Think Dirty’s toxic test

People want the filthy truth about what's in the products they buy and put on their bodies. This app gives it straight.

It’s do or die time for cosmetic and personal care brands. Customers want goods they can trust won’t lead to serious health issues down the line, and retailers are backing them up by putting pressure on vendors to provide just that. Walmart and Target recently announced they’ve begun assessing and phasing-out products that contain harmful ingredients from store shelves. It’s a big, bold move that has set the tone for today’s health-conscious consumer landscape, and while the race is on to provide them with safer goods, there are also new platforms doing their bit to inform people about what they’re putting on their bodies.

One of these startups is Think Dirty, an app launched late last year by Toronto’s Lily Tse, who left her life in advertising (having worked at many agencies as an art director including Sid Lee, Taxi and Grey for 13 years) to pursue the truth about the potential harmful health and environmental impacts of chemicals being used in products. She designed and launched the product with the help of some contract developers and has since built it up to entail a comprehensive database of around 80,000 products from approximately 2,000 brands, she says, which consumers can use to look up ingredients by scanning the product bar code or searching by name.

But since anyone can look at the back label of a moisturizer, for example, and see the ingredients listed from A to Z, the app takes it a step further by breaking down each chemical with simple explanations of what they are and how they can potentially cause cancer and other diseases. Tse works with an advisory board made up of healthcare professionals and scientists to evaluate each chemical and uses publicly released data from non-profit and government sources to develop a toxicity rating, from one to 10, for each product. If a user is unable to find a product, they can submit a form for the Think Dirty team to investigate further, and Tse says it can take up to two weeks for the missing product and its rating to be added to the app.

Unlike other databases, Think Dirty exclusively focuses on the chemical content of a product, according to its website, and avoids assessing a brand by their CSR practices that may help to positively alter its rating, such as when a brand places a pink ribbon on its product packaging but uses ingredients that have been reportedly linked to breast cancer.

“We don’t actually say this product is bad because it’s from this brand,” explains Tse. “We say this ingredient is controversial because…it has this ingredient, which could potentially do X, Y and Z. It’s like saying a food item contains peanuts, which could potentially cause an allergic reaction.”

Since its launch, the app has seen 70,000 downloads, a number Tse is elated by and hopes will continue to rise to have the app become as prevalent and intuitive as, say, showrooming has become, with shoppers using the app to search and compare products the minute they step into an aisle at a pharmacy or grocery store. To generate more downloads, Tse has also partnered and is working with the Canadian Film Centre’s Ideaboost lab to support and create a strategy for promotion of the app. But for now, marketing is all being done through word of mouth, she says, with some social media content on Facebook and Twitter around health tips to further boost awareness of the app. Right now, Tse isn’t making any money off the free app, though she says she does have plans to monetize it, but remained mum on specifics.