One of my favourite things about this community is the enthusiasm with which people research; the desire to learn more about ingredients, products, and processes is insatiable! However, as anyone who has done much poking about in this space will know, there’s a lot of dubious sources out there, so today I wanted to give a bit of an overview for things I look for when deciding if a source is trustworthy or not. Some of these “red flags” are bigger than others, and the presence of one or two doesn’t necessarily mean you should outright discard a source, but as always, think critically about claims you read and use common sense 🙂
Does the website look reputable?
This is one of the first things you can check pretty easily. Is the website packed with ads for cheap pornography and weight loss supplements? Are you being besieged with pop-up ads for this “one weird ingredient that kills belly fat”? Is it full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes? Does something about it set off your spidey senses? If so, do some more research and see if you can corroborate the claims being made.
Are they trying to scare you? Are they appealing to fear and emotions?
Words like “toxic”, “poisonous”, “carcinogen”, and “dangerous” tend to be big red flags for me—but for the source, not the ingredient being discussed! A scientifically backed source will tend to say something like “may contain large amounts of free silica which can produce pneumoconiosis with chronic inhalation” (source), while a source trying to scare me will usually sound more like “this ingredient causes deadly pneumoconiosis“. Both things are technically true, but one of those statements is much scarier, and eliminates quite a lot of important information about the type and scale of exposure required to cause the illness, which can be fatal, but is far from 100% deadly.
I find the people who are most targeted with this sort of messaging are mothers (very understandable!), so definitely be on the lookout for phrases like “don’t use X on your children!” and “never let your child eat/do/touch/etc. X!” as potential red flags.
Are they trying way too hard to get your attention?
Not always a red flag, but if the site is full of rage and fear inducing headlines and rather hard to believe “did you know?!” facts, think critically. Is the writer of the article writing this way to bypass your critical thinking with incredulous rage or terror?
Are they dealing in absolutes?
Nothing is absolutely dangerous or safe (even the botulism toxin can be used safely—that’s botox!), so any source that is asserting anything is always safe or always dangerous is usually requires some critical examination. Look for information on concentration, dosage, usage, and exposure. Titanium dioxide is frequently called a carcinogen, while conveniently neglecting to mention that the required exposure levels are very high, the titanium dioxide must be aerosolized and inhaled, that inhaling fine insoluble powders of any variety in large amounts is likely to produce the same results, and that human studies have not backed up the assertion. From the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety:
With such widespread use of titanium dioxide, it is important to understand that the IARC conclusions are based on very specific evidence. This evidence showed that high concentrations of pigment-grade (powdered) and ultrafine titanium dioxide dust caused respiratory tract cancer in rats exposed by inhalation and intratracheal instillation*. The series of biological events or steps that produce the rat lung cancers (e.g. particle deposition, impaired lung clearance, cell injury, fibrosis, mutations and ultimately cancer) have also been seen in people working in dusty environments. Therefore, the observations of cancer in animals were considered, by IARC, as relevant to people doing jobs with exposures to titanium dioxide dust. For example, titanium dioxide production workers may be exposed to high dust concentrations during packing, milling, site cleaning and maintenance, if there are insufficient dust control measures in place. However, it should be noted that the human studies conducted so far do not suggest an association between occupational exposure to titanium dioxide and an increased risk for cancer.
Are they using “chemical” like it’s a bad word?
We’re made of chemicals. So are our homes, our pets, our loved ones, and our favourite foods. Chemicals can be naturally occurring or synthetic, and they are not inherently safe or dangerous. Water is a chemical, and so is oxygen. Too much of either can be lethal. Claiming a product or ingredient is chemical free (and therefore safe), or that something is dangerous because it’s “full of chemicals” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what a chemical is, and I find claims like this usually go hand-in-hand with a lot of other fear-based communications. One can argue that there’s an unsaid “toxic” or “dangerous” in front of the word “chemical”, but that’s just poor communication. If somebody told you to be afraid of all people, and then told you there was an unsaid “dangerous” in there when you pointed out their statement was so broad as to be utterly useless, I don’t think you’d give that person much credit.
Are they vilifying or praising an ingredient based on its inclusion in other products?
I often see info graphics lambasting ingredients because they are also present in products like antifreeze, as if its inclusion in a thing you shouldn’t eat makes it dangerous. By that logic we shouldn’t drink water—it’s in sewage, after all. The company an ingredient keeps in other formulas is fairly irrelevant. This also goes the other way—claims that an ingredient is safe just because it’s used in baby products (often on the writer’s baby…) also aren’t a true testament to safety.
Are they vilifying or praising an ingredient based on how it is manufactured?
This is typically followed by an assertion that the end product is contaminated with something harmful because of how it is manufactured. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s true for an industrial grade version of an ingredient, but not cosmetic or food grade. Definitely do some more research! On the other side of things—something is not safe just because it was cold pressed, steam distilled, fair trade, or organic.
Are they vilifying or praising an ingredient based on how “natural” it is or isn’t?
