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Are ‘what’s in your beauty product’ apps a blessing or a curse?

Apps like ‘Think Dirty’ reveal what you’re really using on your skin and hair – including allergens and carcinogens – we explore how beneficial they are

I’ll start with a confession: I’ve never looked at the ingredients label of a beauty product. I have, on occasion, washed my face with Dove hand soap and once used the body lotion at the back of the cupboard as moisturiser on my face for a month. I don’t know exactly where my limit is, but it’s probably somewhere around using Fairy liquid as body wash. I regularly dye my hair with a £6 home dye kit from Boots and if you put a Geiger counter near me, it would probably break. 

This is why I was filled with guilt when someone recently told me that they can’t live without the app Think Dirty, which tells you about the chemical make up and toxicity of your beauty products. Invented in 2013, Think Dirty is the most popular app of its kind, but there are other similar apps on the market, like GoodGuide or CosmEthics

To use Think Dirty, pick up a product in a shop or on your shelf at home and scan the barcode or enter the name. Via a database of almost one and a half million products – mostly US products, although a lot from Canada, Europe, the UK and other places (there are products from 33 countries) – along with their ingredients, the app will apply a rating. A colour for ‘clean’ (green), ‘half ‘n’ half’ (yellow) or ‘dirty’ (red), as well as a number: one for clean to 10 for filthy. If it’s a ‘dirty’ product, into the bin it goes, at least that’s the idea. 

“I started Think Dirty when I was a freelance art director for an ad agency,” says Lily Tse, the app’s founder. “My mum is a breast cancer survivor, she was diagnosed when I was 11, meaning I have always paid a lot of attention to the food I eat. But when I would research a beauty product, I would find the ingredient label very hard to understand. Even coming from the ad agency background, as a marketer myself, I found that I was constantly confused about companies’ marketing claims. A lot of things claim to be natural, but if you read the ingredients label it’s not exactly true, so I decided to create the app.”

Skip forward six years and Think Dirty is still growing, with over four million downloads and two and a half million registered users globally. It’s the users who decide what goes in the database – if something is scanned a lot, it gets automatically added to the app’s inventory. “We started by rating over 50,000 ingredients (on the basis of published scientific studies that are undisclosed) – each product is usually a combination of some of these. So, the moment you input the product, there’s a 99 per cent chance that we’ve already rated its ingredients and can generate a rating for you,” explains Tse on how the tech works.

“We also use OCR (optical character recognition) so that when someone takes a picture, OCR will confer its ingredients into text, and the accuracy rate is over 89 per cent. Again we map the ingredient name to the chemical name to get a rating.” When I looked up my Davines OI shampoo (my shampoo is boujie to counteract the bad hair dye)  the app didn’t have it, but they did have my foundation: Clinique Even Better – which came up as mostly clean/green and a little yellow (I guess I’ll keep it?) My powder MAC Studio Finish, I was alarmed to see, was eight out of 10 on the dirty scale. There are also handy qualitative consumer reviews left by the app’s users, in case you want to read what other people thought of a product.

“Think Dirty sort of ruined my life at first. It made me very worried about what I was using as all the products I loved were full of dangerous things then. Then I slowly started swapping my products for ones that had a better rating and felt better. Now, my make-up products are as chemical-free as I can get them, and I don’t use the app any more because it’s helped me find a cleaner routine” – Claire 

Claire*, 35 from London, says that downloading Think Dirty two years ago equipped her with a much better understanding of cosmetic chemicals because she was willing to learn. “I had an abnormal smear test, which gave me very bad health anxiety, possibly related to my dad dying from cancer. I was doing lots of tests and one showed my body wasn’t getting rid of old estrogen. My nutritionist suggested that I look at what was in my products because a lot of beauty products have endocrine disruptors.”

“Think Dirty sort of ruined my life at first,” Claire admits. “It made me very worried about what I was using as all the products I loved were full of dangerous things then. Then I slowly started swapping my products for ones that had a better rating and felt better.” She began looking out for specific ingredients like parabens, sulphates and PEGs (polyethylene glycols) and seeing them as warning signs. “Now, my make-up products are as chemical-free as I can get them, and I don’t use the app any more because it’s helped me find a cleaner routine.”

What’s been the biggest change? “I gave up things I’d worn for years. I no longer use MAC make-up because a lot of it is full of talc. I also stopped using Aesop, because I realised that they’re not as natural as they might want us to think.”

