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Is the Yuka app scientifically based?

Yuka is an app born in 2017 that allows you to scan the barcode of foods and body products to have an evaluation of the ingredients that compose them and their “impact on health”. It has more than 20 million users and 2 million people have downloaded it in Italy alone. It is very easy to use and very intuitive thanks to the “traffic light” display: the red dot means “risky”, the green good and in the middle there are the orange and yellow dots. When encountering a product that it considers risky, Yuka offers the user alternative solutions that it considers healthier.

A few days ago, the Antitrust Authority (AGCM) – what we are used to calling “Antitrust” – started an investigation on Yuka on the grounds that its assessments could affect consumer behavior in a harmful way. . The latest book by the scientific popularizer expert in cosmetics Beatrice Mautino, It is natural beauty, released in November for Mondadori, starts right from the Yuka case to explain how it happened that in recent years we have become so attentive to “natural”, “organic”, “green” and “healthy” things and how few scientific bases there are behind these words.

– Read also: Italy against labels that indicate the wholesomeness of food

Below we report the extract on Yuka taken from the first chapter: Clean beauty: is there more beyond marketing ?.


Let’s take a practical example by taking my own cream, the one that Yuka rated as poor, giving it zero points. In the screenshot, the first ingredient that comes up at the top of the list with all the labels is a red label preservative, propylparaben. Preservatives are used to ensure the safety of products, prevent our cosmetics from becoming moldy and, consequently, protect us. They are very effective substances, for which minimal quantities are sufficient to obtain the expected result, so much so that on the label, where the ingredients are organized in descending order from the most present to the least present, you must always go and look for them at the bottom of the list . Yuka, on the other hand, puts propylparaben in the first position because the order chosen by the app is not that of quantity, but that of color: first all the reds, then all the oranges, then the yellows and finally the greens, grouped together. The choice to distribute them in this way gives great importance to the presumed dangerousness of the ingredient and generates a certain anxiety. I often receive messages from people who tell me they realized thanks to Yuka that they had the pantry and the bathroom cabinet full of “junk”. But I would like to try to offer you a reasoning, keeping the color scheme proposed by the app for good. Imagine having two products in front of you that have the same ingredients but in different proportions. In one of the two you see that the dangerous substances are at the bottom of the label, so there are very few of them, in the other they are at the top, so there are a lot of them. Which of the two do you choose? I’m sure everyone would prefer the first one, because, trivially, it has fewer dangerous substances.

However, if you decide to use Yuka to help you choose, then you will be faced with two identical evaluations, with the ingredients from the red stamp on top and all the others to follow.

This happens because Yuka, like all similar apps and systems, does not evaluate the risk to which we are exposed, but assigns colored stickers based on its own assessment of the danger which, as we said above in the case of aluminum cans, does not take into account. doses and exposure.

At this point you might argue that it is okay to understand the risk we are exposed to, but why risk, even a little, with a red label ingredient when you can have a product with all green labels? It is a good observation, indeed, and allows us to finally get to the question of cherry-picking. The red dot was awarded by the Yuka editorial team, a group of people employed by the company, whose skills we do not know who, as my colleague wanted to do, put themselves there and decide what is good and what is not. How do they do it? We do not know. There are no guidelines, there are no shared procedures, but the reference sources for formulating the opinion are listed at the bottom of the sheet of each ingredient. In the case of propylparaben, the first is an assessment by the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (Cssc), which is responsible for making, his yes, the risk assessment of cosmetic ingredients at the request of the European Commission. The Committee is made up of scientists from universities and research centers from all over Europe, considered to be top experts in the subjects in question, who work to give scientific tools to the Commission, which will have to decide whether to authorize, limit or prohibit a certain ingredient. Surely an authoritative source, indeed, if we talk about cosmetic ingredients it is the reference source to which everyone turns.

So, if we see the link to the Cssc evaluation at the bottom of the propylparaben sheet, we are led to think that that red dot reflects what is contained in the Committee’s document, right? This is where the cherry-picking. Because Yuka has chosen to link an old evaluation, dating back more than ten years ago, in which the CSSC declared that it did not have enough elements to evaluate the safety of this ingredient and suggested waiting for the data to arrive before expressing an opinion, but he did not link to the latest evaluation which states that “the CSSC concluded that propylparaben is safe when used as a preservative in cosmetic products up to a maximum concentration of 0.14%”.

Yuka’s editorial staff chose cherries that supported their personal assessment and omitted those that refuted it. Does this seem correct to you?

Sure, the links are there and everyone can go check it out, but how many do? How many of those who scan the barcode go beyond the global assessment? How many click on the single ingredient to read its description? How many make it to the bottom of the page? How many click on the links at the bottom? And how many of these are able to read documents of dozens of pages written in technical English for professionals and full of graphics?

The real point is that the app box is packaged to do exactly what my marketing colleague said it would do in my exhibit: have someone in your pocket who speaks a language that sounds scientific to you and tells you what to do. This yes and that no, and for that I offer you an alternative. Look at the beautiful greens there are here.

Yuka claims to be independent. It does not accept sponsorships from companies and does not post advertisements in the app. Alternative products are chosen by the editorial staff with no commercial restrictions whatsoever. How is it maintained then? According to the company’s statements, 65% of the turnover comes from the purchase of the paid version, which costs fifteen euros and allows you to use the app even when you are not connected to the internet and gives full access to the database. 20% is represented by the proceeds of the book The Guide to Healthy Eating (“The guide to healthy eating”) released in October 2020 in France, 10% comes from the sale of the seasonal fruit and vegetable calendar, while the remaining 5% from the Nutrition Program, a ten-week meal plan with recipes and tips.

Therefore, no company pays to end up among Yuka’s alternative proposals, even if it would be better to say that it does not pay the app directly, but money is spent to please Yuka. It is more and more frequent, in fact, that among the many requests that the big brands make to the subcontractor companies that produce cosmetics for them, there is also that of using ingredients that get a good score on these applications.

“Do you have a flamethrower?” a friend who works in one of these companies said sarcastically when I asked her what she thought about these apps. The subcontracting companies hold on to the entire cosmetic sector and represent a very important market in Italy. We are talking about eleven billion in total turnover and a weight, at international level, equal to 60% of all make-up. If you happen to go abroad, perhaps to the United States, try to look at the origin of the tricks you find in the big chains. You will notice that the majority are Made in Italy, made mainly in that golden triangle of cosmetics between Crema, Bergamo and Brescia, and it is likely that the eyeshadow palette you are about to buy in the store on Fifth Avenue in New York has it. my friend’s company was conceived and produced.

Those who work in these companies must have to deal every day with customers who ask for particular and innovative colors and textures, and must take care to have products that can be sold to different markets, from Europe to the United States, “but for some time they also ask us if they are good for Yuka »adds my friend. And they find themselves having long lists of ingredients that they can’t use because if they used them they would lower the final product score.

Gives It is natural beauty
by Beatrice Mautino
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