An App That Helps You Find the Safest Make-up

Some of the ingredients in make-up might be harmful, but a new app helps users pick the products with the least-bad additives.
wencor teo/flickr

Sometimes, beauty is pain. But beauty—and cosmetics specifically—can also be chemicals like phthalates, parabens, and polysorbates.

Cosmetics aren't regulated with the same level of rigor that food and drugs are. One 2012 analysis, for example, revealed that 400 different shades of lipstick contained trace amounts of lead.

And like many other personal-care products, make-up tends contain those brobdingnagian, unpronounceable ingredients. Like, say "propylparaben," a component of this L'Oreal felt tip eyeliner, which the Environmental Working Group says can cause reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption.

In fact that entire Environmental Working Group site can be quite helpful for deciphering cosmetic compounds, for the paranoid and/or scrupulous lady about town.

Think Dirty

A new app called Think Dirty, from Toronto entrepreneur Lily Tse, builds on the work of the EWG and others by making it easier to analyze the ingredients in cosmetics as you shop. The app recognizes nearly 70,000 different products and rates them on a "dirty meter" from 1 to 10. The higher the rating, the more toxic the beauty product.

"To get information, you scan a barcode or search from a product list," Fast Company's Ben Schiller wrote. "The app will give a rating and suggest a cleaner product if the one before you is on the dirty side. You can also make product lists, and get an average dirtiness score for items in your bathroom cabinet."

I tried it on my Burt's Bees Almond Milk Beeswax Hand Creme, and the barcode-scanning feature worked really well. But given the lotion's twee name and artisanal-looking packaging (It has a cow on it!), I was alarmed by the result: 9 out of 10, or nearly the worst score possible. Then I realized it was almost entirely because of just one ingredient—"fragrance" — a vague and nearly ubiquitous additive that could mean any combination of thousands of scent compounds. Some types are terrible for you in large doses; some aren't.

And that brings us to the bigger problem, which is that we don't know exactly how dangerous some of these chemicals are. This is because, as my colleague James Hamblin recently wrote, our primary law for regulating chemicals in beauty products is the "toothless" 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which only requires testing for the small percentage of chemicals that are deemed an unreasonable risk. When the law was enacted, 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered in and simply "presumed safe." 

In 2003, the European Union banned 1,328 chemicals from make-up. The FDA has only banned 11, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

It's worth pointing out that the studies linking things like parabens and phthalates to cancer and other illnesses are far from conclusive, and a lot depends on how much you use and how often you use it.

But for those who would rather keep their products as squeaky-clean as possible, apps like Think Dirty bring a modicum of transparency to the make-up shopping process.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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