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Guest Post by Amit Rosner

We got the wake-up call 4 years ago: my beloved wife Chen was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were shocked: why would a young and healthy yoga therapist, a vegetarian without a family history of cancer, get cancer? We will never know for sure, but according to a growing body of science, one reason could be exposure to carcinogens and hormone disruptors in our environment. A year later, following a surgery, chemo and radiation therapy, my wife recovered, and we restarted our life with a determined decision to keep toxic chemicals out of our home, and away from our two children.

Chen Rosner Orbach and Amit Rosner (Photo Credit: Michal Benedek)

Easier said than done! I remember stepping into our bathroom that day, picking up a bar of soap and a few creams to look at their ingredient lists, and realizing the magnitude of the challenge: it seemed as if these ingredient lists were intended to be indecipherable by us, the consumers. Where to start? Google doesn’t make it too easy to discern between facts and opinions, and the databases we found online were helpful, but left us with questions. These questions kept me awake at night, so I decided to use my tech experience and academic background in computational biology to develop a solution: an automatic “ingredient safety assistant” based on science and regulatory information.

It took two years of research and software development, and last May “Clearya” was born: for my family, and for everyone else to use:

Clearya displays alerts on potentially unsafe ingredients while shopping online

Clearya is a browser add-on. Once installed, it works automatically while you shop online at Sephora, Amazon, Walmart, iHerb etc. Clearya scans the ingredient lists of personal care products, make-up and other beauty products, baby care, and household products, and displays alerts on potentially unsafe chemicals – so people can find products with safer ingredients more easily.

Clearya spots unsafe chemicals by matching the ingredient names (and their synonyms!) to 15 different official toxic chemical lists, created by the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Government of Canada, the European Union’s Commission, the European Chemicals Agency, the United Nations Environment Programme, and others.

Evidently, the U.S. cosmetics regulation is so permissive, that Clearya often alerts on ingredients contained in products that are sold online despite being classified by California EPA and European regulators as linked to cancer, hormone disruptors, reproduction toxicants (may harm fertility), developmental toxicants (may cause birth defects and other harm to the developing child), not to mention allergens, and other banned or restricted ingredients.

Clearya is essentially a collective effort: every time a Clearya user browses a new safe or unsafe product online, the system gets a little smarter, and these cumulative insights can serve everyone. This month we looked back at 8,000 products visited by users recently, to see how common cancer-related ingredients in personal care and beauty products are. Many of the products passed the test without any alerts. But over a hundred products contained ingredients linked with cancer, and over a thousand products had ingredients linked with estrogenic hormone disruption. The analysis surfaced two more hidden risks: (1) The extensive use of chemicals that are harmless in their pure form but are prone to be contaminated by toxic byproducts of their manufacturing process. (2) The word “fragrance” on the labels of beauty and personal care products is ubiquitous as an “ingredient” due to a federal labeling loophole, because  it does not disclose the actual chemicals that make up the fragrance. You can read more about the findings here.

My favorite moment when using Clearya

My takeaways from our family’s journey? Legal doesn’t mean safe. “Natural” doesn’t mean safe either. Regulators haven’t yet closed the gap between what scientists know is harmful, and the ingredients in products that brands are still allowed to sell. In the meantime, we consumers are responsible for learning to read the labels, so we could make safer choices for our families. I also learned that completely avoiding every possible toxicant is impractical, but reducing one’s exposure is not difficult when you make it your goal.

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