oh dear: not the EWG (1)

and not the post I’ve been going to write for months–indeed, one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was so as to have a place where I count vent, fully and liberally and unrestrained, about this prime case of idiocy and blot on the 21st-century landscape.


You have been warned.

It’s twice as long as usual. And usual = long.

The post got chopped in two, part two coming up tomorrow.


The topic comes up so often that one of my responses is now on MUA-autocomplete. Love that feature/function!

I’ve said it before, I’ll doubtless say it again: lawks, not the blinking EWG *again*

I’ve put off writing this post for so long that my procrastination resulted in a whole bunch of posts about the EWG, mainly on their notorious sunscreen list. Hence Gingerrrama: The EWG Special Collection. There’s more that haven’t been tagged as such, but they’ll still be labelled appropriately: a load of old pants 101 uses for knickers, bad science, ethics, feminism, greenwash, hogwash, idiocracy, ignorance is bliss, mob rule is not democracy, pseudoscience, rants, reasoning, research, zombies.

Back in April, when starting this here blog, I’d collected together all my rantings and ravings and ramblings from over on MUA. There was a heck of a lot about the Environmental Working Group. Fortunately, by now a lot has already been spun out through the aforementioned Special Collection. So here’s the pure neat stuff, concentrated anti-EWG venting so far.

Deep breath.



[...] Many flaws, inc. deep and dangerous ones.

Sure, it’s an information source. Like any other. And there are many of them.
They’re not all equal. Some are better than others. Some worse. Some a mix in the middle.
Lots of people will say they “trust” or “believe in” the EWG (or indeed MUA or anyone else). This is The Path Of Error. It isn’t a matter of belief. It *should* be a matter of reading, comparing, analysing, thinking through, and making up your own mind. This depends on three things:

1. Careful, attentive, patient, thorough reading; as complete as possible, of as many sources/resources as possible. Using one resource only, and relying on it 100%, is unwise (maybe even foolish; judging the act not the person, of course).

2. Thought. Reason, rationality, with a sceptical outlook. Believe and trust nothing without evidence and proof.

3. Last but not least, alas: responsibility including informing and educating oneself. We don’t all have PhDs in chemistry on here, but many on the board have taught themselves well beyond whatever they learned (and mislearned and anti-learned) at school. No reason not to, nothing stopping you, freely available stuff in libraries and online. This enables a more informed and intelligent *use* of a resource like the EWG; which *is* useful, but just as a resource, one of many, and mostly as a source of raw data for *you* to process.

Plus learning is always good for the brain. Never too early to start preparing for old age. (Anti-ageing miracle-workers aside.)

As the excellent yummykeylimepie wisely and aptly said later in that same conversation:

Just take everything with a grain of salt and and practice due dilligence :)


A splendid recent discussion on MUA Skin Care Board:



Q: “How much value, if any, do you give the Environmental Working Group recommendations?”

A: 0 (or an EWG rating of 10)

1. Some of their raw data is useful; but it’s unreliable–I always double-check ingredient lists posted there, and on a rough straw poll that works out as 50% are inaccurate compared to the actual product IRL: usually cos EWG info is out of date.

2. Their database is a little over half the size of MUA’s one.
EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database = 65,000 products
MUA = 120,605 product reviews, plus others on the Boards not covered in p’ville proper.

[This "data gap" element would already give an EWG score of 5.]

3. Government data is often out of date and/or inaccurate (I found one instance of this a month or so ago, re. Canadian law–board search should bring it up). The same is true of scientific research data (corporate lab, independent, academic combinations).

4. Information is frequently misread, misinterpreted, and misrepresented. Worse: the (mis)reader’s (mis)interpretation plus additional value judgements are presented as being on the same level as factual data–rather than analysis/synthesis/other extra stuff. (This would include a confusion of “data” with “information” and vice versa.)

[Add in this "fragrance" element: EWG rating of 7-8.]

5. Gross misuse and abuse of the terms “toxic” and “chemical.”

6. Rhetorical bullying of readers to instil trust. Worse: not trust through facts + persuasion, but a demand for belief. (That whole “if you’re not with us you’re against us” kind of rhetoric.)

7. All the above leading to fear-mongering, distrust of other information sources, and the active pursuit and celebration of scientific ignorance as a virtue.

[We're now up to an EWG rating of 10. Danger. Toxic. Lethal to human health.]

