Article by: Perry Romanowski

The EWG gets a lot of criticism for flaws in their database, but I have to give them credit where credit is due. They have fixed at least one flaw that I pointed out in a previous blog post (3 reasons why the EWG is a dubious source). They used to have a listing for a fictional compound POLYPARABEN and they have since removed it. They still list Polyparaben as a synonym for Propylparaben but that is a minor mistake. I find it encouraging that they have fixed anything. EWG-hazard

Profit over Safety

I also criticized them for profiting off of what they consider “dangerous” products. And they still do that. One of the ways the EWG makes money is by participating in affiliate programs, specifically the Amazon Affiliate program. This is a good deal for websites because if a consumer goes to Amazon and makes a purchase the website owner gets a small % of the sale (somewhere between 2 and 4%). We participate in an Amazon Affiliate program on this site.

Unfortunately, the EWG seems more concerned about their Amazon Affiliate sales than they do about consumer safety. After all, why would they put an affiliate link to a product they rate as the worst of the worst?

Here is the Aveeno Active Naturals Radiant Tinted Moisturizer with a rating of 10. A 10 rating is the most dangerous product that can be found in the Skin Deep Database (according to them). But if you click on the picture they’ll be happy to have you buy the product through their affiliate program. If a product was this dangerous how could the EWG possibly encourage people to buy it?

Ratings Based on Nothing

One of the “improvements” recently added to the Skin Deep Database was an additional rating of the quality of data supporting the safety rating. This is understandable since ratings based on single studies are much weaker than ratings based on lots of studies. However, this does not seem to affect the way they rate ingredients.

For example, how can an ingredient like HYDROGENATED PALM GLYCERIDES get a Zero rating? A zero rating is the most safe you can score. They admit that this rating is based on no data. What is it based on? I have no idea.

Maybe they think Palm Glycerides sounds natural so it gets a zero rating with no data but then how would you explain the zero rating based on no data of HYDROXYETHYL ACRYLATE/ SODIUM ACRYLOYLDIMETHYL TAURATE COPOLYMER? There is certainly nothing natural about an acrylic polymer.

You could say that zero is the starting point so any ingredient that has a zero data will get a zero rating. This seems rather silly but it would be logical. Of course, this is not the case. Consider these examples…

PEG-150 DISTEARATE – Rating 3, no data


PEG-2 SOYAMINE – Rating 5, no data


Without any data, how did these ingredients get a rating?

Naive Ratings

Another criticism of the EWG database is that the ratings demonstrate a lack of understanding of the raw materials they are rating. For example, they list SODIUM COCOYL SULFATE and give it a zero rating with zero data. They also have a listing of SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE and give it a 1-2 rating with a “fair” amount of data. This makes no sense.

Anyone who knows chemistry knows that Sodium Cocoyl Sulfate is essentially the same thing as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Here’s a good explanation why.

So how is it that two chemicals which are essentially identical have different ratings? All the fair amount of data that is available for Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is equally applicable to Sodium Cocoyl Sulfate!

If any knowledgable chemist was involved in making the database, this problem of naivety could be avoided.

Is there anything else?

There are some good things about the EWG Skin Deep Database. I do like that you can look up ingredients and compare them to different products on the market. This is quite handy for a formulator. And if a person is allergic to any specific ingredient it’s especially helpful to know what you can avoid.

However, the hazard ratings and collected science is mostly rubbish and not worth paying attention to. If you want a more reliable database consider looking at the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. This one is actually collated by toxicologists and other people with science backgrounds. And if you want one produced by the EU, this cosmetic ingredient database will be more helpful.



  1. Avatar

    I have heard that companies have to pay EWG to have their products even tested and listed. Is this true? It means that smaller companies’ products are not even included, which are sometimes the safest.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yes, they do charge you to have your product verified under their standards program. Lots of smaller companies are not included. However, smaller companies are definitely not the safest. In fact, the safety of products produced by smaller companies is much less reliable than those of big companies. Big companies spend millions on safety testing their products. Small companies do not.

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        I don’t think that makes very much sense. As an economist, I can tell you with confidence that larger companies also have greater incentives and greater abilities to use harmful chemicals because they can spread those minor gains over larger populations, spreading minor damages to people’s health as well. Small companies rely on reputation building and tend to be much more receptive to consumer’s needs because they do not have branding specialists and PR representatives to fix any errors they make for them.

        I also don’t think your answer to Lala’s question is clear either. Yes, companies can pay money to become EWG certified. No, they do NOT have to pay to be rated. Inclusion in the database has more to do with whether or not the EWG has gotten around to doing a review and might be affected by size of the company, but more likely just whether or not their staff has heard of the product. If you are skeptical, consider how many large companies get terrible ratings — they certainly would not pay for this disservice.

        1. Avatar
          Perry Romanowski

          You are just naive about the cosmetic industry. Big corporations react strongly to any hint of negative publicity. There is also zero benefit in terms of profit to using harmful chemicals. Small companies on the other hand have little incentive to spend the extra money required for safety testing and have lots of incentive to skip proper testing and put something on the market.

          You do not know enough about how the EWG works. Yes, companies do have to pay to get EWG Certified.

