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Hair Care Ingredient Apps: Reliable or Not?

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Image of woman with hands up with the words "yes' over one hand and "no" over the other hand, and the "Think Dirty" app above her head.

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In recent years, a lot of people have grown more conscious of the ingredients in their personal care items. Modern technology now allows you to easily check the ingredients of everyday products (including new products), such as shampoos and styling items, using smartphone apps, providing a convenient and quick way to create shopping lists of “safe alternatives,” adhering to the growing demand for transparency in product formulation.

These apps are designed to identify potentially harmful chemicals, a topic that remains subject to scientific debate. Users can scan a product barcode to receive information about its contents, including potential allergens and carcinogens. However, the accuracy of this information is often questioned.

While some apps draw their data from reputable sources, the reliability and oversight of these sources can vary. For instance, non-profit organizations monitoring product safety may provide useful insights, but their lack of regulatory oversight and potential biases toward certain products can make their recommendations less transparent.

To address the confusion caused by these conflicting online resources, I consulted a hair science expert and cosmetic formulator with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. This expert can offer a more informed perspective on the efficacy and safety of hair product ingredients, helping consumers make better-informed decisions.

Understanding Cosmetic Science in the Digital Era

Cosmetic science and formulation chemistry are dynamic fields that are experiencing continuous evolution with the introduction of new technologies. Today, formulation scientists and manufacturers have embraced the digital marketplace to sell products and educate customers.

They leverage social media platforms to explain the scientific breakthroughs and technical details behind their products, the specific ingredients used, and how these contribute to the product’s effectiveness. This digital era has significantly increased consumer awareness, encouraging scientists to devote more effort to research and development.1,2,3,4

However, the vast expanse of online information is not always accurate or scientifically validated. Some online platforms, unfortunately, mislead consumers, presenting information without proper scientific backing, validation, or logical reasoning.

Often, these sources lack appropriate citations to authoritative bodies or publications, such as the Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the IFSCC Journal, FDA regulations, the CAS registry, or the National Institute of Science & Technology (NIST).

Compounding this issue are web applications designed to provide consumers with specific information about product ingredient lists, including potential toxic chemicals and risks of an allergic reaction.

Apps like “Think Dirty” categorize ingredients as either “Good” or “Bad” and assess the overall quality and efficacy of products. They also label products as “Skin Friendly” or potentially “Toxic,” alerting users to the presence of “toxic chemicals/ingredients” or “dirty ingredients,” prompting you to look for “cleaner options” and “safe products.” However, this binary classification system oversimplifies the complex science behind cosmetic formulations and may not accurately reflect the true nature of these beauty products (including hair care products).

These apps are widely used by consumers seeking basic information about ingredients and product quality, yet their verdicts on product efficacy and safety may not be the most appropriate criteria for defining a product’s quality.

What is the Think Dirty App?

The Think Dirty app, similar to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), is an initiative by a non-governmental commercial organization. It provides a comprehensive database of ingredients commonly used in personal care products.

This app, available on platforms like the Apple App Store, often includes a search bar, making it easier for users to look up individual ingredients, from active ingredients in hair products to skincare items and even household products.

Think Dirty’s barcode scanning functionality stands out as a key feature. By simply scanning a personal care product’s barcode, the app swiftly gathers and processes data, assessing the product’s overall safety or the safety of individual ingredients. It then assigns a numerical score or rating to each, effectively translating complex safety data into understandable metrics. This rating system is specifically designed to help consumers gauge the potential health impacts of the ingredients, making it easier to make informed choices.

This user-friendly feature significantly streamlines the process of evaluating product safety. It’s an especially valuable tool for individuals with sensitive skin or particular skin types, offering a quick and straightforward way to understand the suitability and safety of personal care products.

Additionally, Think Dirty maintains a list of verified brands. These brands are considered to meet the app’s standards for safety and quality and are recommended for consumer use on skin, scalp, or hair. This list serves as a guide for consumers seeking products that align with Think Dirty’s safety and quality criteria.

Is the Think Dirty App Reliable, Trustworthy, and Scientific?

