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Finding Safer Products: Using the Skin Deep Database

This is a post I originally wrote last February. As we begin to discuss personal care and cleaning products this month, I wanted to again bring this helpful tool to your attention. For those of you who aren’t quite ready to begin home-making your own products, this is vital information for choosing the products you put on your body.

A couple of years ago, I was still blindly slathering my body with products whose ingredients I could barely pronounce. When I learned the truth, that the FDA does not regulate the ingredients in beauty and personal care products, it rocked my world, and fueled the start of a personal revolution towards a more natural lifestyle.

Our skin, is after all the largest organ we have, so it’s a pretty good starting point for developing a healthier lifestyle. With a self-regulating industry, though, it can be difficult to know which products are actually safe. This is where the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database comes in.

About the Database

Built by the smart and caring Environmental Working Group, the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database is a place where you can search for any personal care product and see how it rates on the hazard scale, and learn about its ingredients.

It’s really simple. Zero is the safest and ten is the most hazardous score. Most products on the market are listed, and although it can be a bit tedious, you can actually list products that you don’t find, simply by copying information from the label onto a form on the website.

You can also search by category and see which products in that category have the safest ratings.

Ten Ways to Get Smart About Personal Care Products

1. Don’t trust the labels. I was most shocked when I started researching sunscreen, something that is supposed to protect our skin. Companies throw out words like “all natural,” or even “organic,” but don’t actually have to adhere to any standards for those claims. Instead of trusting trendy slogans and greenwashed labels, look for products that rate low on the database and have a low “data gap.”

2. Go straight to the ingredients. Since we can’t necessarily trust the labels or company claims, the best thing to do is educate ourselves on which ingredients are most toxic, such as parabens and pthalates. And at a glance, I look for products whose ingredients I can easily pronounce.

3. Research the products you have. This can be a very enlightening exercise. Take your favorite products to the database, and while you could be surprised what dangers are lurking within those bottle, maybe you’ve already been using something that’s actually quite safe.

4. Watch out for proprietary information. Possibly one of the more dangerous ingredients in these products, fragrance, is one that most labels only indicate very generally. Since it is considered “proprietary information,” the company doesn’t have to disclose exactly what that term refers to.

5. Be aware of hidden toxins. Some of the most dangerous compounds show up in laboratory tests but not on product labels. For example, 1,4 dioxane, a cancer-causing chemical, is formed when a common ingredient, sodium lauryl sulfate is converted to the supposedly more gentle sodium laureth sulfate. In addition, when we use multiple products, we are exposed to more and higher amounts of toxins like carcinogens.

Photo by christina rutz

6. Focus on those most susceptible. The younger a person is, the least they can fight against toxins, and the more concentrated these toxins will be in their little bodies.  My favorite line of non-toxic products is called California Baby (and it’s even sold at Target!).

7. Pay now or pay later. If you’re afraid of the cost of starting over with safer products, consider that it’s probably worth the cost of a few really good products to avoid ingredients that could lead to costly medical procedures down the road. Also keep in mind that when we buy safer, quality products we are also voting with our dollars for better products.

8. Simplify.
Instead of an entire bathroom full of products, I’ve realized that what I actually need and use regularly makes up a pretty simple arsenal. Love the feeling of thinning out your wardrobe and getting rid of unused items? Try the same techniques with your beauty products, clearing out products that are expired or rate high on Skin Deep. A simpler beauty routine takes less time and money to keep up as well.

9. Stick to companies who have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. These companies commit to discontinue the use of dangerous toxins and adhere to the EU Cosmetic Directive. They might still be in transition to being fully compliant, but at least they’ll be more trustworthy than those who refuse to sign. This program will be transition to something new in 2011, so it will be interesting to see what the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics comes up with as a new way to keep track of companies and their safety as a whole.

10. Skip buying products all together, and make your own. Some of the best ways to take care of our bodies require only a trip to the pantry or the health foods store. Here are a few resources and ideas:

Another great resource is the book Not Just a Pretty Face, which details the history of Skin Deep and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, along with information of various toxins and studies. And be sure to check out the Skin Deep Safer Shopping Tips as well.

Have you found Skin Deep to be useful? How else do you avoid toxins in the beauty and personal care products your family uses?

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Rachel

    Ah, the fragrance loophole. In the US, companies are not required to disclose what they use to scent their products. This means that any chemical with a discernible scent can be included as “fragrance” in a product. It also means that companies work to create chemicals with a smell to them because they’ll be able to label them as “fragrance.”

    I check EWG’s ratings, but I don’t take them as the final word. I think they’re far too easy on organic brands. Example: the leading ingredient in Aubrey Organics conditioner is “coconut fatty acid cream base,” which they rate as “0,” even though that could be anything. One of the reasons large companies have so many unpronounceable ingredients is that they’re legally required to list them by chemical name–unless it’s fragrance. (Technically, Aubrey Organics is probably breaking the law, but the FDA has bigger things to worry about.)

  2. Elizabeth E.

    I commented on a similar post here recently, but I really am so excited by it I can’t stop telling people! I’ve switched away from most beauty products. I don’t wear make-up and I’m generally a low-maintenance girl when it comes to beauty products, but who doesn’t use shampoo, face soap, and deodorant?