“Natural” is a word with no hard definition, and whatever that definition may be to you, or the writer of whatever it is you’re reading, “natural” is not a synonym for safe. Arsenic, botulism, hemlock, and cancer are all 100% “natural” by most definitions (they all occur in nature with no human intervention), but they definitely aren’t safe! It’s important to research individual ingredients to learn about how to safely and effectively use them, and putting them in a “natural” or “not” category isn’t a shortcut for that research.
Are they vilifying or praising an ingredient based on how common it is?
I see this most often in skin care recipes that use a lot of kitchen ingredients, asserting their safety because you already have them in your pantry and use them for other things in your life (usually cooking). Sometimes these ingredients are great multi-purpose ingredients (arrowroot starch comes to mind), while others (baking soda!) are not all they’re cracked up to be on Pinterest.
Are they appealing to your ignorance of an ingredient to make it sound scary?
This one is downright lazy—I don’t know a lot about many, many things, but that doesn’t mean things I don’t understand are bad. “Doesn’t X sound scary?! The name is long and has many syllables! It’s chemically and terrifying and must be avoided!” Agh.
Do they have sources? Are the reputable?
Are assertions of safety, danger, contamination, etc. being backed up with links to reliable, scientifically-backed resources that don’t set off a bunch of research red flags? Are they using a bunch of other articles they’ve written on their own website as their source?
Are there any conflicts of interest?
I once read a study that concluded that soaps and detergents were both wonderful. Said study happened to be sponsored by a very large corporation that owns many smaller brands that sold both soaps and detergents. Surprise, surprise.
Are they trying to sell you something or otherwise make money off you?
This isn’t always a red flag, but it’s definitely something to be aware of. Keeping a popular website online is not an inexpensive thing, so I don’t think you can fault a website simply for having ads or participating in an affiliate program (I definitely use both to offset the high costs of keeping Humblebee & Me online). However, if they are telling you that X ingredient is toxic and dangerous while conveniently selling a product line that is marketed on the basis of being X-ingredient-free, I’m skeptical and off to look for other sources. Basically, if you spot a bunch of other red flags the selling thing is a bigger deal than if they are otherwise providing sources and not trying to scare you.
Are they sourcing entire statements and assertions?
Eg: X ingredient contains Y (no source), and Y is a carcinogen (source). Both parts of this claim need to be true for it to be at all meaningful, but there’s only a source for half of it.
How recent is the information?
Check both the publication date of the article and the sources they’re using. I’m sure I could write a well-sourced article on the merits of Phrenology if I was sure to only use the finest resources from the early 1800’s! Science is a process of constant learning and growing, so if you’re reading something that’s using an article from the 1960’s as its sole source, do some checking and see if that 1960’s research is still supported.
Are they over-simplifying a complex issue?
Sometimes you won’t find much in the way of conclusive information, and then you’ll stumble across a single source claiming to fully understand what causes cancer or obesity or acne. If the general consensus seems to be “it’s complex, there’s lots going on here, we’re still learning”, it’s highly unlikely a single website has it all figured out and the rest of the world has simply failed to notice.
Is it an infographic being rampantly shared on Facebook or Pinterest?
Not all of them are bad, but many of them are—I’ve seen dozens of them that are basically a quilt of research red flags. They’re usually the ingredient equivalent of an urban legend like the type Snopes debunks every day; designed to be sensational and shocking to motivate people to share them. Sensational things are more likely to go viral, so these sorts of things are usually very inflammatory and if not outright wrong, are often very misleading.
Are they treating anecdotes as stone-cold truths?
There’s obviously quite a lot of variety in these sort of statements; many are just nice stories and add to a recipe or other research, but when they’re given too much weight it’s time to be wary. Statements like “this lotion made my dry skin less dry” are quite different from “my friend cured her cancer with X kitchen ingredient”. As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
Are they asking you to trust them for irrelevant reasons?
Statements like this often start with statements like “as a parent” or “as a survivor of X disease”, and are then followed with a assertion that has very little to do with the previous statement. For example, “As a parent I just knew I could never use X on my child because it’s dangerous.” Being a parent definitely imbues one with a massive sense of responsibility to raise their children safely, but it does not not give one bomb-sniffer-dog-like abilities to determine the safety of all the ingredients in everything at the drug store. Of course it’s very possible that this person has done lots of research and knows what they are talking about, but they shouldn’t be asking you to accept their assertions of safety or danger based on the sole fact that they have reproduced—they should be sharing their sources!
Are you finding exactly what you are searching for?
Thanks to Laura for this one—it’s great! If you do a search for “X ingredient danger” or “X ingredient causing cancer”, you’re almost certain to find something, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good source, or true. You just found a website that agrees with you.
- PubMed (try using Sci-Hub to read full articles; Google “Sci-Hub” to find the current URL as it changes frequently.)
- Cosmetics Info
- Chemists Corner
- The Beauty Brains
Alright, those are my red flags when I’m researching something! What are yours? And what are your tips for finding good information?