8. Prejudice: nationalist (weak coverage of non-American brands). Against big business–and big labs. For small business: which may be ethically and politically laudable but that’s irrelevant to product performance and safety).

9. This is a lobby group. With interests. It’s not as impartial as it wants to seem.

10. Not least as they have a shop.

[The rating might have gone over 10 now.]


2010-05-26, re. the EWG “safe” sunscreen list, scare-mongering about sunscreens purportedly causing cancer, and scare-mongering about vitamin A & associates:

*yawn* sorry, I side with the skin care board on this:

see http://www.makeupalley.com/board/results.asp?bid=6&query=ewg


Positives first: sure, EWG is useful if used as *one* information source *of several*, consulted and read responsibly and sceptically, in balance with other sources.

And of their list I WOULD definitely recommend:
California Baby
Devita (but unreliable on the not-burning front)
Soleo (except on the face, cloggy)
UV Natural
Vanicream (30 and 60, not the higher-rated 35)

And I’d love to try Marie Véronique, except it’s ridiculously expensive for such an everyday necessity. Looks good on paper, and much love here on the Green board.

(1) sketchy actual science including sub-undergraduate level of reading of articles, and only a selection of all the research;

(2) long-term biggest gripe (over several years–this ain’t a new group!) is their selection of sunscreens: only a small portion of those available even just on the US market (ex. missing the lovely Cliniderm SPF 45, here in Canada; and loads of European and Japanese sunscreens);

(3) poor at updating their lists to include new products or complete ranges: this is lazy research–why only include a random sampling of products from a company?

(4) pathetic track record on updating new formulations and ingredient lists. Haphazard at best.

(5) little explanation of why a sunscreen will go up and down the league tables. They must think people are stupid and don’t remember seeing products there in previous years, or where they were placed …

(6) I’ve used a bunch of their top mineral ones myself in the past, and won’t be doing so ever again: All Terrain, Badger, Desert Essence, Jason, Alba Botanica: so thick as to be borderline unusable. And so greasy and cloggy I got spots within hours.

I love Aubreys Organics hair stuff; but their sunscreen is a blinking disaster on sensitive skin. Irritation and rash in seconds. How anyone gets away with still using Padimate O in this day and age … Irritation from Keys too (though ZnO-only).

(7) the clincher: the EWG is not impartial

They’ve long had a vested interest in protecting small businesses in the green sector That’s fair enough, it’s their job as a lobby group. Though lobby groups do take money from their sponsors/constituency (then again, it’s their job, and people working for them need to have some money for a roof over their heads, food on the table, etc.).

I’m aware that this sort of thing is normal in the US, though would cause the raising of eyebrows in other countries where the public/private interest divide is different, and where assorted NGOs including pressure-groups work under different rules for funding themselves, including in some cases funding from the public purse. This is the case for other states operating more as social democracies: the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, New Zealand, etc. That’s the sort of system where I grew up, so I’m trying hard to put aside my conditioned prejudices to some of the current expressions of so-called democracy in the US, as there’s much good there too … but it’s jolly hard work, and my eyebrows going up like this is not helping my ever-wrinklier forehead!

But the EWG have gone a step further, and in political terms this is a step too far. (Remember: they are a *political* body, subject to rules on checks and balances, corruption, and associated ethical and political issues. Like the oil lobby.)
They make money out of their recommendations, as their top-rated products are sold via the site, c/o this Amazon store:http://www.ewg.org/amazonstore/shop.php
One can make a lot of money through placed ads; especially by Amazon; and especially acting as a store-front.

Message on the Sun Store:
“Thanks for shopping with EWG. This store is powered by Amazon.com, so anything you purchase will be processed, fulfilled and shipped through Amazon. Because you bought through our store, Amazon will donate a percentage of your total to EWG. It’s a free and easy way to help keep our work going.
“EWG is not associated with the manufacturers any of the listed products, and though we have reviewed many of the listed products and assessed the sunscreens in particular, we cannot guarantee safety or quality.”

I tried ordering something there, continuing the investigation (I’d have taken screenshots along the way). Froze up my Mac as someone, somewhere in the “click” process tried to install some very interesting malware on it. I’m lucky that I’m on OS X with added high security (as this machine gets used for some work too). Not accusing the EWG of trying to turn my machine into a zombie, steal my bank details, or anything; just saying, be careful.


