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NGOs and the Cosmetic Industry

In an ideal world, cosmetic chemists would spend our time formulating, researching, experimenting and developing new cosmetics that provide better benefits for consumers. Or we might focus on making cosmetics more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Unfortunately, the current political and regulatory environment has made it such that cosmetic chemists now have to spend the bulk of their time reformulating perfectly fine products for no good reason. Companies have begun to react to chemical fearmongering stories put out in the popular press and echoed in social media on the Internet. For proof you just have to look at the recent announcements by P&G and J&J who are both undergoing significant reformulation efforts which do not improve their products.

These stories can be generated from anywhere but the biggest source of them is from misguided consumer groups and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Unfortunately, the cosmetic industry is not nearly as skilled or motivated to spread the truth about cosmetics and these non-science based organizations are controlling the conversation while spreading half-truths, misunderstandings, and down-right lies to the general public. We need to stop this! We need to correct the record and get cosmetic chemists back to the job of cosmetic product innovation.

The first step to combating these groups is to learn about who they are, what motivates them, and how they spread their message. That will be the focus of this post. In a future post, we’ll discuss what we can do to fix the situation.

What are NGO’s?

NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization. This means they are made up of people who are not associated with the government. They are typically a non-profit organization and in fact, to maintain a non-profit status they must bar people from the government from being part of the organization. Typically, an NGO is put together to affect some kind of social change or agenda. This can be swaying public opinion or getting legislation / new regulations passed. In the US there are about 1.5 million of these organizations. Fortunately, only a handful of them are focused on the cosmetics industry.

NGO’s and the cosmetic industry

There are a number of NGO’s around the world that have an impact on the cosmetic industry. These main ones include the Environmental Working Group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Greenpeace, and the David Suzuki Foundation.

EWG — The Environmental Working Group

This is probably the biggest NGO that has an impact on the cosmetic industry. They are well-funded with an operating budget of over $6 million a year. The EWG is based in Washington DC and is a non-profit group dedicated to the mission of protecting human health and the environment. They are an environmental organization that specializes in environmental research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability. They have been around for twenty years and are made up of policy experts, lawyers, PR people, programmers, and a couple of scientists.

They claim that their “…mission is to serve as a watchdog to see that Americans get straight facts, unfiltered and unspun, so they can make healthier choices and enjoy a cleaner environment. “

Of course, they don’t let science get in the way of their unfiltered, unspun conclusions that corporate America is evil and cosmetics represent a toxic wasteland putting people lives at risk every time they rub on a moisturizing lotion.

Skin Deep database

One of the main ways that the EWG impacts the cosmetic industry is through their Skin Deep database.
The Skin Deep database is supposed to be a cosmetics safety database which lists ingredients in over 41,000 products against 50 toxicity and regulatory databases. The database is intended as a resource for consumers, who can search by ingredient or product when choosing personal care products. A good idea which is unfortunately poorly done by the EWG.

Three obvious flaws in the Skin Deep database

FALSE INFORMATION – There is false information in the skin deep database and the EWG doesn’t do anything to fix it. For example, let’s look at the listing for Polyparaben. It even has a safety rating of 5. How did they get the rating? They list that they have “No” data. But more importantly, Polyparaben does not exist. There is no polyparaben ingredient! If they cared about the accuracy of the database they would have fixed this problem because it was pointed out to them at least 3 years ago.

NONSENSE RATINGS — Another problem with the database is that the ratings don’t really mean anything. One of the guiding rules of toxicology is that “the dose makes the poison”. Everything is “toxic” at a high enough level, even water. The database gives ratings of ingredients without any thought of the level of exposure. When an ingredient gets a 5 rating and another gets an 8 rating, people will naturally assume that the 5 is more safe than the 8. But this isn’t true. It also depends on how much of each ingredient is in the formula.

Another thing I should mention is that they do some things that don’t make any sense from a chemical standpoint. Creating a hazard score is a dubious activity anyway (since it is the dose that makes the poison) but they aren’t even consistent within their own scoring system. For example, they have listings for both Sodium Coceth Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. Cosmetic chemists know that these compounds are essentially identical with minimal differences. But somehow the Sodium Coceth Sulfate gets a 0 hazard score, while Sodium Laureth Sulfate gets a 4 hazard. This makes no sense.

Belief not science

Perhaps the worst thing about the EWG Skin Deep database is that they are unwilling to modify their conclusions when new evidence comes to light. They base their actions on a belief and use science only when it supports what they want to believe. Since they are a politically motivated group, they are unable to accept new science which might indicate an ingredient is more safe than previously thought. There is not a single instance of them changing their stance on any cosmetic ingredient they previously thought was unsafe.

Why this is bad?

The problem with this database is that it provides consumers with erroneous information and gives the impression that certain ingredients are inherently bad. This is just not scientifically accurate. The other problem is that there are people who start their own cosmetic lines and use the EWG database as a guide for formulating their products. They actually believe that their products are safe because of the ratings they get on the Skin Deep database. In fact, some of them think that as long as they use ingredients with a rating of 3 or less, they don’t need to do any safety testing to launch their product. This is just wrong.

The problem is made worse by the fact that some ingredients when searched in Google actually show the EWG database high in the results page. So when consumers are looking for information there is a good chance they will stumble on the non-science based EWG site rather than a reputable data source.

Campaign for Safe cosmetics

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a group launched in 2004 to dedicated to protecting the health of consumers and workers by securing the corporate, regulatory and legislative reforms necessary to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products. They are dedicated to getting anything they consider “toxic” out of cosmetics.

