It was the worst kind of news that set Lily Tse on her life’s obsession. When she was 11 years old, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“When you know you might lose someone, you know what’s going on. I think that’s the reason why it hit my mind so much that I want to try to do something to minimize everyone’s risk,” she says.

The diagnosis spurred years of focus on careful, healthy eating. When her mother relapsed when Tse was in her mid-20s, she began her relentless search for potentially harmful environmental factors as well – cleaning products, makeup, skin care.

But it was surprising difficult to find the information she sought. “Why don’t we care about what we put on our body?”

She looked up ingredients and read research papers looking for possible hormone disruptors, carcinogens or controversial ingredients. What she found was a surprising lack of regulation of the industry. There are guidelines, to be sure, but Tse explains there is a lot more leeway within the beauty and cosmetic industry than in the food industry, for example, or other commercial sectors.  

She was a resource to her friends, and, though her background was in design and advertising, she realized that others might have the same sorts of questions and concerns.

Thus was born Think Dirty – an app that empowers consumers with ingredient information for over 350,000 cosmetic and personal-care products. Users can scan an item’s barcode and easily view a rating for the product, any potentially toxic ingredients or allergens that may be in it, and some “cleaner” alternatives. The goal is to provide “nontoxic and organic living” options for those that seek it.

Tse’s own relationship to makeup and beauty has evolved over time.

“I remember clearly my mom was a very frugal person, but with skin care she splurged a lot of money…. So I was influenced by the idea that you have to take care of your skin and make an investment.”

Following in her mom’s footsteps, Tse would spend freely on whatever products would seem to “work” and appeared luxurious, often due to smart packaging, big claims and elaborate rituals.   

It wasn’t long after she began her research, however, that her focus shifted towards buying products that were natural and healthy – meaning sometimes searching up to 40 ingredients for a single purchase. “It’s not a good way to go shopping,” she says, laughing.

As a general guideline, she avoids products meant to be particularly “long-lasting,” sticks to those with fewer ingredients, avoids “fragrance” which she says can disguise all sorts of things, and is pickiest about products applied around absorbent parts of the body – deodorants, hair dyes and eyeliners, for example. She adds that European products – particularly Denmark and Germany – often have stricter safety standards.

Tse acknowledges that her vision and her obsession were pushed along as a business with the help of various Toronto supports. She believes Silicon Valley may be overrated and says she found all the resources, funding and community she needed right here in her home city.

Currently housed out of Ryerson University’s DMZ, Think Dirty was also part of MaRS’s incubator program and received support from Futurpreneur and CFC Media Lab. But it was an early win in Toronto’s Digifest hackathon competition in 2012 that spurred her to commit to her app full time.

“Programs here provide a lot of workshops and training for first-time entrepreneurs. It’s also a connecting point to meet other entrepreneurs and share.”

She says Toronto’s increasing entrepreneurial community is a big help. “We motivate each other and can share each others’ lessons so you don’t have to make each others’ mistakes. That kind of sharing is very helpful.”

As for her mother, Tse says she is doing well today and is happy to see her daughter pursuing her “life’s mission.”