Are Your Beauty Products Bad For Your Health?
The founder of the Think Dirty app offers advice on how to clean up your beauty act
I recently decided it was time to edit the ever-expanding collection of skin- and hair-care lotions and potions fighting for real estate on my bathroom vanity. Not to mention the mostly expired eye shadow compacts, tubes of mascara and lip glosses crowding my tiny makeup drawer. What spurred me into action? The discovery of an iPhone app that helped me identify which beauty products contained potentially toxic ingredients — Think Dirty.
Like a growing number of women, I have come to realize that what I put on my body may be as important to my health as what I put in my body. In fact, the global clean beauty market is expected to reach $22 billion by 2024, according to Forbes. Think Dirty has been educating users about potentially toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products since 2012, though in recent years, the Canadian-based mobile app has expanded its database to include ratings of about 80,000 ingredients and nearly 500,000 searchable brand-name products, according to its founder, Lily Tse. That’s why, when pruning my cosmetic collection became overwhelming — Where to start? Do I throw out my favorite mascara if 9 out of 10 ingredients are non-toxic? Why is “fragrance” considered a “dirty” ingredient? — I turned to Tse for help.
Tse, formerly an award-winning art director who worked in advertising and design, decided to learn more about the ingredients in the products she was regularly putting on her skin after her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. But when she started to look more closely at beauty labels, she says, she realized that “the hurdle to shop better was too high.” So she created Think Dirty. Here, Tse shares her knowledge about ingredients to avoid, as well as tips on how to clean up your beauty act.
CoveyClub: What is the mission behind Think Dirty? Awareness? To simplify beauty product selection for health-conscious consumers? To change the way people shop for cosmetics?
Tse: I would say all of those. Five or six years ago, awareness was our primary focus — clean beauty and an organic, healthy lifestyle was much less talked about then. Now, the awareness is there. So how do women execute a plan to think about long-term health as part of their decision-making process when buying beauty products? Before, women focused on color, how does it look on me, how does it feel on my skin — what ingredients were in a product wasn’t even a consideration. Now, slowly, people are developing the habit of checking the ingredient label, but understanding what’s on [the label] still takes some effort. Hair dye, for example, has 90 to 100 ingredients. There is no way you can stand in an aisle and google 100 things.
CoveyClub: What does the term “Clean Beauty” mean to you? Does Clean Beauty have to be “organic” or “all-natural”? How can these terms be misleading on beauty labels?
Tse: Clean beauty could mean all of those things, but you need to dive deeper on the ingredients level and read what those ingredients do, and dig deeper into what the studies about those ingredients say. If I have to define Clean Beauty, it would [mean] products that don’t have ingredients known to be toxic to yourself or the environment. But really, the meaning of the term depends on who says it. If Sephora or Nordstrom says it, then it’s defined as whatever products do not contain anything on the list of things that they consider harmful. People can say anything, but if you don’t read the label, you can’t verify that it’s true. You have to do your own due diligence.
“Greenwashing” is another reason why I think that what [I] do is important. Okay, so you check the label and it’s “all-natural.” But natural is impossible to define. Let’s say you take a lemon and put some beet juice on it. Would you call it natural? Most of us would, but in the eye of the FDA, lemon is naturally yellow and you made it red, so it’s un-natural. And even if something is “natural,” it doesn’t mean it’s not poison. There is a lot of poison that is natural. Just because it’s synthetic, it doesn’t mean it’s harmful, either. I think a better word is “non-toxic.” At the end of the day, it’s about transparency on beauty labels and why women should be more conscious of the ingredients in these products that they’re putting on their bodies every day.
CoveyClub: Speaking of transparency on beauty labels, can you address the lack of regulation when it comes to the cosmetic industry?
Tse: Beauty companies take so much of our money with the promise “We’ll make you look beautiful,” which is important, but at the end of the day, long-term health is equally important. And it should not come as a cost of looking beautiful. In terms of lack of regulation, I think there are multiple reasons why this continues to be a problem. Number one, when you compare beauty products to drugs or food or children’s toys, [beauty]will always come last — of course you regulate drugs and food and children’s toys first. It doesn’t matter how many times people propose regulation, it is always pushed aside. Second, the majority of lawmakers are not beauty product users — I mean, mostly they’re men — so there are not as many champions to champion this cause. And then the third factor is that the industry also has powerful lobbyists.