          1. Avatar
            Bob K

            I agree with Perry – I’ve worked at both big and small chemistry companies and the small ones are much worse. One of the big reasons is lack of expertise at small companies. You get these people who just throw ingredients together recklessly without any consideration whether or not they are safe (partly because they don’t understand toxicology in the first place). I work in a small industry and now run the chemistry division of our current company and safety is my number one consideration above all else, but that is very uncommon at a smaller company. I have 16 years of bench experience including 12 as a medicinal chemist, so I have a very broad understanding of pharmacology/toxicology. Our 2 main competitors who are also small companies include ingredients that are horrific, probably because they don’t actually have any chemists working for their companies. One is using crystalline silica as the foundation for something that is aerosolized! If you know anything about crystalline silica, inhalation causes silicosis and death. The other company randomly uses vanadium pentoxide as an ingredient (I’ve tested it out of curiosity and it does absolutely nothing for the product other than poison people). Aerosolized vanadium pentoxide is horribly toxic, even in tiny amounts, and causes profound lung damage. A study done in 2005 found an inhalation LD50 of only 4-11 mg/kg spread out over 14 days. But these idiots have no clue because they aren’t chemists and they are too small for anyone to really notice.

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  4. Avatar

    This is interesting. While I do not use the Skin Deep guide, I do use their Household Cleaning guide quite often. What do you recommend as an alternative to that? There are SO many toxins in our cleaning products.

    1. Avatar

      Check out Norwex products. There are 2 ways to clean: chemically or mechanically. Norwex’s microfiber makes it possible to clean your house using only water because it physically removes bacteria from a surface. Check out for more info. And for an interesting video to watch comparing Norwex to a generic microfiber and an all purpose cleaner, type in “Andy’s Will it Work” on YouTube.

    2. Avatar

      I would also love a resource for researching cleaning products! Though from the site’s author, and not an MLM rep…

      1. Avatar
        Perry Romanowski

        Unfortunately, I’m not in the household product industry so I haven’t researched it as much as the cosmetic industry. You might inquire in our forum about those products.

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    I liked the EWG as a place to have all the links posted, or the summary of what the different institutions say like FDA, European version of FDA.

    I hoped that the actual studies link would lead to real studies! but actually it just enters the query in pubmed. Womp womp. This site had so much potential, but yeah if they dodge you when you tell them about errors. That doesn’t make you a good scientific source. Science is all about correction, updates etc. I am a bit disappointed even more now that I read about it.

    I guess I will no longer put any credibility on EWG ratings, but rather just go to pubmed and read the latest review articles on said ingredient, how it is tested, educate myself on cytotoxity studies.

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    The EWG has issues ive been on the site looking for safe organic laundry detergent for our family and its actually weird how “organic ingredient Sapindus Mukurossi aka soap nuts” get a rating C thats said it causes allergies, asthma and etc. My family use soap nuts as shampoo and body wash and never affected us and plus its better then castile soap. And laundry detergents that have sls has a rating of a 3. How is it that something natural gets a bad rating but man made chemicals that affect our health get a low rating.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Because some natural materials are not good to put on your skin (e.g. poison ivy, snake venom…etc). Natural does not mean more safe.

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    huge problems with EWG – always will be and it’s a SHAME the public sees this as the ultimate resource for skin and food safety. when you dig in, some of their research data on ingredients bears no resemblence to the ingredient they are rating nor why and dates back to 1950…or earlier. they rate ingredients but do not question how much is used in a product, huge part of any decent rating system, kind of a DUH there, and the manufacturer’s put in their own ingredient lists! there are so many problems with this system can’t even list them here. it’s a crap system that i wish someone had the funding to take down.

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    Do you happen to know if EWG considers exposure in their ratings? e.g. if there is evidence of toxicity by inhalation for a certain chemical but the chemical is only used in skin creams, do they take this into account?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      No, they do not consider exposure in their ratings. This is a major flaw in the database and ratings system.

  10. Avatar

    Thank you, Perry, for this enlightening and informative article! Good to know it’s not just me…. I, too, found errors on Skin Deep and called it to their attention, and they have still never been fixed or addressed. For example, they rate pure petroleum jelly as a “1,” but when you look at its one ingredient, it is rated a “4”! I never understood that math…. They also show a number of shampoos from one organic company as containing Retinol, which they rate a 9, but I could find no proof that any of these products contained any Retinol (and why would shampoo need Retinol??), and when I asked about this discrepancy, I never heard back. I found another product (a deodorant) on Skin Deep whose ingredients list matched the list shown on Amazon exactly, but the labeling on the physical product itself was different, and included an ingredient that Skin Deep itself considered toxic. An honest mistake, perhaps, but when added up, I would think at the very least, one would have to take anything they say with a big grain of salt! (And I also always wondered how ratings labeled “None” for data could have ratings! Pure intuition? Blind faith? Who knows!) I must admit, though, that I have naively referred people to Skin Deep, even recently, but thanks to you, I will now recommend these other sources you cite as good places to check. Thanks much! 🙂

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    Thank you for the clarification Perry. Brilliant information.

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      Perry Romanowski

      Yes, that’s a good source for information.

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    I could write a whole blog post about why their sunscreen report is total BS. I know people who threw out perfectly good (and expensive) sunscreen after reading that report!

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    What has always baffled me is that I know there has to be $$$ involved for someone to go through all that trouble and bs-ing. But does bs-ing /really/ pay that well?

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  21. Avatar

    do you know of a good website that lists properties of common ingredients in cosmetics (what it does, whether its a humectant, or emulisifer, ph, etc)? like for example i get conflicting info about beeswax and I’m tired of running into place with poor info or use scare tactics

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    Thanks Perry. I’ve recently attended the Organic Monitor Sustainabilty Conference and during a panel discussion, EWG Skin deep was invited to be a part of the panel. What I found interesting is that unlike the rest of the panel members who were cosmetic formulators and chemists, EWG was represented by a lawyer! To me that said it all.
    I find it disheartening the EWGs pockets are so deep that they’ve somehow scared the industry to giving in to using less than safe preservatives. Scares me

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yes, that is unfortunate that the EWG is populated with many more lawyers than scientists.

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        Thanks for a very informative post – I’ve been dubious about EWG since they have mouthed off about the dangers of vitamin A and sunscreen and it’s good to get some verification.

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