Change Agent

How Lily Tse’s Think Dirty app helps shoppers pick better beauty products

Her mother’s brush with cancer inspired Lily Tse to launch a mobile app that alerts consumers to potentially harmful chemicals in cosmetics

Toronto-based Lily Tse was 12 years into a marketing career when her itch to solve a problem—the lack of available information about the safety of beauty products—became stronger than her desire for stability. The Think Dirty app launched for iOS in 2013, and for Android earlier this fall. Today, the app rates more than 350,000 products.

“Think Dirty traces back to when my mom’s breast cancer relapsed, more than 10 years ago. She is fine now, but her illness made me obsessed with health—not just related to food, but literally everything I used. I learned how unregulated the beauty field is, and how impossible it was to know what’s actually in products. Even as someone working in advertising, I constantly got fooled by marketing claims. It seemed so wrong.

I started thinking about creating the app a few years later. The iPhone had been released, and I thought, Why can’t I use my phone to tell whether there are harmful ingredients in products? I really wanted this thing to exist. I just had to find a way to make it happen.

I found a design hackathon in New York City. I’d used up all my vacation for the year, so I took a sick day and went. I didn’t win anything, but I couldn’t forget about my idea. And when I got laid off from my job a few months later, I realized it was the right time to try something new.

I created a prototype layout; I had a good idea of what the user experience should be like. The technical part was the challenge. I explored bringing in a co-founder, but it was hard to find someone as passionate about this as I was. So instead, I hired a contractor to build out the app.

The iOS version went live in 2013. It works like this: You scan a product barcode, or search by keyword or brand, and we present you with a rating, based on whether the ingredients in the product cause any long-term health impacts. You can judge if it’s something you want to buy. And if the product you’re looking at is rated poorly, we give you a list of alternatives with better ratings. It’s a very easy way to compare the safety of products, without having to read every ingredient on the labels yourself.

We have three streams of revenue. First, if companies want to expedite showing up in our app, we work with them. That partnership does not mean they’ll rate better; if they get a bad rating and are upset about it, then we move on. We don’t work with them. Second, people shop via a button in our app that sends them to Amazon or the brands’ sites, and we earn a commission on those sales. Third, we sell beauty boxes. A lot of users were saying, ‘Hey, tell us what we should get!’ A lot of brands also asked us, ‘How can you help us increase our reach to the right audience?’ So it seemed like a natural extension.

I think you need to have diversified revenue streams. Most people think that to build a consumer app, you should grow the user base first and worry about money later. But I want to prove to people I’m not just doing good for the sake of being good. If it’s not sustainable, this thing won’t last.

My goal is to get to the point that when people want to know if something is good or bad for them, the first thing they’ll think is, What is the Think Dirty rating? I genuinely want to build something the consumer can trust.

There are a lot of amazing, successful businesses, but not all of them have a mission you can align with. I could have been comfortable staying in advertising; I’d have made a decent living and fulfilled my talent. But this is different. This really is my calling.”