Changing how consumers shop for cosmetics—and how manufacturers formulate them—is a lofty endeavor, but one that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is taking on with its new verification program, the first of its kind to focus on the safety of cosmetics. EWG VERIFIED: For Your Health will leverage the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database to simplify the process of shopping for nontoxic cosmetics and guide manufacturers and retailers in developing more conscious business practices.
"The purpose of the verification is to not only educate consumers but to empower them to make better choices, while pushing for market change," according to Nneka Leiba, EWG's deputy director of research. "We are moving away from the status quo and shifting toward better products for consumers and their families."
A model for cosmetics safety
The EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics website, launched more than 11 years ago, and smartphone app help consumers with the daunting task of evaluating the safety of products they use regularly—skin cream, shampoo, lip gloss and more. They can just type in a product or brand name and get a safety score for it on a scale of 1 (safest) to 10 (most harmful). This database creates the foundation for the newly introduced verification, which will appear as a seal on products.
For both the database and the newly introduced verification, the EWG uses a variety of criteria to rank cosmetics. Only products that receive a "green" score of 1 or 2 are eligible for the new seal. And the verification takes the Skin Deep ingredient-based database a step further by requiring validation around manufacturer processes and adding other criteria that push manufacturers to continue to improve their practices. "We have seen so many more companies getting into [the database] and trying to get a green rating, and we applaud that. How can we push those companies even further?" said Leiba.
The verification requires companies to fully disclose ingredient lists, including everything in a "fragrance" which has become a hot-button issue in the personal care space. "We are particularly happy to see the unveiling of fragrance in these standards," said Cynthia Barstow, executive director of Massachusetts-based nonprofit Protect Our Breasts. "So many chemicals are found in that single proprietary recipe."
The fragrance conundrum is a prime example of why EWG's latest initiative is necessary to achieve transparency in a relatively opaque industry that lacks government oversight. While stricter cosmetics regulations have been proposed for the past several years, legislation has been at a standstill despite growing demand for safer products. "The skin care industry has grown tremendously in my tenure, but there is still a lack of oversight and little regulation on ingredient safety," according to Kimberly Heathman, chief marketing officer for Colorado-based skin care company MyChelle Dermaceuticals, which is one of the first companies to earn the verification. Up until this point, other certifications for personal care products primarily focused on the use of natural and organic ingredients, as opposed to safety specifically.
Companies taking a stand
Proving the power of industry self-regulation, MyChelle has made the EWG a critical partner in helping to clearly communicate the company's longstanding commitment to formulating safe, sustainable products. "EWG is the leading nonprofit health organization in our industry, and we are confident the EWG VERIFIED: For Your Health mark on our products will help us reach more consumers with our values of full transparency and clean skin care," Heathman said. "Not only will this verification shape the industry, but it will also help drive what consumers demand in their personal care products."
In upcoming months, MyChelle will use the seal on its packaging, website and marketing materials, and also plans to build out its digital communication strategy based on the concepts of trust and education, with a strong tie to the EWG's efforts.
Ideally, this will urge more brands in the beauty space to follow suit, according to Erin Messier, national executive board personal care student researcher for Protect our Breasts. "The new EWG Verified mark advances the industry to help consumers, making them more aware of the need to make safer choices from the products on our shelves. This ultimately helps send the message to businesses in the industry to remove any toxins and harmful chemicals from their personal care products."
EWG Verified as a retail tool
Retailers are already taking notice of this commitment from brand partners. "When we first heard about MyChelle's verification, we immediately alerted our store staff so that they could begin promoting the news. Because the EWG has such visibility, I would love to be able to promote the verification in stores and on our website," said Tiana Ukleja, beauty category manager at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy. While certifications and verifications can be both a blessing and a curse in store (the abundance of seals appearing on beauty products can be confusing to consumers), Ukleja said that the trust and recognition that EWG has earned will make EWG Verified a valuable tool in consumer education. "The EWG is well recognized now as a yardstick for measuring product safety, so as they get more brands on board with the verification, I'm sure it will help consumers feel more confident in their decisions," she said.
Retailers such as Pharmaca have long used the EWG's Skin Deep database to help inform staff about what products and ingredients to avoid, as well as a promotional tool for top-pick products in categories such as sun care. The ease of now being able to find the EWG's standards on store shelves in the form of this seal will help make the group's research even more accessible. Education will always be the most difficult part of the process, Leiba noted, but manufacturer and retailer partnerships, along with EWG's recognition and its uniqueness in focusing on health, will help EWG Verified cut through the noise.
Taking its concept into the aisle will help spread the knowledge and leverage the great work it has done to a greater audience, according to Barstow. Protect Our Breasts has always supported the Skin Deep app for the convenience of our millennial-aged audience. Clearly connecting with that database would seem to be an important step in the EWG verification, "so the mark supports the work already being done."