Their main activities are producing reports warning of toxic ingredients in cosmetics and the founder wrote a book “Not Just a Pretty Face.” But they primarily focus on getting legislation passed that would ban certain chemicals from cosmetics. These include ingredients like preservatives, certain surfactants and anything else they deem toxic. It would add a serious burden to the selling of cosmetics and could put little companies out of business.

They are pretty good at spreading chemophobia and fear using the tools of social media.

Compact for safe cosmetics
They also had a document called the Compact for Safe Cosmetics in which they get companies (250) to sign and agree to only use chemicals that they consider “non-toxic”. But they stopped taking signatures in 2011 and have abandoned the compact. They claim it was a way to reward companies that signed between 2004 and 2011. It doesn’t make much sense to stop having signers but perhaps it stopped having a worthwhile PR effect. There were no big companies who ever signed.


Another NGO that affects the cosmetic industry is Greenpeace. They have been around since the late 1970′s and started out protesting nuclear power. Now they focus primarily on environmental issues and toxic chemicals. They have targeted the cosmetic industry because of the use of things they consider toxic including Phthalates, artificial fragrance ingredients, and Triclosan. They are more of an International group and one of the most significant impacts they had on the cosmetic industry was their publication of the Cosmetox Guide. This was a booklet that went through and explained all the dangerous chemicals in cosmetics then gave a rating to specific products. Green meant good, Yellow meant ok, and Red meant dangerous.

David Suzuki foundation

The David Suzuki foundation is based in Canada and was started by David Suzuki & Tara Cullis. Their stated mission is to “…protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future” and their vision is “that within a generation, Canadians act on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.”

Their biggest impact on the cosmetic industry was a blog post entitled “The Dirty Dozen Chemicals to Avoid” This article gets tons of traffic and has been tweeted tens of thousands of times. They also encourage people to create their own Homemade cosmetics. I guess they aren’t worried about the danger of microbes.

Interestingly enough, the David Suzuki claims to be a “science-based” organization but the information and fears stated in the Dirty Dozen article is hardly scientifically based.

What is their motivation?

Now that we know who the main players are, you might be wondering what is their motivation?

On the face of it some of their motivation is to accomplish their stated goal, getting rid of toxic chemicals from cosmetics and making products safer for consumers. Of course, the fact that products are already safe doesn’t seem to matter to them. Or perhaps this is indicative of other motivations.

Generating money is clearly a motivator. They raise millions of dollars in donations each year providing good salaries for their employees. Each of these sites has a section dedicated to donations. The best of these is the EWG who requests a donation every time you access their Skin Deep database. The people who run these organizations are professionals in the non-profit industry and are skilled at generating donations.

If you need proof that money is a motivator, consider the EWG and their Sunscreen guide. The sunscreen guide presumably tells consumers which sunscreens are safe and which ones are not. On their website they have a link to all different sunscreens even the ones that they consider unsafe. But if you click on the link to something they consider unsafe, it links to an Amazon page for the product for which the EWG gets a commission every time someone buys that product. So on the one hand they are telling people that the product is unsafe but on the other hand they are taking a kickback any time someone buys that product. If their primary concern was to get people to use only safe products, I do not see how they could take money from the sale of what they consider an unsafe product.

The other motivation is power. The more influence the groups can generate the more power they can derive. They can use this power to force legislation through, influence leaders, and manipulate cosmetic manufacturers.

Now that we know who these NGOs are and some of their motivations, we need to look into how they spread their message and what we can do to fight them. That will be the subject of part two in this series.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Lenajeanne 10/19/2013, 8:42 pm

    I think this is an AMAZING article! I am a 4th year PhD candidate in Advanced Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at UKY in the department of the Markey Cancer Center. I also have my own cosmetic company. I take great cautions to ensure my products are as “legit” as possible..of course that increases the price…as I do to make sure that there are no contaminations..that’s one of my hardest parts as well. People also want to believe all of these “claims” with “eco” products, but I have to remind them that some are NOT studied at all; however, I try to provide evidence such with mortification root and green tea and so on using peer reviewed published data. People would rather believe anecdotal….we really need a neutral place devoted to cosmetics and not just pubmeding everything!

  • Benjamin Tanner 10/10/2013, 9:43 am

    Great article Perry. I like the way you’re not afraid to voice your opinion, loudly if needed. I think that’s a rare commodity among people who hold reasonable points of view!

  • Cris Baysauli 10/08/2013, 10:01 pm

    This is a very helpful article. I am working also for a contract manufacturing laboratory specializing in skin care research. It becomes more and more difficult for us formulators to be creative because today’s consumers think they already know a lot about cosmetic safety. We basically refer to our local FDA and EU regulations regarding safe ingredients. But since marketing control the world, a lot of “-free” is being looked at by customers. We sometimes make fun of these products as “ingredient-free” to relieve some of the stress. :)

  • Allyson M. 10/04/2013, 4:30 pm

    Great article! I’m a formulator with a contract manufacturer that produces baby care products. A few weeks ago, I gave a few products to a neighbor for their new-born daughter. A week goes by and he tells me he researched the products/ingredients on the Skin Deep website and the products are not safe therefore he would not use them. The way in which he described the “dangerous” products , you would have assumed I gave him liquid sumac to put on his child (highly uncomfortable). I wish I would have read this article sooner so I could have offered him a different perspective. Thanks again!

    • Alain Crosfield 10/07/2013, 8:05 am

      Hi Allyson.
      Here in Minnesota, the state has banned formaldehyde and formaldehyde -donor preservatives in childrens’ personal care products.

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