EWG — If you’re a K-beauty lover, then you’re very familiar with these three little letters.
For instance, last year I referenced EWG in a review for the Suntique I’m Pure Cica Suncream. The phrase “EWG Green” is front-and-center on the tube as one of the sunscreen’s key selling points. It has an EWG rating of 1-2, which deems it “very safe.”
I’ll be honest: I took that EWG rating at face value back then. I didn’t know much about the EWG before regularly using Korean skincare products. On the surface, it looks like a legitimate watchdog organization that’s committed to making sure the products we put on our face are safe.
But in the months since I’ve written that sunscreen review, I’ve been learning that the EWG isn’t without its controversies, but that hasn’t stopped numerous K-beauty brands from working tirelessly to meet the standards of an organization that isn’t even based in their own country.
What is the EWG?
EWG is short for the Environmental Working Group. Founded in 1993, the EWG is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that’s headquartered in Washington, DC. Per its “About Us” page
The Environmental Working Group’s mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. With breakthrough research and education, we drive consumer choice and civic action.
The EWG’s key issues span many categories, including consumer products, water, food, and cosmetics. In 2004, the organization poised itself to become an authority on cosmetic safety with the launch of Skin Deep, a database of ingredients that’s meant to “fill in where industry and government leave off” since the United States Food & Drug Administration does not test cosmetics before they hit the market.
EWG’s rating system consists of two parts: a hazard score (potential toxicity of an ingredient) and a data availability score (the amount of accessible scientific literature published on an ingredient). The lower the score, the safer the product in the eyes of the EWG. Anything rated between 1 and 2 is given a green label and deemed Low Hazard / EWG Verified. A database of EWG Verified products can be accessed here.
The EWG and Controversy
EWG has become a prominent authority in the clean beauty movement despite a number of controversies.
One of the most thorough articles I found on the EWG’s questionable role in the skincare landscape comes from The Eco Well. It touches upon the EWG’s funding by the organic lobby, the organization’s propensity for fearmongering (in particular, parabens), and — most intriguingly, to me — subtly promoting products for purchase via affiliate links, regardless of threat level. (Case in point, this Aveeno moisturizer, which has been downgraded from a 10 to 7 on the hazard scale since the article was published last year. Dangerous, but not enough to pass up a chance to make a small profit from it!)
Influence Watch, which critiques major influencers of public policy issues, cites the scientific criticisms towards the EWG as overstating risks of chemicals (read about the original survey, conducted in 2009, here), supporting antivaccination due to proposed autism risks (since debunked), and opposition of GMOs due to a conflict of interest (EWG’s founder has ties to the organic food industry).
EWG’s Place in K-Beauty
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Glowies, I have the #mondayblues for the Keep Cool Soothe Water. The original formula of this cleansing water made me fall in love so hard that I never wanted to use anything else ever again for my AM cleanse. The new formula however… *sigh* I’ve been holding off on writing this review since September 2019. Let’s go back to the beginning. In fall 2018 @keepcool_global gave me a giant 500mL bottle of their original Green Shower Cleansing Water. After a month of every morning use I was converted. The itchy, red splotches around my upper neck and jaw were GONE. I think my previous AM cleansing method (rinse with water) left a residue on my neck that caused irritation and inflammation over time. Then, in late winter 2019, Keep Cool sent a travel sized bottle of the NEW Phyto Green Shower Cleansing Water as well as a travel sized foaming pump bottle. I was only part of the way through my original bottle so I didn’t look at the new version very closely. At first I assumed it was a new packaging of the old product. Oh was I wrong. The purpose of that foaming pump bottle was so that you could turn the new Soothe Water into a regular foaming cleanser rather than just swiping it across your face on a cotton pad. You see, the new version was now SOAPY. It has different surfactants than the original Soothe Water. Part of the reason for reformulation was so that the EWG rating of the ingredients would be very low. IDGAF what the Environmental Working Group thinks of various ingredients. They are NOT a scientific authority, and they are NOT unbiased. What they ARE is an American political lobby group. Yes, that’s right, they are lobbyists. They’re a group that uses the non-profit classification in order to run a tax-sheltered business model so that they can influence the direction of laws written at the state- and federal-level. In America. Why should ANY OF US outside of the US care what an American lobby group has to say? Why do they get to influence skincare originating in Korea? I don’t like it. Alas, having an EWG rating of 2 or less creates consumer interest due to the perception that it is more “safe”.
This Instagram post from one of my good skincare friends, Chelsea (@skincarebymoonlight), sheds some light on how the EWG is influencing South Korean labels.
In her example, she talks about the Keep Cool Phyto Green Shower Cleansing Water, which was reformulated last year to become more EWG-compliant. For both my friend and myself, this came at the expense of taking a product that we both loved and turning into something that, well, we don’t particularly care for.
I think Chelsea hit the nail on the head when she asked:
Why should ANY OF US outside of the US care what an American lobby group has to say? Why do they get to influence skincare originating in Korea?
The EWG influence is not limited to Keep Cool. EWG’s stronghold on K-beauty is evident. Just look at brands like Purito, The Vegan Glow, and Knours. Each of these labels proudly proclaims that its products are EWG-compliant.
But why is it so important for Korean-made beauty products to be EWG-compliant? Is it to cater to a United States market, in particular? Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. EWG ratings are heavily emphasized on Korean-language marketing materials and product pages.
The likely reason for that? Hwahae.
Hwahae and EWG Ratings
Hwahae is a free app that analyzes and ranks beauty products. Although it’s totally in Korean, skincare lovers around the world swear by it. Per recent responses to user comments from Hwahae in the Google Play app store, an English version is not forthcoming. However, there are several guides available for non-Korean speakers so they can break through the language barrier.
