Top model and Kardashian half-sister Kendall Jenner has been known to tout Estee Lauder's Drop Dead Red shade of lipstick.
Jenner followers take note: the lipstick has ingredients that, according to health and beauty app Think Dirty, could be harmful. Think Dirty scans cosmetics labels and rates the lipstick a 7—or three points short of the dirtiest grade on a 1-to-10 scale. The putative culprit: polyethylene, a polymer commonly used in cosmetics that Think Dirty says could cause allergies in some people. (Estee Lauder Cos Inc. says polyethylene is not a known allergen.)
In shopping centers around the world, shoppers bent on finding out what they're putting on their bodies are scanning everything from lipstick to skin cream. Canada's Think Dirty, America's EWG Healthy Living and France's Yuka are among dozens of apps that zero in on allegedly unsafe ingredients inside cosmetics. "We don't care what the label looks like or what your brand is called," says Lily Tse, the founder of Toronto-based Think Dirty. "We just care about the ingredients list." Her company's home screen asks: "Is your bathroom Kardashian-filthy?" a jab at products recommended by the Instagram-happy TV clan. (A Jenner representative didn't respond to a request for comment.)
The beauty industry takes a dim view of the apps, arguing that they provide a distorted and alarmist picture of their products. Estee Lauder Inc., Clarins Group, Procter & Gamble Co. and L'Oreal SA all say their products have been tested, are safe and comply with regulations.
Not so long ago, consumers concerned about the potential for cancerogenic or irritating ingredients in their beauty routine had to memorize long lists of unpronounceable compounds and squint at labels. The extra effort to verify the makeup of toothpaste or shampoo meant that this remained a niche pursuit for obsessives; most shoppers were willing to trust the product manufacturer. Think Dirty and its ilk have made the process as easy as scanning a label. The apps are free but say they're starting to monetize their services by consulting for brands and charging those that comply with their standards for an official seal of approval.
"Before the apps there didn't use to be a simple way to check the ingredients," says Julie Raphanel, a 30-year-old Frenchwoman who started mixing her own beauty products at home after becoming more concerned about certain ingredients that were still common in natural brands. "I wasn't able to find totally clean products, even with organic labels."
Cosmetics companies have spent decades ginning up new chemicals in an effort to create alluring slippery-smooth conditioners and soaps that smell like a Tahitian waterfall. And while the industry spends millions to verify product safety and says it hews to government regulations, some shoppers feel the standards are insufficiently strict.
The mistrust has only grown as companies race to add—and advertise—natural ingredients without bothering to remove ones considered toxic. L'Oreal, which was founded by a chemist and sells dozens of popular brands from Armani perfume to Garnier shampoo, has struggled to maintain growth in the U.S. even as "clean" beauty startups race ahead. The company has responded by launching its first organic, plant-based hair dye and by expanding its Garnier Whole Blends line, whose "nature-inspired" shampoos feature pictures of avocados, papayas and berries. But the products still include chemical compounds clean-beauty adherents consider potentially toxic, such as benzyl salicylate and phenoxyethanol, which some believe cause allergies and disrupt hormones.
Last month Bloomberg went on a Paris shopping expedition armed with the Yuka app. Products touting natural formulations with oatmeal and honey surprisingly failed to pass muster. "Matte Moisturizer" from the naturally marketed skincare and makeup brand Origins, which is owned by Estee Lauder, flashed a "Bad" rating and a bright red dot because of its titanium dioxide coloring, which the app says can cause cancer. A moisturizer from high-end Clarins got a 0 out of 100 score because it contained synthetic mineral oils—which some people suspect cause cancer—while P&G's Old Spice deodorant, a drugstore staple with a tangy chemical smell, earned a green light for the absence of aluminum salts.
"We want brands to become more transparent and make cleaner products, so we're pushing them in that direction," says Kahina Benhebri, the 32-year-old, self-described "cosmetics hacker "who founded the app CompoScan. "All the green washing has made consumers distrustful and it needs to stop."
Clarins Chairman Christian Courtin-Clarins warns that scanning app results can be inconsistent and scientifically unfounded. "It's like every app is coming up with their own ingredient to ban," he said in an emailed response to questions.
The app makers say they rely on scientific studies for much of their information. For example, several use CosIng, the same European database cosmetics brands use to show whether ingredients are allowed or banned, and under what conditions (maximum concentration for instance). In some cases, apps cite scientific reports, such as one issued in September by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners that flagged a number of common ingredients linked to cancer, hormonal dysfunction or harm to the reproductive system.
Beauty giants say the reality is much more complicated than the apps make it out to be. For instance, some ingredients are dangerous if ingested but not if they stay outside the body. Others are harmless in tiny quantities but questionable in bigger doses—though it's hard to gauge how much exposure you're getting from a morning routine that includes multiple products from toothpaste and shower gel to deodorant and face cream.
"We're all for transparency and we support consumers' need for clear, reliable and independent information," L'Oreal said in an e-mailed statement. "These apps don't seem to have a scientific basis though: ratings vary from one app to the next and are essentially based on the presence of certain ingredients they consider dangerous even as our industry is subject to the world's strictest regulations."
The challenges to long-time players like L'Oreal and Estee Lauder are an opportunity for upstarts to swoop in with their own "clean" brands. Canada's Purelygreat makes natural deodorant, while France's Aroma-Zone, which started out by selling essential oils online, has expanded into physical stores and now makes its own products. Then there's Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. While the media-wellness company has been widely criticized (and successfully sued) for unverified scientific claims, it has had no trouble selling $100 face oils and $185 "glow kits" free of petroleum, pesticides, parabens, sulfates and gluten for the past couple of years.
"Companies are perfectly able to take out these ingredients," says Erin Cotter, Goop's senior vice president of beauty. "One reason not to is cost of goods; the other is the question that it raises about the product that's already on the market. We've been transparent in saying that this is not an exact science. We just err on the side of caution."