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When Lily Tse developed severe allergies several years ago, she couldn’t identify the culprit. But when an investigative web search uncovered The Story of Cosmetics, a video about the wide-reaching use of toxic chemicals in the beauty industry, a light bulb went off. Sure enough, she learned that her symptoms were caused by phthalates—a chemical group commonly used in synthetic fragrances.
Dismayed by her discovery, Tse created Think Dirty in 2013. The app allows shoppers to scan the barcode on any beauty product to understand its ingredients. Products are ranked by an internal team of scientists and advisors who dive into peer-reviewed studies and existing government lists to discover just how much toxicity they’re dealing with. Then, they rank each item in the app on a scale of zero (“safe”) to 10 (“dirty”). Today, there are more than 300,000 products available to search, and Think Dirty users have scanned more than 3.5 million items since launch.
We chatted with the Toronto-based Tse about her quest to grow Think Dirty and eliminate toxic products from her life. Read on for the most shocking things we learned about some of our hair products.
Photo courtesy of Think Dirty.
1. The FDA Doesn’t Keep a Close Watch on Hair and Beauty Products
According to The Story of Stuff Project, Tse’s inspiration for Think Dirty, more than 12,000 ingredients are used to make our beauty products. Just 20 percent of these ingredients have been tested and a mere eight of them have been banned by the FDA since 1938.
2. Product Labels Don’t Always Tell the Full Story
“Just because a hair product is labeled ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ doesn’t mean all of its ingredients are safe,” says Tse. Beyond this, she says, “companies aren’t required to list the individual chemicals that fall under the term fragrance.” In the United States, says Tse, the FDA doesn’t have an official definition for “natural”—even in the food industry—while the parameters of what constitutes an organic cosmetic aren’t clearly stated. “It’s difficult to say what ingredients will be in these products, since there are so many out there,” she says. “That’s where our app comes in.” In other words, It’s not enough to believe the marketing on the bottle—we need to be proactive to avoid harmful ingredients.
3. Many Popular Hair Products are Packed with Toxic Ingredients
“The average person owns 12 toxic hair products with a combined 168 ingredients,” says Tse. Some of the biggest offenders? Fragrances. While you may love the strong, flowery scent of your shampoo, according to Tse, it could contain dozens of poorly tested chemicals. And while we all crave hair that feels clean and looks shiny, the shampoos with the most bubbles often have chemical compounds called surfactants. Meanwhile that silky feeling may be silicone at work. “The biggest impact [of silicone] is environmental,” says Tse. “The health impact, from what we’ve gathered, is irritation for certain people.”
We know what you’re thinking: “what can I use on my hair?” Tse explains that there’s no clear set of rules for shoppers to apply to any ingredient. This frustration and lack of clarity is what motivated her to build Think Dirty. “Some chemicals with long and scary names might be safe. Some natural-sounding ones might be poisonous,” she says. “As a consumer, the most challenging part is that there is no single rule”.
Eager to learn more about healthy hair and beauty products? You can download Think Dirty here and start scanning your way through the beauty aisles and through your own product stash. Tse also shared a few of her personal picks:
What: Niucoco Renewing Hair Serum
Why: “It’s great and it smells fantastic. It’s made of cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil and free of artificial fragrances.”
What: Innersense Organic Beauty Pure Harmony Shampoo and Pure Inspiration Daily Conditioner.
Why: “These have a clean rating of 0 on the Think Dirty app. They work with local farmers who have demonstrated a commitment to their environment with how they harvest their ingredients.”
What are your favorite non-toxic beauty products? Join the conversation on our Facebook page and let us know!