    For my hair I wash it with baking soda and warm water. To condition it I use the juice from a lemon. To style it I use the tiniest little bit of olive oil on my hands before I blow it dry. My hair stays cleaner longer. I can wash it less often. It also holds it style better and longer.

    For face soap, I’ve stopped using anything at all. A steaming hot wash cloth wiped on my face before bed has given me the best skin I’ve had since I was a kid!

    And deodorant is 1part baking soda, 1 part arrowroot, and enough coconut oil to bring it together to put it into it’s container. It works better (and smells better) than any deodorant I’ve ever tried.

    Greening the beauty routine is a must.


    • Samantha @ Mama Notes

      I am so intrigued by the idea of JUST using super hot water to wash your face. I think I’m going to try this. I was with my friend once and I saw her wash her face and I was like ” that’s all your using? No soap?!” but she does have pretty nice skin. So I think I’m going to try this, thanks! 🙂

  3. Alicia

    Wonderful article! Thanks for the reminder to use the database. We use very few products too and tend to use natural ingredients instead, but we’re going on vacation soon and I need to find a safe sunscreen. We don’t usually use it, but I know a day at the beach for my Minnesota children could end very badly otherwise and I want to protect them safely. Any recommendations for sunscreen?

    • Nicole

      My favorite is California Baby (Unscented). It works well, and has a very low toxicity. I’ve also found it to be a little easier to “rub in” than other blocking sunscreens I’ve tried that don’t actually soak in (that trait is a good thing, but some are much harder to use in my opinion).
      I can often get it at Target or Whole Foods which is convenient, too. It’s basically all I use– and we are a beach family who uses lots of sunscreen. I usually wait until at least 10am to put sunscreen on and do not use it in the late afternoon either. Gotta get our Vitamin D. 🙂

  4. Samantha @ Mama Notes

    This is a GREAT resources! I love it and use it all the time!

  5. kimberly

    For the last three years I’ve been using the baking soda and vinegar washes for my hair, olive oil and castor oil to wash my face and coconut oil to moisturize. I make deodorant, too, from baking soda, cornstarch and coconut oil. I’ve branched out to lip balm, hair spray and body butters, too. The difference is amazing! Before I stepped out and started making things on my own, I didn’t even know it was all possible! Now I know, it’s easy and even better that the boughten things I used to use.

  6. SaraR

    I’ve just recently started using the oil regularly to wash my face. I’m not sure if I see a difference but I do feel good about what I’m plastering on my face. For those days when I don’t go anywhere (= no makeup) I’m going to try the just hot water. That just sounds nice.

  7. jena sanders

    good advice Nicole. I am particularly in favour of #10. As a farmer’s wife, raising and selling grass-fed all natural meat, our mantra (and bumper sticker, too) is simply “know your farmer.” Being aware of what goes on your skin is just as important as what’s going in your tummy. If making bath and beauty products isn’t feasible (just as raising and growing your own food may be more challenging for some), i would recommend finding someone who does. If there’s no one locally there are several options online. Feeding your body (i.e. skin) with high quality ingredients made into fresh batches of soaps, lotions, etc. by someone (not manufactured in a warehouse) who has imbued love into their handcrafted good, results in synergistic health and well-being. You are not only nourishing your body, but mind and spirit also.
    enjoyed meeting you briefly at the blissdom conference. looking forward to more of your posts.

  8. Betsy (Eco-novice)

    I love EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, but sometimes their ingredient lists are not up to date, so double check against your product ingredient list. If you are doing research before going to the store or shopping online, check with a site like Vitacost that lists all ingredients for products online. I’ve had products with ingredient lists that were out of date in the database many times, and I usually just end up checking the weirder ingredients out individually. I’m really grateful for this resource and shop Amazon through their site whenever I remember to help support them.

  9. Litzie

    thanks for this post. i have to ask, do you know a website that sells and ships (internationally) safe beauty products? that will be a great help. thanks.

  10. Charissa

    Another awesome resource is The Good Guide– It’s similar to the Skin Deep database but includes a broader array of products, and judges them based on environmental and social factors as well as health. Check it out!

  11. greenskunk

    We had this problem with deodorant, especially after hubby became allergic to the commercial deodorants on the market… and started looking into what was actually causing the allergy. Ugh! So we got desperate and did some research… and then, like many of you, started making our own. We don’t use coconut oil, but do use alcohol and essential oils and plant extracts. No bad chemicals for us! With hubbies allergies and as we are scientists, we did a lot of research on the essential oils and only use those that have a proven safety record and actually have anti-microbial affects … It works so well and so many of our friends were asking for the recipe… and we were/are needing a back up plan for hubby’s job… that we started selling it at farmers markets and on line. You never know where things are going to take you… and trust me, 10 years ago, deodorant was not on my life plan! 🙂

    Sadly, the Skin Deep folks are on hiatus until the summer… hopefully we can get in with them then!

    And, another note, I don’t wash my face. I might rub my hands over my face in the shower but… and I don’t look my age at all! But, maybe that’s just me… 🙂

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