumers are no longer just asking ‘What do you stand for?’ but also ‘What do you stand up for?’ ”

 

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