We like to feature new technology that might benefit readers now and then. A few weeks ago I met an entrepreneur named Sabrina Noorani at the NY Allergy and Asthma Society who was with our contributor Dr. Purvi Parikh. She has developed a company called Clear for Me, which is a data base to inform consumers about the chemicals in cosmetics that might cause reactions. Other companies that have tried to do things like this with food allergens have struggled with their business model because it was based on charging individual consumers who would continually consult their mobile devices as they made their way around a supermarket or as they made a shopping list at home. Sabrina had a different idea—to supply vendors with the service at the point of sale to allow sales staff and consumers to check on whether unfamiliar products will cause any problems. Clever. So I sent her a list of questions. Here are the answers. –Henry Ehrlich
AAC.com: I understand that your idea for Clear for Me sprang from your own experience. Could you tell us what happened?
Sabrina: Six years ago, I noticed something was really wrong with the skin around my lips and mouth. At first it was very dry. Then, it puffed up, small bumps began to appear around my mouth, and the whole area started to turn red. The skin started to peel and eventually it peeled so much I got staph infections every other week. It was a huge source of embarrassment for me, and anytime someone came to talk to me face to face I was terrified. Needless to say, I was motivated to put an end to this.
After my dermatologist completed a skin patch allergy test, I found out I was allergic to Fragrance, Butyl-p-hydroxybenzoate, and Formaldehyde, three very common skin allergens. I thought “easy enough, I can avoid 3 things!” I then got a two page summary of each allergen, what it is, and my eye tunes in to this section “How can you avoid this allergen?” That’s when I realized the uphill battle I was in for.
Fragrance, one of the most common skin irritants and something that can be found in everything from soap, shampoo, makeup, cleaning products, has 32 different chemicals names used in ingredient labels! Butyl-p-hydroxybenzoate, a paraben and commonly used preservative, has 36 different chemicals synonyms. Formaldehyde, another very common preservative, has 12 different synonyms. In order for me to avoid 3 allergens, I had to now look for 80 different chemical names on every single product I use, touch, or have in my house!
Even after knowing what to avoid, the task proved impossible!
I knew there had to be an easier way. How can I as a consumer, navigate the sea of confusing ingredient labels and find products that are clear for me?
AAC.com: How did you conclude that it was ingredients in your skin and hair-care products?
Sabrina: Based on the symptoms I was exhibiting – puffiness, tightening of the skin, inflammation, constant peeling – it was most clear to me that this was an allergic reaction. It was either something I was ingesting or putting on my skin. All my food allergy tests came back negative but once I went for patch testing for skin irritants – the results clearly showed ingredients that are mostly used and found in cosmetic products (makeup, personal care, and skin care).
AAC.com: How many of the offending additives do typical women and men encounter in a day?
Sabrina: The average women uses 12 personal care and cosmetic products a day and there are about 14 ingredients per product. That means, on any given day, a women is exposed to 168 ingredients on average a day. The average male uses 6, so he’s exposed to 84 different chemicals a day. This doesn’t even include cleaning and other household products like laundry detergent, etc.
AAC.com: Aren’t all ingredients listed on packaging? Doesn’t that make it easy to avoid harmful ones? Or do some of these things have aliases, the way, say, dairy proteins are sometimes listed on foods, which confuses label readers?
Sabrina: Yes, you’re right. Ingredients are listed on packaging but, there is no regulation on using a standard ingredient name for each chemical. What that means is a manufacturer can use one of many synonyms for a chemical which is why it’s so HARD to avoid harmful ingredients. For example, if you’re allergic to Formaldehyde, a very commonly used preservative that can be found in Dove BodyWash, Aveeno Shampoo, Softsoap Handsoap and is one of the most common skin allergens out there, you have to know 12 different names that can be used in ingredient labels in order to avoid just this one irritant – Formaldehyde. Gluten, in personal care products has 27 different chemical names used in ingredient labels. Nickel, another very common skin irritant, has 19 different names.
AAC.com: How many of these things are there?
Sabrina: Did you know the FDA doesn’t require cosmetic products or ingredients to be approved before going on the market? Did you know while the EU has banned over 1300 ingredients from personal care products sold in Europe, the US only has 10 banned ingredients? To answer your question, due to the lack of regulation here in the US with the products we use on our skin, face, and bodies, there are thousands of ingredients being used by manufacturers. Allergists and Dermatologists now utilize skin allergy patch testing to help patients determine which ingredients, of the ones that have been found to be the most irritating, are the cause for your allergy. There are at the moment 500 allergens that one can be tested for through patch testing.
AAC.com: What does your app do?
Sabrina: Over the last year, ClearForMe has built a database with just over 690,000 products across a wide range of products: cleansers, moisturizers, makeup, baby products, household products and more. Our app lets you pick the ingredients you want to avoid and we then show you what products are clear of those ingredients and their synonyms.
It’s a simple 3 step process:
1. YOU choose the ingredients you care about in your products,
2. YOU tell us what type of product you’re looking for and
3. WE will show you which products are clear for you
Whether you’re someone like myself who has allergies, my friend who just had a baby and wants to use safer products, or my cousin who suffers from acne – I strongly believe we all should be able to find products that work for us based on the ingredients we care about. I understand the fear, frustration consumers have finding cosmetic products because I went through it. I have been terrified walking through the aisles trying to find products that won’t cause my lips to itch like crazy and peel so much I can get an infection. I’m doing this because I want to be an advocate for those that deal with the things that I have had to deal with.
AAC.com: I have spoken to many ambitious developers who thought they had a killer app in the food allergy space. But usually they disappear. I suspect that many of them do so because they realize that consumers are accustomed to free information. Can you tell me what your business model is and why you expect it to pay off?
Sabrina: The opportunity for retail going forward is to help consumers make a choice as there are too many options now for everything – there are hundreds of cleansers, hundreds of moisturizers and with the internet – we as consumers can buy these things from anywhere in the world (the local corner store, online, or from a boutique across the country). We’re not limited to the options at our local store. For a retailer to stand out – they need to offer a service that meets the growing demand for personalization. The retailers that are focused on niche tailored product offering are the ones that are winning. Whole Foods has focused their product offering to a niche of products that meet the needs for health conscious consumers and only sell products that cater to this type of consumer. The growth of Whole Foods across the country is a testament to it resonating with consumers. Sephora is seeing year over year growth all behind personalization services implemented in their stores. They have face scanners that show skin tone of a customer, which a sales associate can then use to give product recommendations tailored to that customer’s skin type.
The future of retail is beholden to the idea of customization for consumers.
Given the breath of our database size, and given that we are the only ones that normalize ingredients in terms of their allergens and synonyms – our database is going to be a portal for retailers to offer a personalized experience for consumers to find the products they should buy based on the ingredients they care about. Our model is to license our database to retailers, online and in-store, to help them curate this type of product offering for their consumers.
Sabrina Noorani is a founder, sports fan, and wellness advocate. She grew up in Miami, moved to NY to study Finance and Information Systems at NYU, and has remained in the city ever since. Before her journey as an entrepreneur, she ran a derivatives trading desk on the New York Stock Exchange and helped build an institutional desk from the ground up at a hedge fund in the city. When she’s not working on ClearForMe you can find her trying out a new restaurant or a fun new workout, bringing wellness warrior weekends to NYC, exploring the city with her husband, and preparing for a newborn.
PS–asthmaallergieschildren.com received no remuneration for this post. (Dammit) Like everything else we publish, it is provided to inform our readers.