Understanding the different ingredients in household and skin care products can be challenging. Here are 10 ingredient checkers to help you learn more about the products you use.
The Problem with Product Labels
Whether you’re shopping for a new eyeliner, laundry detergent or window cleaner — unless you have a sound knowledge of chemical compounds, it can be difficult to grasp the meaning of different ingredients contained in common household products.
It doesn’t help that the U.S. has very few mechanisms in place when it comes to regulating its billion-dollar beauty industry, which, over the course of its history of more than a hundred years, has mostly been self-regulated. To put this into perspective: whereas the EU has banned or restricted the use of more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics, the U.S. has prohibited only 11. This means that while it may be against the law to sell products containing ingredients that are harmful to the consumer when used as intended, cosmetic products are also not necessarily subject to testing before entering the U.S. market. In the EU on the other hand, the manufacturer must ensure that their products “undergo an expert scientific safety assessment before they are sold.” So it isn’t always easy to get information on allergens, for instance.
Another problem is that descriptions on labels can seem rather obscure. An example: most manufacturers don’t break down the individual chemical components of artificial fragrances on their product labels. This is problematic, since scientific studies have linked many of these chemicals to health risks such as allergic reactions.
It is largely up to you to figure out which products you might want to avoid based on potentially harmful chemicals contained in them. Fortunately, there are lots of ingredient checkers that you can use to learn what your products are made of and determine whether they are safe to rub onto your skin and bring into your home. Below we recommend ten apps and websites that will help you make informed decisions quicker.
EWG, Detox Me & Yuka – Three Allrounders for Checking Different Product Types
We’ll start by taking a close look at the most comprehensive apps that we could find in terms of product range and information offered.
EWG Healthy Living: Most user-friendly app with detailed information on ingredients
Let’s begin with an ingredient checker that features several product categories, provides detailed information on ingredients and offers some helpful consumer guides as well. EWG, short for Environmental Working Group, offers a comprehensive database that focuses on three major areas of everyday life: food, skincare and cleaning products.
Who’s behind it:
- The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit corporation that runs on donations from various private foundations, some of which are listed on their website.
- Its staff includes a roster of scientific experts from various fields, including toxicologists, data specialists and environmental health scientists.
How it works:
- You can find the food, household and skincare ingredient checker online as a web tool and in the app store. We’ll focus on the app.
- Type in the product name, scan the barcode or browse through different product categories: it’s quite easy to find the information you need.
- For each item listed in the database, you’ll get an overall product rating based on factors that are relevant to each category. Take sunscreen, for example: product scores are based not only on possible risks associated with the chemicals it contains but also on its UVA/UVB balance, so you’ll learn whether physical or chemical sunscreens offer effective sun protection to keep your skin healthy.
- Click on individual ingredients to learn why they rank high or low on the hazard scale and get information on concerns linked to these ingredients and the available scientific literature.
What we like about it:
- Free download and no subscription or in-app purchases necessary. No ads.
- Evaluations of ingredients take into account individual hazards but also how much data is available. This makes EWG Healthy Living more transparent than other apps that don’t make users aware of data gaps.
- App displays synonyms used for each ingredient, which is really helpful when it comes to analyzing labels.
- Combines different resources offered by EWG, so you can browse skincare and cleaning products in one place and don’t need an extra app for each type of product you’d like to research.
- Notes whether ingredients are listed in PETA’s Caring Customer Guide, which tells you whether they are derived from animals.
- Very user-friendly in terms of layout and structure. You can also research products through the website.
- EWG VERIFIED mark: helpful for quickly finding products which, according to EWG, meet strict criteria in terms of health, ecotoxicology or contamination concerns.
- E-mail registration necessary to save a list of your favorite products.
- Descriptions of chemicals and hazards could be more accessible.
- Product-centered: You can’t search for chemical ingredients directly but only click on them when they appear in a product.
- If there’s no data available on a certain ingredient, in the rankings this translates to no risk.
- References to scientific studies not always specific enough to look up and no direct links to sources.
- EWG VERIFIED mark: does promote certain articles (that conform to EWG standards) over others, as you have to scroll through all EWG verified products in each category to get to products that haven’t received the checkmark. Keep in mind that EWG receives licensing fees for these verifications.
Besides consulting apps like EWG Healthy Living to learn about safer household products, you may want to consider replacing some of these products with simple ingredients: from citric acid for cleaning to a natural fridge cleaner, our guides offer lots of practical alternatives.