Colin, of Colin’s Beauty Pages, did an outstanding series of posts on the EWG. He’s one of my favourite “beauty bloggers”: a real live proper cosmetic scientist, a wit, a geek, a joy to read, and a man after my own heart: witness, his Scaremongers archives, and despising Stacey Malkan (she of Not Just A Pretty Face and, of course, the EW blinking G).

Here’s his take on the EWG:

[...] You don’t get any answers from the EWG.  You just get a solution offered on a plate.  It’s a sort of MacDonald’s burger approach.  I have a great respect for real environmentalists.  The kind of person who can be a pain in the neck, but who makes you think.  That is how we all learn and grow, and how things get better.  Someone who just wants me to get my cheque book out makes me instantly suspicious.

I don’t sadly have the time to follow every issue that interests me so I am going to leave this one for other people to solve.  But I have a feeling there is a story in here somewhere, and probably not the one spoon fed to the journalists in the press release. [...]

[...] it is hard to think when you are scared.  Fear is a powerful emotion precisely because it operates directly on the part of our brain that has the most direct effect on our actions.  Its role is to spot dangers and react to them, and it is constantly on the look out for things that might be a threat.

[..] We are hard wired to live in a world of unquantifiable risk, and chemicals neatly fit the bill.  We used to live surrounded by poisonous plants, so we are predisposed to think that the unfamiliar taste or odour might kill us.  Chemists have unwittingly contributed to this by deciding to derive chemical names from latin and greek sources.  This adds another layer of strangeness and unfamiliarity.  You rational pre-frontal cortex might be quite relaxed about whether you call it water or dihydrogen oxide, but your much  more powerful limbic system doesn’t think things like that through.

Chemophobia is basically a function of the way our brains evolved in a world that is very different to the one we live in now. On the whole it is probably a good thing.  We don’t face anywhere near as  many dangers as we used to, but the world isn’t completely safe even now.  But it is worthwhile being aware of the way we process fear.  We don’t have to worry about sabre toothed tigers or deadly berries any more, but we do have to watch out for other humans.

Playing on our fears is a favourite trick of marketeers.  It is almost the only trick of spammers, scammers and scare mongers.  Watch out for adverts and sales pitches that are aimed directly at your limbic system.  You don’t have to look far for examples in the beauty world.   (You were probably wondering when I was going to get back on topic.) [...] The classic example, which probably is the worst, is the Story of Cosmetics video.  This dispenses with facts entirely and devotes itself to ten minutes of limbic system manipulation aimed at scaring the life out of you – or at least at scaring a donation out of you.

My feeling is that when I see someone trying to scare me, I am scared.  Scared that I haven’t yet spotted how they are trying to get the money out of my pocket.  The trouble is it is remarkably hard to avoid  being influenced by direct appeals to the brains defence mechanisms.  We are sometimes not even conscious of the impact it is having. Here are a few ways to avoid being taken in.  Watch out for emotive language.

In particular non-specific threats like ‘nasties’ or ‘dirty dozen’ are usually a sign somebody is trying to emotionally manipulate you.  Recognise it and label it as such in your head.  (This is quite a good way of dealing with emotional manipulation generally – give it a try next time someone is giving you a hard time.)  If you can redirect your fear into dislike of the people who are trying to put one over on you, that is good too.  Remember that really knowing what is going on is much the safest way to live.  And outwitting the scare mongers feels good too.


Time for an intermission (viewer discretion advised): the Story of Cosmetics video to which Colin refers:

(As also discussed / dissected / dissed three months ago on this present blog, here.)

Part 2 tomorrow.


  1. gingerama

    LOL. Also, apologies if you’re replying now as it’s taken you three months to get through the epic post!

    But seriously: yes, I’m pissed off about it. Not least cos of the hypocrisy: profiteering shysters disguised as do-gooders; poor research that gives science a bad name (and, in the case of things like sunscreen, risk doing active harm) and has dangerous political implications: dumbing down, patronizing, anti-knowledge, anti-feminist.

    But I wouldn’t be in favour of starting up a counter-EWG: I’d rather see larger-scale international umbrella-groups. Ones that are genuinely independent disinterested NGOs. Might be a naive pipe-dream!

    Also: I *couldn’t* start up an anti-EWG anyway. Respect where respect is due: it takes a lot of work to build that sort of thing, full-time work of many people, over time, plus maintenance (although as noted elsewhere, their research and maintenance leaves a lot to be desired). I’m just little old me, doing this here blog and other writing elsewhere online in my spare/down-time; I have a whole other actual day-job…

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