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Skin Deep: 10 Years of Successful Consumer Advocacy

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The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer. We connected with one of the original study participants to see how this initiative changed her perspective on personal-care products a decade ago.

Ten years ago, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) began questioning how many personal-care products people used every day and the ingredients used in these products. What they discovered was eye-opening:

  • Most people use 126 unique ingredients on their skin daily,
  • Nearly 85 percent of the ingredients approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in personal-care products had not been evaluated for safety by the agency, the industry’s Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel, or any other regulatory body.

They continued to dig deeper, began rating products based on the safety of their ingredients and created an online searchable database  —  and later, a mobile app by the same name — called Skin Deep®, which allows consumers to find out just what makes up their personal-care products.

Ten years later, the database has grown significantly, but the intention is still the same: To inform people about the quality of the products they put on their bodies everyday. To celebrate its success, we connected with Jessica Assaf, an activist and entrepreneur dedicated to giving the beauty industry a makeover, and one of the original 20 teens to participate in the creation of Skin Deep®. She has been working on cosmetic safety since the age of 15 and recently co-founded Beauty Lies Truth, an online platform educating consumers about this issue. She is currently receiving her MBA at Harvard Business School.

EL | The Environmental Working Group (EWG) launched the Skin Deep Cosmetics database in 2004 with ratings for around 7,500 products. How did the database get started and what was your role in its development?

Jessica Assaf | I was one of the participants in the EWG’s Teen Body Burden Study, which tested the blood and urine of 20 teens nationwide for levels of chemicals found specifically in cosmetics and personal-care products. I also helped coordinate the study and created educational materials for the participants so they had the tools to switch to safer products after getting their results. When I got my results, the first thing I did was look up all of my makeup and skincare on Skin Deep and immediately stopped using the products with high scores. It was the most important resource in my journey of phasing out unnecessary, potentially toxic chemical exposures from the products I use everyday. It is also the first place I send people when I tell them about this issue.

EL | There are now about 70,000 products listed in the database and the EWG estimates that millions of people have used it for product research. Are you surprised by the database’s success?

JA | I’m not surprised at all about the success of Skin Deep because it provides the most extensive and user-friendly science behind the issue of cosmetic safety, and it supports my belief that we need a regulatory body protecting us from harmful chemical exposures. Skin Deep is my safety bible, and when I tell anyone about the unregulated beauty industry, the first thing I do is direct them to the database. It is all we have to prove that there are chemicals in our products that don’t belong there, especially those that have already been banned in other countries.

EL | Which findings were most surprising to you?

JA | That there is lead in our lipstick, antifreeze in our soap, carcinogens in our mascara, and heavy metals in our deodorant. But to me, the craziest part is that most people do not realize this. It is the beauty industry’s best-kept secret. This issue is universal and personal, but no one knows to question the ingredients in our products, because we assume someone else is looking out for us. We assume our products are regulated, and therefore they are safe, but yet in reality, both of those assumptions are wrong.

EL | What are the greatest barriers to rating cosmetics? (Lack of formal labeling standards? Inability to get manufacturer formulas? Changing formulas?)

JA | In my mind, the biggest barrier to rating or assessing cosmetics for safety is the lack of labeling requirements. How are we really supposed to know the ingredients in our products if companies are not required to list them on the labels? The lack of data is astounding, especially because consumers would be outraged if the food industry knowingly hid the carcinogens they used in the food we eat everyday. Yet this has been the reality of the cosmetic industry since 1938. In order to really understand the scope of this issue and how it affects us, we need to have the proper information about the ingredients in our products, and that starts with truth in labeling.

EL | There’s still a widespread notion that the FDA has tested cosmetic products and if they are being sold, they must be safe. One of Skin Deep’s important roles seems to be serving as a mythbuster about the safety of cosmetics, as well as advocating for safer cosmetics. Do you think Skin Deep has been successful in raising awareness about product safety and labeling issues? What can a consumer do to get involved in advocacy efforts?

Jessica Assaf of @BeautyTruthLies: We want to empower consumers to change the stakes and rule the beauty industry.
JA | Skin Deep has been critical in raising awareness about the safety of cosmetics, but it is not enough to simply know the facts. If we really want to see companies eliminate some of the worst chemicals on the market, we have to change our buying habits. Why would these companies change their formulations if we are regularly buying the products as they are and their businesses are succeeding? We need to revitalize the power of boycott, and collectively decide that until certain unacceptable (and unnecessary) chemicals are eliminated, we will refuse to buy the product.

EL | What do you think is next for EWG’s Skin Deep database?

JA | I hope that Skin Deep continues to highlight the most dangerous chemicals on the market, but also promote the numerous companies doing the right thing, by creating safe, effective products with Skin Deep scores of 1 or 0.

EL | What is your current role in the development of Skin Deep and what other projects are you working on related to healthier beauty and non-toxic living?

JA | I consider myself an activist, entrepreneur, and spokeswoman for EWG and Skin Deep. I am currently attending Harvard Business School to learn how to further market safe products, and I recently launched Beauty Lies Truth (beautyliestruth.com), a website I founded with rockstar Alexis Krauss of the band Sleigh Bells, to “give the beauty industry a makeover.”

Beauty Lies Truth is creating a new platform by rebranding “natural” as bold, sassy, and current to engage teenagers and young women who aren’t afraid to call out companies and chemicals on social media. We want to empower consumers to change the stakes and rule the beauty industry.

EL | What’s your best advice to consumers about shopping for cosmetics and personal care products?

JA | Consumerism is activism. Because of the lack of regulation and labeling requirements, we must do more than just spread awareness about potentially hazardous ingredients. We have to fight back. I have been a part of many successful advocacy campaigns that have influenced companies like OPI Nail Polish and Johnson & Johnson to eliminate known carcinogens from their U.S. products. I have also tried experimental direct actions, like making warning labels and putting them on products in stores. The potential of action is infinite, and we have to back up our beliefs with our buying habits.

Most people underestimate the potential of consumer power, but if our power is realized we can change the beauty industry overnight. If we don’t fight back, we are accepting our daily dose of chemical exposures.

Read The Skin Deep® story.

Photo credit: The Environmental Working Group.

Heidi Wachter is the Community Engagement Specialist for Experience Life.

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