Detox Me: Least commercial ingredient checker with wide product range
Ready to Detox? This app helps you on your individual journey to a non-toxic lifestyle. Detox Me offers very clear and accessible information and is not built around brands and products, but rather focuses on sustainable, healthy habits. It can also track and compare activities for groups such as schools, neighborhoods or companies, encouraging communities to take action together.
Who’s behind it?
- Detox Me was created by the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit scientific research organization dedicated to women’s health that works to identify chemicals linked to severe health risks with a special focus on breast cancer research.
- Staffed with researchers who carry out scientific studies and have advised the government regarding legislation concerning toxic ingredients on several occasions. Its past research has contributed to several laws being passed banning certain toxic substances in household items.
- Research funded by federal grant money.
How it works:
- Personalize your settings to receive tips that are relevant to you.
- This free app is one of the most comprehensive we have seen in terms of its wide range of product categories: Home, Food & Drink, Cleaning, Children, Personal Care and Clothing. This is indeed the only app we found that covers fashion. If you want to learn more about this topic, consult our list on vegan clothing brands that are also eco-friendly.
- Click on each category to get a list of “Top 10 Tips” and consult the Buying Guide for a quick overview of what to look for and what to avoid when searching for various kinds of products.
- In each category you can also “Get Tips”: this feature offers individual tips to help you avoid toxic ingredients in certain products (only refers to types, not to brands). Here’s an example from the clothing and laundry section: “Switch to a detergent free of fragrances and dyes.” Below the tip it tells you why this is important, starting with “Some fragrance ingredients may trigger asthma, skin irritation, or allergic reactions.” It goes on to explain about the chemicals in a way that is easy to understand. If you decide to “Take Action”, it will move the item to a list of things you are working on and set a reminder that will help you keep at it. Once you have successfully integrated a new routine, you can mark the action as done. You earn badges for actions taken.
- Scan a product, search for a product type, topic or chemical to receive general tips that are linked to these entries. You will not get an analysis of individual ingredients or specific products.
- Receive news updates about new studies on toxins, environmental pollution, climate change and more.
- It was designed by a scientific research organization with expertize in the field of toxicology.
- While the Silent Spring Institute is focused on women’s health, their app offers relevant information for anyone trying to avoid toxic chemicals in their everyday life.
- Detox Me measures progress to help motivate you and lets you decide which habits you’re ready to work on. It is easy to use and helps you learn about healthy habits but not in an overly didactic way.
- If it doesn’t recognize a product you can still get relevant tips for the product type.
- Focuses on what NOT to buy, rather than recommending products and encouraging you to make purchases. Instead, it tells you about healthy habits, and even offers DIY recipes to help you replace commercial products with healthy, natural alternatives. To check out some cosmetics DIYs right away, see our sugaring recipe, homemade deodorant or DIY dry shampoo.
- You can preselect product categories you regularly use for personalized recommendations, thereby taking into account different preferences, life stages and living situations.
- You won’t receive information on specific products or brands and tips are rather generic.
- It also does not offer recommendations on alternative products, so when you’re at the store, you’ll have to figure out whether a product is safe to use on your own. While this is certainly a drawback if you’re looking for specific recommendations on what to buy, it does limit the risk of getting inaccurate or incomplete information regarding the safety of individual products and ingredients. It also encourages you to learn about common health hazards, rather than simply relying on the app’s recommendations.
- Individual tips don’t contain links to scientific literature.
- Only offers information on certain chemicals commonly used in different products.
Yuka Food & Cosmetics
This app is focussed on two categories – food and personal care products. From its 10,000 reviews and a rating of 4.8 on the AppStore, we can tell it is a well-known app chosen by many consumers. Let’s take a closer look.
Who’s behind it:
- Unlike the EWG and Detox Me apps, Yuka was created outside of the U.S., in France. This is important to know, because it started with users who are based in Europe, which may affect search results in the U.S., where the product recognition rate is apparently lower.
- Yuka’s three founders have backgrounds in economics and engineering and came up with the app as part of a Hackathon. It is now an independent company that doesn’t receive funding from manufacturers.
How to use it:
- Yuka has a simple system that has two main purposes: product analysis and recommendations.
- It is free to use and doesn’t rely on in-app advertizing, but instead is financed through premium memberships that unlock additional features such as personalized warnings on ingredients such as lactose, gluten and others. You will also get access to its search bar, so you can type in product names rather than having to scan the barcodes.
