From Body Burden to Botanical Therapeutics: My Journey with the EWG

Jessica Assaf
6 min readJul 15, 2020


In 2005, I was an impassioned 15-year-old activist advocating for safety, transparency and accountability in the cosmetic and personal care products industry. While many teenagers were experiencing romantic heartbreak, I was dealing with a different kind of heartbreak: product heartbreak, as I slowly said goodbye to some of my favorite beauty products after learning they contained ingredients linked to cancer, neurotoxicity and reproductive harm.

After co-founding a teen-led coalition advocating for corporate responsibility and product reformulation in the beauty industry, I was introduced to the work of the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy and consumer health organization dedicated to protecting human and environmental health.

The EWG supported my early advocacy events, many of which sparked tangible impacts like OPI and Johnson and Johnson agreeing to reformulate U.S. products to protect consumer health and safety. But people continued to ask me the same question:

“Why do the ingredients in our products matter? Are the ingredients in my products really impacting my health beyond my skin?”

The problem with CPG product safety is that it is complex, multi-layered and impossible to track. For most of us, a major disconnect exists between the safety of our products and our health.

Here are a few reasons why:


Say you unknowingly use an antiperspirant contaminated with heavy metals every single day for decades of your life. The heavy metals may be accumulating in your body, but if it were to cause or contribute to an adverse health effect later in life, there is no way to correlate it back to your product. The product is innocent.

Uncontrollable Exposures

And what about the other potentially harmful industrial exposures from our food, water, air and medicines? Those are certainly part of the equation, and we can’t separate the implications of one exposure from another, let alone the synergistic outcome of all of the compounds interacting. That’s why it’s important to focus on the aspects of health that we can control — like the products we rub on our skin, the body’s biggest organ.

Individual Tipping Points

Then there’s the issue of the “tipping point.” Essentially there’s a resilient “cup” inside all of us capturing and protecting against negative health outcomes from environmental toxins and exposures, but what happens when that cup overflows? Each human’s tipping point is different, meaning an exposure that doesn’t impact me at all may cause an extreme negative health outcome in someone else. So given “tipping points” are individualized, who’s to say what level of risk and exposure is truly deemed “safe” for all?

A multitude of lifestyle and genetic factors also contribute to your tipping point, such as genetic make up, family history, diet and exercise. But researchers are increasingly finding that environmental exposures may be more of a driver of negative health outcomes than family history, as repeated industrial exposures overtime may trigger serious harm.

The Precautionary Principle

The EWG is built upon the “precautionary principle,” the idea that if something is even slightly harmful, we should work to avoid it altogether. Though this may sound extreme, this concept is important because it works to protect the most vulnerable population, the group or even single individual on this planet that may have a compromised system and be harmed from a single or cumulative exposure that may be harmless to the majority. In the face of (limited) risk, The precautionary principle advocates for the safer route, one that may sound extreme to some but works to maximize the protection of all humans over the safety of most.

So in 2009, when the EWG approached me to participate in and help coordinate the Teen Body Burden Study, I enthusiastically agreed. Samples of my blood and urine were sent to the Netherlands, where I was one of twenty teenagers from across the country tested for levels of 30 potentially harmful industrial compounds that are commonly found in beauty products. Thirteen of the thirty industrial compounds were found in my body, including “above average” levels of parabens compared to the other teenagers tested.

My EWG Teen Body Burden Study Results

The EWG has continued the initiative to map the pollutants in people, called Human Toxome Project, even testing newborns and parents and finding exponentially higher exposure levels, or “body burdens,” in newborns compared to their parents. These findings — that babies are born pre-polluted and the industrial compounds in our products are ending up in our and our childrens’ bodies — are infuriating, but they are also eye-opening.

When the EWG launched the Skin Deep Database, it was the first technology platform of its kind that helped consumers better understand the safety of their products through a user-friendly rating system. My first task at my first job after college was to submit the brand’s products to the Skin Deep Database, as it also enables clean beauty brands to get an initial read on the safety of their products in a largely under-regulated industry.

After I got my MBA at Harvard, I joined forces with two fellow EWG advocates and natural product pioneers, Laurel Angelica Myers and Christopher Gavigan, to launch a purpose-driven wellness brand called Prima. Unlike our previous work in the natural products industry, we founded Prima to unlock the next phase of CPG: botanical therapeutic products, rooted in hemp-based cannabinoids and functionally innovative plant-based ingredients.

Today we are proud to announce that Prima is the first CBD brand to be EWG Verified. EWG’s Verification is a “safety stamp of approval” validating product safety and helping consumers easily access these products. The Verified Program goes beyond the Skin Deep Database, as each product goes through a rigorous assessment and documentation review to ensure full ingredient transparency and validates each ingredient and its incidentals against EWG’s strict health standards as well as international standards such as Health Canada, the EU, and Japan’s Ministry of Health — some of the strictest market regulations in the world in terms of ingredient safety.

This moment signifies the intentional and necessary collision between the CBD and clean products industry, setting the bar higher for other CBD and cannabis brands that wish to join us in creating industry-defining standards and consumer expectations for safety, purity and transparency.

I’ve spent the past fifteen years watching in awe as the EWG has advocated for public awareness and corporate action, with the health and safety of consumers as their North Star. EWG’s leadership, boldness and commitment to consumer health and safety repositions corporate responsibility as a way of life, rather than an option.

When we were building Prima, we sought to express our deepest values — rooted in deep science and the precautionary principle — to unlock and elevate functional botanicals to prevent illness and balance the body to thrive. This approach requires the essential element of trust. We know that building trust takes partnership, credible certifications, and living your values in every facet of the business, so we incorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), finalized our B Corp Certification during our first year in business, and now, proudly stand as the industry’s first CBD brand to be EWG Verified.

In a new industry where pre-market approval and responsible marketing isn’t mandatory, consumers often have to take a brand at its word when it comes to safety and transparency, and often, especially in a new industry that has yet to establish a best practice around how it operates — that’s simply not good enough. And it places too much of a burden on the consumer to do their own research and validation. Third party verification and validation is critical in providing that trust and transparency, particularly in a new and emerging industry like CBD, that has the potential to dramatically transform wellbeing.

I’m eternally grateful for the ongoing leadership of the EWG and Prima’s opportunity to collide with the clean product movement and uplift the CBD industry in this way. This is where business and social impact not only meet, but fly.

CBD brands, we hope you join us in raising industry standards, deepening consumer trust, and protecting the health and safety of humanity.



Jessica Assaf

Entrepreneur and activist on a mission to use business to transform health and wellbeing. Co-founder + Chief Education Officer of Prima.