Q: Is there a trustworthy database of safe, green products?
A: There might be such a thing as too much choice. Considering the hundreds of thousands of products on shelves, you really could shop till you physically drop.
It's even more overwhelming trying to keep a running list of guiding factoids wedged in your brain. You know, like which shampoo ingredient is bad, which shaving cream isn't squirted in rabbits' eyes and which clothing company's not violating human rights around the globe.
This is where ewg.org/skindeep and goodguide.com come in. Let your fingers do the clicking and, bam, these databases give you the rankings you've been looking for on an easy scale from 1 to 10. So how do they measure up?
Well, the hard-working folks at Environmental Working Group, which founded the Skin Deep database of personal care products in 2004, have now catalogued an impressive 74,000 name-brand items, from mascara to hemorrhoid cream. Anyone who's been on Skin Deep knows it can get addictive punching in every bathroom product you have (or are considering) to see if it tanks or clears.
EWG basically cross-checks ingredient lists against over 50 toxicity and regulatory databases. It's an extremely helpful tool, but it does have its shortcomings.
For one, its hard to keep all 74,000 items up to date when companies keep reformulating. Always check the left-hand side to see when the data was last updated.
Also, the life-cycle impacts of ingredients don't factor into the equation. That means palm-derived ingredients may get the green light even if loggers are clear-cutting Malaysia and Indonesian rainforest to get to them. Ditto with the life-cycle environmental ramifications behind petrochemicals like white petrolatum or mineral oil.
On the other hand, EWG is tough on anything with even natural fragrance.
My main issue with the site right now has to do with its sunscreen guide. Now, don't get me wrong, the org does fantastic, game-changing research on issues like toxic, ineffective sunscreens, and its annual sunscreen report has encouraged more and more companies to overhaul their ingredients to avoid poor rankings - but there's a "but" coming.
EWG gives a green light to certain products that include an effective mineral sunscreen ingredient like zinc even if the product contains other ingredients EWG considers health hazards. Take Coppertone Kids Pure & Simple. It contains octinoxate (which EWG lobbies against as an estrogenic allergen and suspected endocrine disruptor, as well as propyl parabens (banned from children's body care items in Denmark) and formaldehyde-releasing diazolidinyl urea. And yet the product gets the green thumbs-up.
Lots of others, including La Roche-Posay Anthelios and Neutrogena Pure & Free liquid get a decent score of 2 or 3 when they contain ingredients EWG frowns upon like parabens, cancer-linked BHT, formaldehyde-releasing DMDM hydantoin and environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative cyclomethicone and other siloxanes.
The point here is make sure to scan all the ingredients for their toxicity ranking before you make a choice.
Beyond sunscreen, keep in mind that just because an ingredient scores 0 or 1 doesn't mean it's actually safe. EWG admits the rating reflects how much scientists know - or don't know - about an ingredient. "Not all cosmetics chemicals have been thoroughly studied. Some may rank low for hazards but only because little research has been done."
They recommend that consumers buy products with lower hazard ratings and at least "fair" data availability labels.
What about Good Guide? These guys have catalogued over 160,000 products, from shaving cream to sweaters, snack foods to cellphones. In these rankings, products are scored on healthfulness, the company's environmental policies and "society" points for how they treat their employees, etc.
You can create your own Good Guide filter and tick off things you care about, like fragrance-free, organic, fair trade, climate change and animal welfare certifications. All fabulous, though the site does try to get you to start an account with amazon.com, soap.com or safeway.com, which is annoying. Just ignore that step. It still registers your filters.
Once I punched in my filters and looked up good jeans companies, the results made it seem like everyone under the sun gets the green thumbs-up. Gap, Old Navy, Levi and Zara all supposedly pay their workers fairly and are certified fair trade, which would no doubt surprise labour rights activists. And there's no sign of the fact that last summer one Zara supply factory in Brazil was accused of using slave labour.
GG's complete, un-customized rankings are a little more informative than this, thankfully, but they still go easier on products than Skin Deep, for the most part.
Back on the beach, Skin Deep slams Banana Boat Quick Dry SunBlock Spray with a red flag for ingredients like retinyl palmitate, which it says may accelerate skin cancer tumours in the sun, whereas Good Guide gives the product a perfect score for health. Both sites offer apps for shopping help on the go.
Canadian-based lesstoxicguide.ca and corneliadum.com don't rank products or deliver slick apps, but do offer up safer recommendations. Whichever you chose, don't treat any guide as your bible without doing your own ingredient checks first.