- Before you can get started, you have to sign up via e-mail.
- Scan or search to get results for more than one million products and a detailed list of ingredients and information on possible health risks. The overall product rating depends on the ingredient with the highest risk level.
- Products are assigned one of four risk levels: from risk-free to low risk and moderate risk to high risk.
- Easy to use, gives clear advice and offers alternatives for products that it doesn’t recommend. This can be really helpful when you’re at the store and don’t have a lot of time to decide on a product.
- Each ingredient is assigned a risk level according to the most recent available data.
- Adds new products regularly and keeps improving the application.
- Gives detailed information on sources, so you can easily find and look them up.
- Doesn’t advertize but still pushes products through recommendations made by the app.
- Oversimplified product ratings (good, bad, excellent, poor) urge the consumer to quickly decide for or against a product.
- Forces users to sign up via email, cannot be used without registering.
- Recommendations aren’t always great alternatives for the product you originally searched for because they may be too different.
Five Skincare Checkers for You to Try
Ready to find healthy skincare products at a glance? Here’s a guide to five apps that you can try.
INCI Beauty is another app made in France, by two engineering students from a renowned chemistry school. The cosmetic ingredient checker is common throughout Europe but can be used in the U.S. as well. It is available in 13 languages, making it quite accessible. The app claims to be the “most completed” (meaning comprehensive) application on the market to help you decipher the contents of your cosmetics. Here’s what you need to know:
The app derives its name from the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient which is a system for names internationally recognized to identify cosmetic ingredients. The system is used in the U.S., Europe and many other parts of the world and is intended to enable consumers, scientists and physicians to identify ingredients used in personal care products through standardized designations. It can help recognize allergies and other adverse health effects caused by certain ingredients and increase transparency on a global level. An INCI name does not imply that an ingredient is safe or that it has been approved for use in cosmetics. Since the app uses the INCI system, the ingredients are globally recognizable.
How does it work and what are its best features?
- You can scan barcodes, search for product and ingredient names. Products are rated on a scale from 1 (controversial) to 20 (good).
- What’s nice is that you receive information on the safety of ingredients but also on a product’s other properties such as its texture, which may be relevant for your decision.
- It is a more community-driven app, it lets you comment on and rate individual products for everyone to see.
- The app compares online offers and gives suggestions on where you can buy a product you like.
- It recommends alternative products.
What are its drawbacks?
- Descriptions of individual ingredients and associated risks are not very accessible, also due to odd translations.
- Only some descriptions contain links to relevant sources, if any.
- Encourages user to shop for products by displaying different online offers.
- Premium account necessary to unlock all features (e.g. setting restrictions for unwanted ingredients)
Think Dirty was created by an independently-owned Canadian company and has been helping consumers decode product labels for several years now. Its large database features cosmetics and personal care products and offers good search results for products from the U.S. and Canada. Users in Europe have complained of a low product hit rate. The company states that it can identify over 850,000 individual products.
How it works:
- The app features the typical keyword search and you can both scan or type in barcodes.
- Products receive an overall rating on the “Dirty Meter” based on the worst individual ingredient score. The chemical makeup of products is then ranked on a scale of 1-10 from clean to “half n’ half” and dirty.
- You can create shopping lists, submit new products and “rate your bathroom.”
- Free download, but several features are only available with the premium account, such as setting ingredient preferences, unlocking ingredient lists for more detailed information about use, health impact and references. The free version also limits the product categories you can browse (mascara is not available, for instance).
- Categories go beyond product types and include lists on cruelty-free skincare, paraben-free skincare, vegan skincare and others. If you’re looking for even more transparency, you can always make your own products and decide for yourself what to put into them. This easy lotion bar recipe only uses 3 ingredients, for example.
- Describes ingredients and alternative phrases used for them, usage and health impacts.
- Helps you make quick decisions based on the available data.
- 40,000 reviews and 4.8 stars on the AppStore speak to its user-friendliness.
- The app is overloaded with offers and coupons, which make it seem primarily like a marketing tool for beauty products. In general, the app seems like a place where brands can easily reach consumers and convince them to make purchases. This may distract consumers from why they were using it in the first place and makes unbiased decisions difficult.
- Premium account contains relevant information that can be accessed for free in other apps and is somewhat costly at about 30 US Dollars per year.