There are two components to the Hwahae app. First, it breaks down the ingredients lists and assigns ratings based on the EWG’s scale. It also indicates if a product contains any of the Toxic 20 and/or common potential allergens.
The other component is user reviews. Skincare lovers can leave ratings and comments for any product featured on Hwahae. The highest-ranked items are featured on Hwahae’s best-of lists. K-beauty brands with products that receive high Hwahae rankings use that as a selling point.
Since launching in 2013, Hwahae has been downloaded more than 5 million times, That makes it kind of a big deal, especially in South Korea.
As to why Hwahae and the EWG are so closely intertwined, I haven’t been able to find a direct answer to that question. Nor do I know if EWG ratings have been key criteria of Hwahae since its inception seven years ago.
However, I did come across a couple of quotes from two major players in the K-beauty industry regarding Hwahae’s influence on brands to become “cleaner” due to the EWG.
Peach and Lily founder Alicia Yoon is quoted in this 2018 article from Glossy as saying:
‘[Hwahae] encourages beauty brands to be EWG,’ said Yoon, speaking of a metric used to measure how clean a product is. ‘For us, EWG [verified] was not the end-all-be-all, so we also looked at other ingredients that could be sensitizing. That was our bar.’
Meanwhile, Glow Recipe co-founder Sarah Lee spoke with W in 2017:
One great example is an app in Korea called Hwahae, where licensed beauty experts provide audits for every major product, with detailed data on ingredients, the safety level, and aggregation of consumer reviews–think of it as Wikipedia or Yelp for K-beauty. The app [Hwahae] has become influential enough to drive companies to change formulations to cleaner, more natural ones. This app is actually considered the first tool you use when deciding whether to make a purchase. You can bet brands are paying attention to what people say on this app.
The Hwahae / EWG Influence
Remember that Keep Cool cleansing water? I took a look at its Hwahae page, which includes data on both the old and new formulas:
A quick skim of the reviews doesn’t show me anything that specifically calls out the one “bad” ingredient in this cleansing water. But I’m also limited to how well I can interpret these reviews because I don’t know Korean well. (Although if Google Translate is accurate, it seems the one common complaint is that the bottle is too big?!)
By the way, the Toxic 20 ingredient in question is PEG-6 caprylic/capric glycerides, which the EWG flags for “limited evidence of sense organ toxicity” and “high contamination concerns” due to 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, which are rated in the red at 5-8 and 8-10 on the EWG scale, respectively.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), which is supported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America, found that PEG-6 caprylic/capric glycerides contain trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane (<5 ppm) and ethylene oxide (≤1 ppm). A 2014 study from the Foundation of Korea Cosmetics Industry Institute referenced the CIR’s findings, adding that:
PEGs and PEG derivatives were generally regulated as safe for use in cosmetics, with the conditions that impurities and by-products, such as ethylene oxides and 1,4-dioxane, which are known carcinogenic materials, should be removed before they are mixed in cosmetic formulations.
Presumably, Keep Cool, and the myriad cosmetics companies that use PEG-6 caprylic/capric glycerides as an emollient in their products, do all that they can to make sure this ingredient is as pure as possible upon adding it to their formulations. (This is also a good time for me to note that I am not a chemist and science was one of my worst subjects in school. But I like to think I’m not too shabby at drawing conclusions!)
Keep Cool has replaced the PEG-6 caprylic/capric glycerides in its cleansing water with disodium cocoamphodiacetate and hexylene glycol, which are deemed safe by the EWG. The former contributes to the foaming effect of the water (which I’m not a fan of), while the latter makes the product more solvent and viscous.
Of course, this is just one example of a K-beauty product that made a change to improve its EWG standing on Hwahae. I trust there are more out there to be investigated. (If you have examples, please do share them with me!)
What Can We Do As Consumers?
Regardless of how you feel about it, “clean beauty” is a trend that shows no signs of stopping. Consumers want to be savvy about which ingredients are best for their skin and want to do all that they can to avoid anything considered dangerous or toxic. And that’s admirable.
Unfortunately, the clean beauty trend yields a culture of fearmongering among brands and influencers who preach that “chemicals are bad.” (Remember that everything is a chemical!)
So what can we do as consumers who want to make the best decisions for their skin and overall health and safety?
For as much muck as the internet generates, it can also be a useful tool for educating yourself on the science behind the products you use. Sites like the aforementioned The Eco Well and Chemist Corner are good places to start. On Instagram, @kindofstephen and @labmuffinbeautyscience are two of the most well-renowned and respected accounts when it comes to setting the record straight on ingredient safety.
And honestly? You can still look to the EWG for information but have a discerning eye. There is often a glimmer of truth to be found in wrong or misguided information that can lead you to the larger picture.
As for Hwahae? EWG ratings aside, it certainly has its value as a user-generated database of K-beauty products. I’ve only started using it recently while writing this piece so I can’t give any meaningful personal feedback on it right now, but it sure is nicer to look at than CosDNA.
Ultimately, you need to heed your skin’s needs and not be afraid to question anything you don’t understand. The latter is probably one of the most important things I’ve gained from becoming more involved in skincare (besides a glowing complexion, obvs). There’s nothing wrong with being curious and doing your due diligence in researching not only ingredients but also the organizations that play a key role in influencing how your favorite brands formulate their products.
Now Over to You…
Were you aware of the EWG’s background? What do you make of its influence in the K-beauty realm? And have you ever had a product you like change formulas due to the EWG, K-beauty or otherwise? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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I am not a professional. All opinions are my own.