This year’s uproar over microbeads in beauty and bath products was my personal turning point. “I’m washing my face with plastic?” I kept saying, as if denial could turn newly reviled microbeads into biodegradable, Earth-and-body-friendly ingredients.
What else was I rubbing on my face? I like to think of my makeup routine as low-maintenance, relying on a bold lipstick and a swipe of eyeliner for my typical look. But if women are rumored to ingest a couple of tubes of lipstick each year, and a great number of those lip products contain frightening amounts of lead, shouldn’t I know what I’m licking off every day?
Turns out, there’s an app for that. A friend had just downloaded Think Dirty, and took her dismay to Twitter when she learned that her favorite “natural” beauty brand wasn’t as organic as she expected. The trouble, as Story of Stuff Project creator Annie Leonard explained, is that the use of terms like “natural” and “herbal” on beauty products aren’t regulated in the United States. While governments in the U.K. and Europe have banned a whole slew of beauty ingredients for potential toxic affects, the U.S. has only banned about a dozen.
The beauty industry: basically the Wild West.
I gave myself a mission: to find beauty products I love, using Think Dirty to help me make wise decisions for my long-term wellness. I set a few guidelines for myself: I’d only test products I found at my local drugstore, for a selection comparable to what the average shopper can find on a whim. I’d only test lipstick and eyeliner, the products I use daily.
Think Dirty boasts a database of more than 2,000 brands -- and more than 11,000 products -- so I prep myself for a fruitful trip. A quick primer on the ratings system: Scan an 8 or higher, and the product you’re using to wash your hair or face could have serious negative long-term effects on your health. Think cancer. Think fertility problems. Think crazy allergies. Yikes.
At first, I’m nervous about getting kicked out of the drugstore for loitering. But I quickly turn into a scanning machine. An eyeliner that claims to be unstoppable pops up quickly with a big red 10: the dirtiest it gets. It’s packed with carcinogens and ingredients that are known to cause developmental and reproductive harm. I clicked on the ingredients to see just what was sounding the dirty alarm.
The first is scary enough: PEG-60. The app provided other common names for each ingredient as well as its purpose; in eyeliner, it’s probably a thickener for the fluid. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Think Dirty explained, PEGs that contain measurable amounts of ethylene oxide are known carcinogens in humans. The EU’s commission on cosmetics has banned it.
Cosmetics companies often claim that the amount of toxic ingredients in their products are so small, so insignificant, that it’s all harmless. But used time after time, those ingredients can build up in the body, leaving their worst behind. And for a product that I’m applying millimeters from my eyeball, I wasn’t exactly jumping to take my chances.
I shifted down the aisle to an eyeliner that sounds like someone with a medical degree signed off on it, but even that gets an 8 on the dirty meter. I click on the “Cleaner Options” tab, but the three options presented are definitely not available in my local drugstore. And one of them is actually an eyeshadow.
Think Dirty kept flashing me 10s. I started wishing this were a game of blackjack and doubting this entire experiment. I tell myself that I can’t go home with anything dirtier a 5.
I ended up resigning myself to a 6. I take it home, slather it on, and then read the ingredients list. Conditioning agent cyclopentasiloxane pops a 4 rating. Health impacts: “Mild irritations when contact with eyes.” That seems like a bad idea for an eye-makeup product. Already, the immovable eyeliner was smudging its way up my eyelids. I was a disgruntled raccoon.
Lipstick exploration proved to be no less frustrating. It’s not even a battle of brand versus brand. One company can produce products that fall at various spots on the Think Dirty spectrum.
Revlon almost wooed me with a 6. The cream lipstick contains silica, which prevents the color from caking off on your fork or straw. Yes, it’s the same silica that’s in little packets in your shoeboxes to prevent mold and mildew. But it’s only known to aggravate eczema, which has never affected me. Another ingredient, pentaerythrityl tetraisostearate (apologies to my editor) is a binding agent with unknown affects. For now, we assume it’s safe. For now, we swipe on that Rose Velvet and pucker up.
I should have grabbed the Revlon. But no, a tinted lip balm with a 3 rating lured me in. I expected a chunky crayon of balm with plenty of rich color and was instead tricked into paying seven bucks for a chapstick.
As I waited in the drugstore line to return my failed test products, I started to wonder if my trusty Wet 'n' Wild eyeliner is better than I anticipated. This relic of high school dances is actually quite respected among the cruelty-free cache, and still has the unbeatable prices you remember from high school.
Think Dirty isn’t dishing on Wet 'n' Wild yet, but it asks its users to submit new products to the app. The average user submits five to 10 products during a shopping trip by taking pictures of the front and back of the package and zooming in on the ingredient list. Founder Lily Tse explained that when users submit product information, Think Dirty’s team of science-types processes the ingredients in about two to three weeks.
“A quick tip for users is they can search the brand of similar product if the exact one is not showing up in database,” Tse said in an email. “In some cases, the same product with a different flavour might be already in the database, and usually they share similar ingredient lists.”
Tse added that if the team sees an influx of submissions for a particular brand or product, that item will get priority to be added to the app. What I’m saying, here, is that if you could all work on submitting Wet ‘n Wild products, I would appreciate it.
Instead of stocking up on $1.99 products, (OK, I did go back for the Revlon) I tried the other end of the shopping spectrum. At an local artisan fair, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of vegan, cruelty-free beauty products. I plunked down $17 and took home a color that I was convinced was my destiny.
The next morning, I slathered it on and waited a few minutes for it to dry. Then, I commuted. While drinking a smoothie. Through a straw. When I arrived at my destination, I found that most of the lipstick was on my straw, leaving a ring of no-longer-lipsticked skin at the center of my pout. This $17 lipstick was supposed to make my low-maintenance dreams come true. This $17 lipstick had made me look silly.
I decided that this is a game of haves and have-nots. The top-of-the-line products that are truly natural or organic are priced too high for the average consumer’s experimentation, and they definitely don’t have a 100-percent return policy (thank you, drugstores). But at the neighborhood-chain level, I’m making numerous potential health compromises for the sake of beauty.
Until Think Dirty users bring the app to critical mass, or until the FDA gets a makeover, the beauty aisle is still going to be the Wild West.