- Not all ingredients in every product have received ratings, which makes overall product rankings somewhat unreliable.
Haven’t found the app that’s right for you? Here’s a brief description of three other ingredient checker applications focused on skincare:
Scan a bar code, get information on ingredients and suitable alternatives — you know the drill. What’s special about CosmEthics, an app that is well-structured and visually appealing, is that it puts your personalized skincare routine first. Besides giving information on the general safety of ingredients contained in your makeup, you can also decide in your settings which of them are safe for you to use. You can choose the ingredients you specifically want to avoid and get alerts on allergens, plastic and other unhealthy substances. Alternatively, you have the option to get alerts for ready-made lists of chemicals you may want to avoid. However, you need a premium account to unlock this feature. The paid subscription also lets you set a filter for cruelty-free products. While the app was designed by an EU-based company, it is available internationally.
Another way to make sure your products are “cruelty free” is to check for certifications such as the Leaping Bunny label.
Here’s a lesser known project that analyzes ingredient lists. It is available both as an app and on a website, so you don’t even have to download it, if you don’t want to. You can type in ingredients to get all the relevant facts or search for products. INCIDecoder is based in Europe, so this may have an effect on the products already referenced in the database. For each ingredient you type in you’ll get information on the products it appears in — take a look at the chemical composition, description and see some “proof”. You don’t need to subscribe or create an account to use the app.
Cosmily is a web-based ingredient checker that has a lot to offer. It looks a bit like a translation tool at first, and actually works in quite a similar way. Simply paste a list of the ingredients you want to study in a text box and get a safety report which “translates” the meaning of different chemical ingredients. You can find ingredient lists for many products on the manufacturers’ websites. The results will include the number of negative effects as well as positive effects (such as anti-aging, UV-filtering, antiseptic) of each product. Do keep in mind that positive effects don’t necessarily even out negative effects! Another unique feature this platform offers is a product comparison tool. Search for two products you want to compare and get a list of results for each. The results are displayed in an accessible way, as ingredients are labeled with symbols that are linked to adverse effects. The drawback: the information given is somewhat generic and does not explain what these effects mean, exactly. It can still be helpful if you’re deciding between two products and want to know which of the two is safest to use.
Other ingredient checkers for skincare products include Skin Sort, Skin Carisma, Skin Face and Good Face. Grab your phone and find out which works best for you!
Overall, we found that only a couple of these apps specify whether the recommended products are vegan. Fortunately, we have compiled some information on this issue. Our guides cover ingredients found in everyday products and you’ll learn whether cocoa butter is vegan, if carnauba wax is a vegan alternative to bee’s wax, or under which circumstances glycerin is vegan. We also have a guide on zero waste makeup in general, some of which is of course vegan.
Sustainable Cleaning Products: Two Reliable Ingredient Checkers
Here are two other web tools you can use to identify safer cleaning products.
EPA Safer Choice
Perhaps not a typical ingredient checker, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice Program offers consumers another way of scanning products for problematic ingredients. The agency has developed a label to mark products that they consider to be safe — both for you and the environment. Approximately 1,900 household and personal care products currently carry the label. You can check whether your product meets the EPA’s criteria on their website or browse the Safer Chemical Ingredients List. While this tool may not be as convenient as the typical barcode scanner, the EPA offers many valuable resources to help you learn about ingredient safety as well as identify health hazards beyond individual products. You can also explore product categories not included in other apps, such as those carrying the “Fragrance-Free” label. This label helps you identify products without fragrances, which lack toxicological data and may be associated with allergic responses.
One such product we use every day that almost always contains the blanket-term “fragrance” is hand soap. Here’s an all-natural DIY foaming hand soap recipe you can try instead!
EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning
Above we’ve already taken a close look at the EWG Healthy Living App, which is definitely a good place to search for healthy and sustainable cleaning products. However, if you do not want to download the app but simply want to check for cleaning products now and then, you can just go on their website to browse the Healthy Cleaning Guide. There you can search more than 2,500 products in more than 70 categories. The results offer brand and company information, including the manufacturer’s position on animal testing, as well as notes about product use, since “many hazard recommendations associated with chemicals depend on a product’s use and/or composition”.
- DIY Bath Salt: Homemade Bath Salts Recipe
- Is Hairspray Bad for Your Hair?
- Zero Waste Makeup: 5 Best Brands Made in the USA
Do you like this post?