An App To Track The Nasty Chemicals In The Beauty Products You Put On Your Face

The cosmetics industry isn’t required to disclose all of the unhealthy chemicals in its products. But with a new app, one daughter of a breast cancer survivor is enabling greater transparency for shoppers.

Phthalates. Formaldehyde releasers. Retinyl palmitate. Parabens. Everyday beauty products contain many controversial chemicals, and working out what’s what can be difficult. Cosmetics manufacturers aren’t held to the same labeling standards as food or drug producers, and, in some cases, they don’t need to disclose ingredients at all.


That’s where Think Dirty comes in. Developed by Lily Tse, an entrepreneur from Toronto, the app lists 68,000 products from North America and Europe, rating each on a “Dirty Meter” from 1 to 10 (10 being the dirtiest). Tse hopes the app will help demystify the cosmetics aisle. It’s somewhat similar to GoodGuide, another app that examines the health and environmental impacts of common household products.

“Beauty products are not as strictly regulated as food and drugs, so the labeling is not very standardized. It’s hard for an everyday shopper to understand what the chemicals are,” she says.

For example, using the word “fragrance” gets manufacturers out of a host of disclosure requirements. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says the term can hide up 3,163 ingredients, including several known hormone disruptors.

Before releasing the app last year, Tse worked to standardize information from public databases. Something as simple as vitamin E can go by up to 10 different names, depending on whether it’s natural, synthetic, or how the manufacturer wants to present it.

So far, people have downloaded the free app 70,000 times. To get information, you scan a barcode or search from a product list. The app will give a rating and suggest a cleaner product if the one before you is on the dirty side. You can also make product lists, and get an average dirtiness score for items in your bathroom cabinet.

Tse’s quest for greater transparency is personal. Her mother is a breast cancer survivor, so she’s sensitive to hidden dangers in the products around us. “I pay a lot attention to food and a lot of other stuff, but then I realized that cosmetics and beauty are like a taboo,” she says.


Tse criticizes the “pink-washing” role of cosmetics giants in Pink Ribbon cancer campaigns, pointing out that some products contain carcinogenic compounds. With her app, it’s hopefully going to be easier to detect these situations.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.