Many people scour the Internet for cheap deals on makeup, shampoo, conditioner, and skincare products.
But there’s rising concern that ingredients in personal-care items could have adverse health implications.
According to an American study published in 2018, the frequent use of specific cosmetic products might impact negatively on health. Especially in women, the use of cosmetics has been linked, among other things, to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Although no causation has been established, the study found increased morbidity in women who use cosmetic products more frequently. However, the findings require further examination in order to identify the mechanisms that cause the diseases and determine to what extent other lifestyle-related and environmental factors affected the likeliness to become ill.
An Israeli venture is already one step ahead.
Clearya offers consumers assistance in choosing products that are safe.
Its free web browser plugin accesses information whenever users search e-commerce sites like Amazon, Sephora, Walmart, iHerb, and Love Letter.
The widget detects the ingredients of various care products, cosmetics, and facial cleansers. In addition, it provides a complete description of any health hazards attributed to the identified ingredients from authorities including the World Health Organization.
Those substances include, among others, carcinogens, allergens, and hormonal disruptors.
What lies beneath?
Clearya was launched in May last year by Amit Rosner, a solar-energy entrepreneur who has been involved in technology for 15 years, focusing primarily on products related to big-data analysis.
“My specific concern with environmental pollutants started with a personal story,” says Rosner. “More than three years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. My wife is a vegetarian, a yoga teacher, and has no family history of the disease, so it caught us by surprise.
“After my wife had recovered, we decided to investigate and find out what the source of the disease might have been. We learned that one of the factors that potentially increases the chance of getting cancer and other diseases is environmental pollutants,” Rosner adds.
Environmental pollutants are contaminants that originate from the air, water, soil, consumer goods, and food. According to the World Health Organization, about 24 percent of deaths can be ascribed to environmental pollutants, which is a preventable problem.
“From studies that deal with exposure to chemicals in daily consumer products, including cosmetics and care products, we know that these substances have negative health effects. Those substances might impact especially sensitive populations such as pregnant women and their developing fetus,” explains Sherry Rosen, vice president of the Environment and Health Fund in Israel.
The list of chemical contents is long. For example, phthalates are a group of chemicals that are found in many products because they are related to the fragrance component. Typically, phthalates are not listed as such on the product, but as “perfume” or “fragrance.”
Phthalates are found to have several harmful health effects, potentially causing allergies and intensifying asthma symptoms. In addition, phthalates might impact the development of the reproductive system in males, leading to decreased fertility.
Heavy metals defined as pollutants, including lead, can be found in products such as lipstick, eye shadow, and nail polish. Some heavy metals are deliberately added while others are byproducts. Depending on the concentration, heavy metals are highly toxic and particularly dangerous for pregnant women as they can affect fetal development.
Yet another group of potentially health-damaging chemicals is antibacterial agents like triclosan, found in products such as toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. These are endocrine-disrupting (hormone-disrupting) substances and can affect thyroid activity.
Consumers left in the dark
“We decided to clean our house from environmental pollutants. At first, we thought it wouldn’t be too difficult, but it was only when we got to the bathroom that we realized the complexity of the problem,” Rosner stresses.
“We saw that cleaning, cosmetic and hygiene products all contain dozens of contents, and each content has dozens of synonyms. We realized that I needed to solve this problem for my family and me, but it would be a very intricate task to find out which contents are safe to use. Since I figured that google search would neither be very efficient nor effective, I decided to do it my way and developed a technological solution,” Rosner explains.
Rosner began researching and compiling a list of hazardous components from 15 official and scientific databases, including the California Environmental Protection Agency, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Government of Canada, the European Commission, the European Chemicals Agency, and the United Nations Environment Program.
“I was trying to find an automated way to analyze the content lists and understand if there is any content recognized by a qualified source as a potential health-risk substance. It was definitely helpful that I studied computational biology and computer science – bioinformatics — in my undergraduate degree,” Rosner says.
During his two-year research, Rosner found out that regulations and policies differ depending on the country regarding contents, and sometimes even in the same country, even when it comes to the exact same substance.
For example, the FDA’s list of prohibited substances for use in cosmetics contains only 10 individual substances or groups of substances, as compared to the EU, which bans the use of more than 1,300 ingredients.
The regulatory discrepancy between countries is further aggravated by the era of e-commerce. Today many products are bought online and shipped across borders, bypassing local or regional standards.
“Clearya is now able to identify thousands of contents that are classified as toxic by regulatory bodies or scientific research,” says Rosner.
How does Clearya work?
While you’re browsing makeup, skincare, hygiene, cleaning, and certain baby products, the plugin reads the list of ingredients the manufacturer has published in the online store, cross-links the names of the contents with toxins listed by regulators, and displays alerts if necessary.
“Clearya always reflects the risk as determined by the regulator or the scientific body and presents the data on the components at face value, without its own interpretations,” explains Rosner.
“All that Clearya does is inform the users what regulators have set, or what a scientific research center determines what is harmful and what is not.
This helps people who don’t have the time to do the research to make an informed decision about how to use the product efficiently and easily.
“Clearya’s objective is not to be an arbiter or a scientist, and it is not designed to scare people. The goal is to make information available that almost everyone already knows — the manufacturer knows it, the scientists know it and the regulators know it. The only one who doesn’t know it is the consumer,” says Rosner.
Sherry Rosen also emphasizes the importance of accessing information relating to questionable content in consumer products.
“It is very difficult for us as consumers to access the store and identify the problematic contents. When there is an independent organization that does the tracking for us and puts out an official list of recommended products and harmful contents and products, it will help the consumer to make the right choices and thus reduce their exposure to hazardous substances.”
This ZAVIT article was also published in Israel21c on 02/20/2020.