Understanding EWG’s Cleaning Product Ratings

Understanding EWG’s Cleaning Product Ratings

Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its newest product rating guide for consumer products - a report card on cleaners. While our personal care products and sunscreen fare very well in their previous assessments in the Skin Deep database, some of our cleaners didn’t do so well in their latest.

A small group of you expressed concern—and it’s no surprise. EWG is a respected leader in the fight for safer products, and thousands of consumers rely on their research to help them make informed decisions. We acknowledge their good work and have even stood side-by-side at educational events and in the halls of Congress advocating for better chemical regulations that protect our children’s health.

But overall, we’re confused by their new cleaning guide. (And we’re not alone —some fellow like-minded companies and some of the savviest eco-mom bloggers are, too. Check out Kathy Scoleri's, Paige Wolf's  and Anna Hackman’s blog posts on the issue.) Simply put, the methodology of their research seems flawed and the results are misleading.

In order to allay your concerns, and empower you to make more informed choices, we’d like to take a moment to point out what we’ve learned since the release of this guide.

1. It’s data aggregation - NOT product testing. EWG’s assessment is chemical-by-chemical. They don’t take into consideration ingredient concentration or test final product formulation. Their site even has this disclaimer: "The ratings below indicate the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself."

Imagine if you tried using a recipe database that only assessed the flavors of individual ingredients at full strength. You wouldn’t want to eat a mouthful of salt, or raw egg, or flour, or probably any other ingredient that goes into a cupcake. But mixed in just the right amounts, baked just the right way, a cupcake is divine. That’s the magic of chemistry!

Product formulations work the same way.

For example, we use a preservative in our dish soap called methylisothiazolinone. Some people have expressed concern over this ingredient due to studies based on full-strength or high-exposure levels. In real life, exposures are quite small. In this situation, methylisothiazolinone is used at very low levels—parts per million (one part per million = one drop in a 55 gallon drum).

To give you an even deeper understanding of our use of this preservative, you should know that in 2004, the European Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers (SCCNFP) suggested that companies limit the maximum concentration to 0.01% (100 ppm). The concentration in our dish soap is well below these standards at .00003% (just enough to battle the microbials that will eventually grow in a liquid product and cause a whole host of other health risks).

Yes, concentration counts!

Another aspect of product formulation overlooked in a chemical-by-chemical assessment is the chemistry of acids and bases. Sometimes ingredients balance or neutralize one another resulting in a final product that’s safer than the individual ingredients. (We’ll get to that science lesson another day.)

2. A Catch-22 for companies.  In our efforts to help EWG better understand the safety of our formulations, as well as our efforts to better understand their methodology, we spoke with several top staff - repeatedly - at every level. Fulfilling our commitment to transparency and consumer education, we wanted to find a way to collaborate and help EWG not only assess our Honest products in a more legitimate manner, but ALL the products they rated.

The Honest Company offered to share our complete product formulations—that means 100% transparency of concentrations of each individual ingredient.  This offer was received with mixed feelings from EWG.  We were told that if we shared our formulation, they would be compelled to share that information with the public.  We’re happy to let the world know what ingredients we use, and we even thought about disclosing the ranges of percentages, but to share the exact formulation...c’mon EWG, you know that needs to remain proprietary.

On top of this Catch-22, we were later told that even if they did see our exact formulations, they didn’t have the capacity, resources, or robust scientific understanding to fully assess them.

But, wait...if they don’t have the capacity to assess product formulations, why are they rating products? Why not stick to rating individual chemicals?

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest problem with the endeavor. They state that the main goal of the guide is to compel transparency and a large part of the grading system is based on ingredient disclosure. But by trying to weigh how transparent a company is while trying to rate the toxicity of the ingredients used ends up creating a confusing algorithm and misleading results. It’s like trying to grade a student on a music performance and a book report simultaneously. The final grade doesn’t really tell me how the student fared on either effort in any useful way.

EWG does an impressive job of pulling a ton of information together into one searchable database. But the system is far from infallible and cannot be substituted for actual product testing. It’s a starting point for better understanding the chemicals in your products, but definitely not an ending point for understanding specific products. We’re hoping our conversations and thoughtful assessments of EWG’s guide can help them, industry, and regulators find ways improve how products are assessed and how they communicate that to the public.

We stand by our Honest products and their human safety. We assure you that we are continually hard at work trying to improve them and making them better, safer, more effective, and better for the planet.  And we always act in best interest of our children, the smallest and most vulnerable population.  Hopefully, together we can make it easier and easier for you to find the safest products for your family!

We aim to provide you with the most honest and credible information possible. This article was reviewed for accuracy by The Honest Team and was written based on trusted sources that are linked at the bottom of the article.