Tse points to the high profile case of Johnson & Johnson, who recently had to recall 33,000 bottles of baby powder in the US. “It contains talc, which studies show can link to ovarian cancer. Talc has been red-flagged for many years, but it wasn’t until last October that the investigative report came out and made some noise, causing the company’s stock to drop ten per cent in a day. Finally, this year a lot of major retailers are recalling the product from their shelves and Health Canada officially said that talc is on the restrictive ingredient list. This shows there are a lot of dangerous products still on the shelves – it’s not until massive class-action lawsuits that people finally pay attention.”

Claire says that she also started avoiding parfum because there are so many irritants in it, and a lot of ingredients aren’t disclosed. Intellectual property law says that perfumes can retain this information as it creates a signature scent, meaning that Think Dirty automatically classes a lot of perfumes as “dirty”. Now, Claire only uses essential oil-based fragrances. “It was good for me to feel like I was in control of what was going into my body, but now my make-up doesn’t stay on as long as it used to.”

Other users of Think Dirty share that, like Claire, they initially downloaded the app to be more healthy. Franklin believes it’s a good idea for all of us to check the ingredients lists on our skincare to make sure we’re informed about what we’re putting on our skin. For ethical reasons but also because of the damaging effects of using certain toxic ingredients long-term, especially if you have a skin condition. 

“Mostly parabens – names like methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben,” Franklin responds when asked what we should be looking out for. She has (chronic skin condition) rosacea herself and has to be extra careful. “But it’s worth pointing out that they are not harmful in their main function as a cosmetic preservative. It’s their potential to interfere with the body’s hormones, namely estrogen, with studies showing a possible link to breast cancer which makes them a no-no in products.” 

Tse elaborates: “A lot of things that touch our body mimic estrogen which is why we should pay attention to hormone disruptors. For example, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, the first drug the doctor gave her completely stopped her estrogen. This shows you the impact of hormones when it comes to female-related cancers. If you want to pay attention to your hormone balance, our rating will tell you which ingredients are hormone disruptors.” 

“I gave up things I’d worn for years. I no longer use MAC make-up because a lot of it is full of talc. I also stopped using Aesop, because I realised that they’re not as natural as they might want us to think” – Claire

But aren’t we all starting to pay attention more broadly? Isn’t this part of the success of apps like Think Dirty, which both catalyse and capitalise off our new found consciousness around what’s in our products? While Think Dirty is free, they monetise affiliate sales on “clean” brands that they endorse within the app. Tse points to things like the rise in veganism as a sign that this trend is much bigger than just chemicals in beauty products. “If people are paying more attention to what they eat, the most natural extension of that is to care about what you put on your body. Skin is our largest organ and of course our skin absorbs ingredients and chemicals. It’s a holistic global trend – it’s about everything that goes into your body and on your body.”

Franklin agrees that we are seeing a rise in consciousness. “Consumers are constantly becoming more informed and interested about transparency from brands, both for ethical reasons and their skin health,” she concurs. “Many brands today make claims about being free from certain ingredients and adhering to codes of conduct, but the only way to be certain of this is to be able to understand the ingredients lists.”

The ‘greenwashing’ phenomenon – when companies present themselves as more eco or healthy than they really are – is something Think Dirty aims to help us combat in the long run. “The best way to avoid greenwashing is to not listen to the claim,” says Tse. “For example, if they say paraben-free, all this tells you is that it does not contain parabens. A second example is that when it comes to the label ‘organic’, we need to remember that there are different types of organic certifiers for different countries.”

If you ignore the claims and you read the ingredients list via our app, then you will not be tricked by greenwashing tactics, she claims. Ultimately, companies will try and say things that consumers will want to hear, it’s up to us to research whether the product backs up the company’s claim.

So, should we download Think Dirty? “It made me more neurotic, but also more knowledgeable,” laughs Claire. She offers some suggestions on how the app could improve: “It would be better if you could search by ingredient, as well as product too, kind of like an encyclopaedia.” Claire’s main criticism, as is Franklin’s, is that a lot of brands aren’t on the app yet. 

I found that, while I wasn’t really keen to digest all the (technically unverified) scientific info, searching products out of curiosity quickly showed that having a cheap and cheerful beauty routine isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even expensive products contain things that are bad for your skin. I also learnt about a lot of new clean skincare brands – Tropic Skincare, Biossance, and Mad Hippie, to name just a few, but haven’t splashed out on any yet. First, I’ll need to buy a new powder. 

Unlike Claire, I don’t think the app will cost me too much overall because for all the new products I am tempted to buy through the affiliate links, I’ve realised that some of the expensive products I use could be supplemented with something cheaper. Overall, it has encouraged me to be a little more sceptical about what I see on labels, and a little more conscious about what I put on my body.