Natural Foods Merchandiser

Gray Area: Sean Gray of EWG on ingredients

Identifying ingredients to avoid in personal care products is a sticky business. While it’s a no-brainer to stay away from certain highly toxic substances—such as mercury and lead—many others are harder to place in the “good” or “evil” category.

For the past five years, Sean Gray, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group, has been part of the team producing EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. The world’s largest and most-viewed personal-care product safety guide, it contains safety ratings on more than 40,000 products and 8,000 ingredients. NFM recently spoke with Gray about the challenges and rewards of investigating products for Skin Deep.

NFM: Why is it difficult to call certain ingredients good or bad in personal care products, and what’s a classic example of an ingredient that’s tough to classify?

GRAY: The whole bloody world [defies classification]. There are some classically hard things to determine the safety of, because in high concentrations they are problematic, but in low concentrations, they are just fine. For example, sodium hydroxide is in a lot of products. Now, if you went out and bought 100 percent lye, like Red Devil to clear out your toilet, one drop will burn a hole in your skin. But if it is used in small quantities to balance acid in a product, it’s perfectly fine.

With some things, we just don’t have enough information. Citric acid is a classic example. One or 2 percent will simply act as a preservative. I like to use the example of lemon. You would squeeze lemon over fruit salad to prevent it from browning, but if you suck on a lemon, it’s bitter; it hurts. Citric acid is sometimes in products at high levels—for example, in facial peels, which are literally meant to rip off a layer of skin. [Citric acid at this level] has actually been banned in Canada and other places, but in the U.S., manufacturers are not required to print percentages, so you can legally sell really high percentages of it. There are really no regulations. It can be totally benign or it can be enough to rip your face off.

Then there are other things that have minimal data available, like parabens, which, I’m sure, are actually worse than it says on our website. They have been found to show weak endocrine disruption in some studies. I believe we just don’t know enough. In almost every product the noninformed consumer uses—from your morning shower, to every time you wash your hands, to the time you wash your face at night and even in brushing your teeth—you can be exposed again and again. We’re seeing all these phenomena, like earlier puberty in girls and later puberty in boys, increased type 2 diabetes—which could be weight-related or environment-related—even an increase in juvenile type 1 diabetes, more birth defects. These things and others could indeed be related to all the parabens we are literally bathed in on a daily basis. That’s hard because we don’t have the studies yet to prove that they’re as bad as everyone in the environmental [advocacy] world believes them to be. The early data looks pretty bad, and it could be a lot worse.

NFM: What’s the best advice you can give for deciphering these “gray areas?”

GRAY: The gray area is in the preservatives, the parabens, again. That is why they’re added to products. If there are no preservatives in something like shampoo or baby wipes—you have these wet, warm products with lots of nutrients in them that are very susceptible to bacterial infections. You don’t want to be stocking or buying products like this for your wet, warm shower that don’t have preservatives. So, the question is: What is the least toxic option? I almost certainly think the answer is not parabens. But some of the other alternatives could be much worse. These ingredients, by their very nature, are meant to kill stuff. They have a very specific purpose in life—to create a hostile environment.

NFM: Are there any ingredients that have made you do a 180, or at least made you reconsider an assumption?

GRAY: Our scoring system starts off with everything being kosher, until we find out otherwise. As we gain more information, our scores only ever go up [indicating higher toxicity]. There have certainly been a lot of studies on ingredients in the past five years that have expanded the knowledge, but our basic concern is that nearly 90 percent of the ingredients used in cosmetics have never been tested for use in cosmetics, yet we smear them all over our bodies.

NFM: What’s been the most surprising thing to you about this process of investigating ingredients?

GRAY: How is it that we can use 10,000 ingredients in these products and only really know much of anything about 1,000 of them? This becomes even more true in the natural products world than in so-called traditional products, because they’re using all these extracts from crazy plants and botanicals. We found penicillin and aspirin from taking extracts from things. We’ve found things that are bioactive in the past. There’s no doubt in my mind that some of these 9,000 ingredients are bioactive. These companies will take the approach that no news is good news, but we need to test these things for internal bioactivity. We know the skin allows chemicals to come through it, and people aren’t perfect. Sometimes we have cuts on our skin. When we are brushing our teeth, some toothpaste gets swallowed; and when you wash your face, some of it gets in your eyes. We know these things are getting into our bodies.

Even with natural essential oils, some components are strong irritants to human skin. I’m so excited [companies have] decided not to add artificial fragrance and to use essential oils instead, but [they’re] also introducing concerns. Natural does not mean safe.

I like to use the example of my son, who loves to eat tomato sauce. He gets it on his face and if you wipe it off right away, it’s fine, but if you were to leave it on, his face would turn red. So, I can grow super- organic tomatoes that taste great, but I wouldn’t want to smear them all over my son’s face.

NFM: What’s the most inspiring thing about your work?

GRAY: I’m inspired by these naturals companies. A lot of them are taking really strong steps to move away from synthetic chemicals. Instead of turning coconuts into oil, then reacting that oil with four more things to make sodium lauryl sulfate to make a shampoo out of it, they’re using this really old technology that’s been used for thousands of years.

More and more companies are paying attention to how the ingredients get into their products, what kind of reactions they have when applied onto the human skin and, ultimately, what effects those ingredients could have when they’re flushed down the drain, into the environment.

I know these companies have great hearts, great minds and great ideas. What I’d love to see is for it to eventually wear off to the companies that have money to really invest in the research. I’m so excited that we’re seeing this market trend where cleaner products are getting larger and larger shelf space, and more and more people are buying them. It’s about accessibility. And now we have stores like Walmart thinking very strongly about who they stock and who they don’t stock. You have Whole Foods consciously deciding which ingredients to allow in their gold standard. Slowly but surely, the products on store shelves are becoming less toxic to the consumer and, ultimately, the environment.

A lot of manufacturers are interested in occupying that top-shelf space at Whole Foods, so they’re making adjustments to their formulations in order to earn Whole Foods’ gold standard certification. The Environmental Working Group has some disagreements with them on their certification methods, but overall, I think what Whole Foods is doing is great for the world because mainstream companies are greening their products. They’re not going to have one product for Whole Foods and another one for everywhere else.

Within the realm of who calls themselves green, it’s different from the big picture. While you can look at some mainstream products and say you obviously shouldn’t go within 20 feet of them, there is still a lot of green washing in the naturals category. It makes me happy to go into the grocery store and pick up products and see that the ingredients are getting cleaner and cleaner. But, the further we go, the further we have to go.

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