UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer - June 2019

Personal Care Products: Who is the Greenest of Them All?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greenest of them all? When it comes to shopping for environmentally friendly makeup, personal care products, and sun screen it can get confusing to know which ones are safer and healthier for your family. Once again the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes to the rescue with the new EWG VERIFIED™ mark. Our video of the month provides a great overview of the program, which takes EWG’s Skin Deep® ratings one step further to help move the market and help all of us make easy and informed purchasing decisions.

Lack of federal regulations, weak safety testing, inconsistent labeling requirements, and laughable transparency standards inspired EWG to create this new mark. EWG wanted a clear way to distinguish products with health in mind. Not all products make the cut; they only get the stamp of approval if they avoid everything on EWG’s list of ingredients of concern and provide a full list of ingredients. 

When you see the EWG VERIFIED™ mark on a product, you can be sure it:

  • Avoids EWG’s ingredients of concern: Products cannot contain any ingredients on EWG’s “Unacceptable” list, meaning ingredients with health, ecotoxicity, and/or contamination concerns.
  • Provides full transparency: Products must meet EWG’s standards for ingredient disclosure on the label and provide full transparency to EWG, including fragrance ingredients.
  • Uses good manufacturing practices: Product manufacturers must develop and follow current good manufacturing practices to further ensure the safety of their products.

EWG’s team of scientists—toxicologists, chemists, and epidemiologists—assess the products. The verification program is based on EWG’s already popular Skin Deep® cosmetics database, which provides ratings on a scale of 1 to 10 for more than 60,000 consumer products, with 1 representing the best and 10 the worst. 

To achieve the new EWG VERIFIED™ seal, products must receive a “green” rating score between 1 and 2 and meet additional criteria set by EWG scientists. By choosing EWG VERIFIED™ products, you automatically avoid substances on EWG’s “unacceptable” list of ingredients (e.g., parabens, formaldehyde, triclosan, triclocarban, animal-derived ingredients, phthalates, microbeads and more). The products also meet limits outlined in EWG’s “restricted” list, which includes ingredients that have been banned or restricted by U.S. or international government agencies or other authoritative public health bodies such as the World Health Organization. 

Summer Time and the Living is Easy
With summer here, check out the sun care products with the new mark. For those unfamiliar with the brands and products rated, the website includes a helpful link for finding where you can easily purchase the products. If you donate $60 to EWG right now, you get an EWG Sun Sampler Pack with a mix of 10 EWG-rated and EWG VERIFIED™ sunscreens.

The Bad of Sunscreens and Personal Products
How can sunscreens and personal products harm you? A few of the ingredients good to avoid are highlighted below:

  • Oxybenzone: Found in most mainstream brand sunscreens, this ingredient creates a chemical UV filter. It is absorbed into the body through the skin and has been shown to disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies in adults and children. EWG rates it as an 8 out of 10, or “high hazard.” Oxybenzone is also harmful to marine life. The endocrine disrupting chemical bleaches coral, deforms its larvae, and damages its DNA, making coral reefs more vulnerable to destruction. Coral reefs are considered one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots; when coral is damaged or killed, the many different organisms that depend on the coral reef for survival are impacted too.
  • Vitamin A: Retinyl palmitate, a form of this vitamin, is an additive in many sunscreens that can cause damage to skin when it’s exposed to sun, even potentially producing cancerous tumors and lesions.
  • Anti-Cancer Claims: There is little evidence that sunscreen can prevent skin cancer, but many brands still make this claim. Like high SPF rating numbers that don’t necessarily provide more protection, this can give people a false sense of security and cause overexposure.
  • Parabens: Parabens are an endocrine disruptor found in personal care products. Avoid ingredients such as propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.
  • Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-like chemicals can cause cancer and sensitization. Avoid formaldehyde and methylene glycol.

Learn More
EWG’s Licensing Criteria: Personal Care Products
EWG Guide to Sunscreens