Most of us use dozens of chemicals on our skin, teeth, and hair every day, without any real knowledge of what they are or how they can affect us or the environment. It’s hard to decipher ingredients lists, if they’re even given, and to figure out which products are safer than others.
It seems that every year we’re told that things we thought were safe actually aren’t. The cosmetics industry is not regulated as strictly as the food industry—neither for its ingredients nor for the accuracy of its claims—and some companies use known carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in their products. Many other ingredients, while not proven to cause health problems, have been associated with them in scientific studies. And for a lot of what we pour, rub, or brush onto ourselves, and then wash down the drain, we just don’t know if they are safe for long-term use.
The Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, maintained by the Environmental Working Group, can help you evaluate products you use every day: soaps, make-up, shampoos, toothpaste, nail polish, hair color, baby products, and so on. They rate products according to known or suspected hazards, based on databases of government and academic research studies on their ingredients.
You can look up your favorite products and see how they compare to others. You can search for specific brands, fragrance-free products, those with or without certain ingredients, those associated with or not associated with specific health concerns, and those likely or unlikely to contain allergens. You can also find out which companies are testing their products on animals and which have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
One of the important messages of this website is that we—meaning not just consumers, but scientists and regulators—know very little about the safety of these products. Most ingredients have not been fully tested and we can’t say with any certainty whether or not they are truly safe. But with a little knowledge we can at least limit our exposure to the most worrisome ones.