CoveyClub: Armed with the Think Dirty app, I decided to tackle my arsenal of makeup, skincare and haircare products and get rid of anything potentially toxic. It’s an overwhelming undertaking. How do you suggest women make the transition toward clean beauty?
Tse: I don’t think you should just throw away everything and buy everything new at once. I would say, [examine] the products that you use the most and replace those first. Go by the [amount of] skin [you’re exposing to the product]. For example, [start with] body lotion. Or things like deodorant that you use every day — if there’s anything bad in [those] you don’t want repeat exposure. [Next,] see if there is a way to reduce the items you use, I mean, now that we all work from home. And the other thing is, whatever the item you are about to run out of and replace, look for cleaner alternatives.
CoveyClub: How did you make the transition to clean beauty?
Tse: My story is a little bit different. The irony is that once I got really into this, and started building the app, for two or three years I probably worked six and a half days a week. I remember being too tired to literally use almost any cosmetics. I was in my early- to mid-30s when I started building the app. Now that I’m in my early- to mid-40s, my mindset is: Do I really need [that beauty product]? The industry makes you so insecure, like I cannot walk out of the house without this, but now I am more mindful and questioning. Is this what I really want, or something that’s been marketed to me since I was a young girl and that’s why I feel that I need to have it? You have so many different types of creams — hand, neck, foot — I think now, why don’t they have so many different creams for men? They have the same body parts. If you look at the ingredient list on the hand cream it’s no different from that on the foot cream — it’s all a marketing ploy. I’ve had an interesting discovery while building this app: There are only so many different ways to make a mascara, but you will see 30 different types of packaging and 20 different claims. When you look at the ingredient list, it’s the same thing.
We are conditioned to have to [buy] all this extra stuff, but what it comes down to is that this is just something to make us feel confident. And when we feel confident we feel beautiful. For me, it’s been an interesting journey, because I built this business and for the first time, I feel ownership, I already feel confident. My project gave me the ingredients to feel good and beautiful.
CoveyClub: While using your app on the products in my makeup drawer, I found that many of my beloved makeup brands, though mostly containing clean ingredients, were rated “dirty” because they contained “fragrance.” How concerned should we be about fragrance — which might even be the thing that draws us to our favorite products?
Tse: The problem with fragrance is that it’s a blanket term and you can put anything in a product and list it under fragrance. Anything you want to hide, you can put under fragrance; any ingredients companies don’t want to disclose. They almost never tell you what’s in a fragrance, it’s their secret weapon. Fragrance is so psychological. People like the Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo scent — if they disclose what’s in it, their competitor can make the same scent. Some big companies — Procter & Gamble for example — if you go on their website, they disclose all the fragrance ingredients, and there are like 100-200 names. If you google each one, a lot have never been studied. There are no publicly available studies on many of the chemicals that cosmetic companies use to compose scent. One option: Go fragrance free. Or go with items that are scented with one or two essential oils, provided you aren’t allergic to essential oils. There are some hand soaps in the body care section at Whole Foods, for example, where they just list lavender oil.
CoveyClub: By using the Think Dirty app, and refusing to buy beauty products that contain potentially toxic – or questionably safe – chemicals, do you think consumers can change what beauty companies put into their products? Is this one of your ultimate goals with Think Dirty?
Tse: That’s happening right now, absolutely. Big retailers like Sephora have whole Clean Beauty sections aligned with what the consumer wants. That was ultimately the original intention of the app, too, like from a grassroots level, if you cannot get government to top-down regulate companies, let’s vote with our money. If they want to sell you something, but all of us don’t buy it, eventually they will stop making it. Before, the advertisers and product-makers felt more powerful because they owned a lot of the primary channels of messaging: television commercials, women’s magazine advertising, billboards, subway ads….But now their power is taken away, because people have more ways to learn and educate themselves, many more sources of information than we used to. It’s no longer one-way messaging. Consumers indirectly, collectively, have power to choose how they want to see product development in the future. Take the vegan market. Ten, 15 years ago, Beyond Meat was unimaginable. The market has to adapt to what the consumer wants, and if they want healthier, better beauty and body care products, then companies will make them.