Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Article: Why I Love and Hate EWG's Skin Deep Database

I recently started including numeric ratings straight from the EWG Skin Deep database. I thought nothing of it, as I've been using these ratings for some time as a basis for my "purity" scores. However, I soon started receiving some strongly-worded emails from product manufacturers about some of the flaws of this rating system. I felt it was time to spread the word and offer my feedback, both the positive and some constructive criticism. Read on to find out how this database can be the best but still suffer from some crippling inaccuracies.

  • The most efficient way I've found to get product safety information - I have yet to find a website that is faster or easier to use when looking for product safety information. The database  provides information on thousands of products, but for those not listed, it allows users to build reports in often less than five minutes (if ingredient lists are readily available online).
  • One of the most extensive databases available - I have yet to find a more widely accepted resource for users to easily research product safety. The wide database contains tens of thousands of products and the vast majority of most ingredients in beauty and personal care products. They take into account how products are used, the age range, amount used, and a variety of other factors before a rating is determined.
  • Data is backed by science - The EWG utilizes scientific studies in their ratings and updates them as new information becomes available. While fear mongering and other media tactics may lead you to believe that parabens are the greatest evil known to mankind, the EWG will objectively determine how great a risk each ingredient poses. This works both ways, as it helps put some ingredients in perspective while exposing other, lesser-known hazards.
  • Professionally-designed website - There is some sophisticated programming going on behind the scenes to be able to dynamically update ingredients based on new studies, allow users to build their own reports, and maintain a database of over 70,000 products. I have rarely run into any technical issues with the site (though I do offer a few usability suggestions below). The site is generally attractive and works well.
  • Ingredients such as "fragrance" are lumped together regardless of origin - While the EWG does allow for some distinctions (such as "may contain" and "organic"), other ingredient qualifiers may be harder to pin down. For example, a fragrance may be of "natural origin," but this definition can change depending on the certification organization or product manufacturer. Although I acknowledge that this can be very hard to pin down, I have seen dozens of otherwise low ratings become blown into moderate to high ratings simply due to the vague "fragrance" ingredient on the label.
    • Suggestions: Require companies to clarify specific fragrance ingredients when submitting  products, advocate for more clarity on ingredient labels with government organizations and/or create a way to distinguish between fragrances from essential oils/natural origins and those of synthetic origin.
  • There are some edge cases where data is missing - I've run into a few cases where an ingredient wasn't included at all (such as an Australian flower extract) and other cases where there is no data available on an ingredient. While it would be nearly impossible to run scientific tests on the safety of every ingredient, there is definitely room for error in any case where the data isn't available.
    • Suggestions: When using the "Build Your Own Report" feature, offer an option to check any ingredients that can't be found and automatically submit them to EWG to be added to the database. Also, consider making a more obvious visual cue when data isn't available to call attention to potential errors.
Spell your ingredients correctly the first time or you'll be sorry!
  • The website is missing some common usability features - For example, search terms aren't "saved" after a search is completed. This means that if you forget or rearrange a letter or two in a long ingredient name, you'll have to type the whole thing over again. Also, when using the "Build Your Own Report" feature, sometimes I will have to manually correct spellings (in some cases, due to misspellings on ingredient lists copied and pasted from an online source).
    • Suggestions: Add ability to retain the last used search term in the search bar. It would also be nice for the database to start "suggesting" search terms (similar to Google) so you would see longer names when you type in the beginning of the word. Example: Type "heli" and see options such as "HELIANTHUS ANNUUS (SUNFLOWER) OIL". For the "Build Your Own Report" feature, I'd love to see more options available for ingredients that are only slightly misspelled.
  • Dependent on users/companies for official reports - From my understanding, it appears as if reports are dependent on company submissions. I'm assuming this means that users can't manually submit products from the "Build Your Own Report" feature and any ingredient updates are the responsibility of the manufacturing company. This could lead to unintentionally outdated information or  loss of opportunity from user submissions.
    • Suggestions: Allow users to submit "Build You Own Report" results through a moderation process. This could potentially include the company's involvement. Also, we could empower users to help flag potentially out-of-date products and submit newer ingredient lists for review. And if it's not already part of the process, and annual check-in with product manufacturers could help remind companies to keep ingredient lists up to date.
The EWG's Skin Deep database is an admirable effort that helps provide a lot of valuable information to consumers. I applaud them for their commitment to providing information our government doesn't, as there is a huge demand for visibility among natural beauty consumers.

However, there are some inaccuracies (such as the "fragrance" rating jumps) and other issues that detract from an otherwise great service. As this is currently a free service that appears to subsist on donations, it might be asking for a lot, but I'd really like to see some of these issues addressed. When I get emails from companies whose products jump from a 2 to a 5 or higher simply because of something that was in good faith formulated to be safe and natural, these ratings are doing more harm than good for natural products.

Regardless, the EWG is filling a great need for the public and I hope to see more organizations striving to provide these types of services in the future. Will I continue to use this database? Absolutely. Will I take the reports with a grain of salt? Yes, and I recommend you do as well. No database is perfect, and I look forward to seeing the Skin Deep database become an even better resource in the coming years.

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