When evaluating the reliability and scientific accuracy of the Think Dirty app, it’s important to understand its operational framework. Think Dirty is a commercial entity, not a non-profit organization. One aspect of their business model includes offering certification to brands, which implies a potential commercial interest. This is evident from their subscription packages, where brands pay for certification. Such a model could raise questions about impartiality and objectivity in their ratings and recommendations.

Moreover, when using the barcode scanner feature, the Think Dirty app often fails to cite references for the data on specific ingredients or disclose the source of its information.

This lack of citation and transparency can be concerning from a scientific standpoint. Without clear references or scientific backing, the information provided can potentially mislead consumers, offering them an inaccurate understanding of a product’s safety and quality.

Accessing Reliable and Accurate Information on Cosmetic Ingredients

We as consumers have the right to know accurate and scientifically backed information about our products, especially concerning our skin, scalp, or hair. Understanding the science behind ingredients and formulation synergy is crucial in assessing a product’s suitability and compatibility.

With the abundance of sources available, determining which ones are trustworthy can be challenging. So, how can consumers ensure they are getting the most trustworthy and authentic information?

Numerous government bodies provide online databases and documents that are invaluable for anyone seeking detailed regulatory information, safety assessments, and toxicity data on a cosmetic product label. They are:

  1. FDA Online Portal: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers an extensive online database. It provides up-to-date information on various product categories, ingredient usage, and dosage limits for different types of products (oral, leave-in, rinse-off, etc.). This information is freely accessible and constitutes public domain data compiled by industry groups, experts, and scientists.5
  2. European Consumer Products Portal: Similarly, Europe has an accessible portal offering detailed information on consumer products. Like the FDA portal, this European database allows users to search and filter many documents to obtain specific information about any cosmetic ingredient.6
  3. Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR): Another valuable resource is the Cosmetics Ingredient Review, an industrial group that includes a panel of scientists, industrialists, experts, and government officials from the USA. This group conducts regulatory assessments of cosmetic ingredients and publishes their findings online. These reports are also available for free download.7

These comprehensive databases offer a wealth of documents that can be easily searched or filtered to find specific information about any list of ingredients used in cosmetics. They are particularly useful for addressing key concerns that consumers may have about these ingredients, such as:

  • What is this ingredient?
  • Why is it used in this product? What is its function or role?
  • Is it safe for use in hair or skincare products?

These three sources – the FDA, the European Consumer Products Portal, and the CIR – offer authentic, accurate, and reliable information. They are freely accessible and provide comprehensive data.

Consumers can easily search and filter the required information for any ingredient found in their products, ensuring they make informed decisions based on trustworthy sources.

Navigating Cosmetic Information Wisely: A Consumer’s Guide

Adopting a vigilant and discerning approach is crucial to making informed decisions about cosmetic products. While ingredient checker apps offer convenience, they should not be your sole source of information. It’s advisable to delve into the resources provided by governmental regulatory bodies, which are often more trustworthy and accurate.

Critically evaluate the content when reviewing information on any online website, blog, or content page. Pay special attention to the references cited and, if possible, consult these original sources directly. This practice allows you to access firsthand research and better understand the topics discussed.

Remember, not all information presented in ingredient checker apps, web pages, or blogs is accurate or trustworthy. Dedicate time to conduct your research rather than relying solely on these easily accessible sources. Doing so ensures that the information you use to make decisions about cosmetic products is accurate and credible.

Recommended Sources of Information: Best Websites


  1. Kirk-Othmer, Chemical Technology of Cosmetics. Wiley: 2012. ↩︎
  2. Blaschke, J. W., Globalization of cosmetic regulations. Food & Drug LJ 2005, 60, 413. ↩︎
  3. SHAI, A., Handbook of cosmetic skin care. 2015. ↩︎
  4. Harry, R. G.; Rieger, M. M., Harry’s Cosmeticology. 8th ed.; Chemical Publishing Company Incorporated (NY): 2000. ↩︎
  5. FDA Cosmetics ↩︎
  6. Eu CosIng – Cosmetics Ingredients ↩︎
  7. Cosmetics Ingredient Review ↩︎


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