This Simple App Tells If Your Beauty Products Contain Beastly Chemicals

Think Dirty uses search and bar code scanning to reveal just how toxic your personal care items are.
Apr 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

At the end of the night when I suds up my face, I worry about removing all of my waterproof mascara. I’m not thinking about whether my skin-cleansing pads might make me sick. After all, I bought them at the local drugstore, not on the black market—and toxic chemicals are what the FDA is supposed to protect me from, right?

Well, after going through my bathroom cabinets with the Think Dirty app, I might need some skull and crossbones stickers. The free app lets consumers use search and bar code scanning to find out if our beauty products are potentially poisonous.

Because of her family's experience, Think Dirty founder and CEO Lily Tse says she began to research “the many causes behind breast cancer, including ‘toxic’ ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products.” She watched the documentary Story of Cosmetics, Annie Leonard’s look at the ubiquity of toxic chemicals in personal care products. Tse says it made her wonder why “the cosmetics industry was not regulated like the food and drug sectors.” And, she says, while searching for less potentially harmful alternatives, she found that products that have the words "natural" or "organic" on the packaging aren’t always transparently labeled.

So, Tse says, she decided to use her design and marketing background to create a tool that would empower and educate consumers “on the cosmetics industry by allowing them to make an informed decision on what products to purchase.”

The free app launched in 2013; so far its database has information on more than 68,300 products. As you can see in the video above, once you scan a bar code with your smartphone, if your product is in the database, a rating pops up—a 10 is the “dirtiest,” and a 1 is the least toxic. Because one in eight ingredients used in personal care products is also used for industrial purposes, it's likely that we each have some pretty poison in our bathroom cabinets.

Although my skin care products were listed in the database (some of them were even rated a 10), my hair products weren’t. However, the app uses crowdsourcing to expand its information. It pulled the UPC code from my jar of hair gel, and all I had to do was type in the brand name and snap two photos—one of the front and one of the ingredients list on the back. After its ingredients are scanned and evaluated, my gel will get a rating. Fingers crossed that it's a 1.

Tse hopes that if consumers learn the truth about ingredients, they'll demand cleaner options. If growing numbers of educated consumers make the choice to stop buying products rated “dirty,” manufacturers in the $50 billion personal care product industry will have two choices: make products that don’t make us sick or lose plenty of paying customers.