Friday, June 18, 2010

Pretty Face, Ugly Cost

Pure, soft, natural, active, organic. Sounds good, doesn't it, for personal care and cosmetic products. Too bad those words are meaningless; too bad they so easily lull us into purchasing. The trouble is that many beauty products contain  ingredients that are carcinogenic, allergenic, can cause developmental abnormalites in fetuses, and can wreak havoc with the reproductive system (male and female - the boys aren't exempt!).
Things like lead in lipstick and formaldehyde in baby shampoo and baby body washes. New technologies are an issue as well, with not enough testing to know whether they are safe or not - like nanotechnologies:
"Beware personal care products that tout the use of nanoparticles, nanomaterials or nanotechnology. This emerging technology is almost entirely untested for its health effects, and no requirements exist for either testing or labeling these products." (Safe Cosmetics)
This, for me, is a case of both wanting to know and not wanting to know at the same time. Products I've used and loved for years turn out to be quite highly toxic - I want to continue using them, but feel that it's not that wise. A chance pick at the library gave me all this new information to deal with - the book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan.
Malkan lists several websites for more extensive information. One I find very helpful is The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics  which works to document the dangerous products in personal care products and promote improvement. They have developed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics for companies to sign - the PDF of all companies that have signed is available.

The Canadian government has created an ingredients "hotlist," not only of chemicals, but of appropriate concentrations of them. The European Union has enacted laws governing what can go into personal care products. Although many U.S. companies have also cleaned up their act and re-formulated products, many have not, and the FDA has no clout : "The FDA does not review – nor does it have the authority to regulate – what goes into cosmetics before they are marketed to salons and consumers."

Another find through Malkan's book is the Environmental Working Group which has a cosmetics safety database that shows hazard levels. You can search by product, ingredient, and/or company to see just what's in your personal care products and what the risk of using them is.

I have dug out from the dusty back of my bookshelves a book by Virginia Castleton called The Handbook of Natural Beauty that I have had for decades and is still available. Castelton has many recipes for beauty products made from food and food-grade ingredients. I remember using corn meal for a face scrub and olive oil as moisturizer - trust me Cream of Wheat is not a substitute for the corn meal!!!

I will probably ditch some products, make some products, and keep some - the overall chemical load is important, too.

My question from now on, though, when I see the words "pure," "soft," and "natural" will be pure, soft and natural what? A little research may save a lot of grief..


Trulyfool said...


Cosmetics aren't in my normal bag of tricks. Some people go overboard with them, and as you're pointing out, even in moderation, exposure to various chemicals can surreptitiously kill.

I like 'natural'. Here's where I think I'm picking up one of your threads: in legislating or even socially redirecting choices -- in this case, advertising through word use -- are we not instantly inviting a 'black market' of verbal misdirection?

Is it, I ask here, possible adequately to deflect bad human impulses by shining light on them?

Or do they not find a runnel somewhere else nearby?

(P.S. And I have to admit I liked Uma Thurman's short red nails in Pulp Fiction. Sorry. I am still part beast.)

ChrisJ said...


We already have a market of verbal misdirection. I'm not against calling the products any name they want to. But I would like truth and disclosure about ingredients, an end to damaging ingredients, and some regulation of toxic ingredients.

There are hundreds of safe products, including red nail polish; some of them are made by big cosmetics companies for the European market, but they won't re-formulate for the US market.

Didn't you know that Mia Wallace didn't really od on drugs; her make-up and nail polish did her in!?! In her case, the cure for the od brought her around.

Hels said...

" Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" is a clever title. It picks up on the idea that the so-called Beauty Industry makes a sodding fortune out of anxious women who want to conform to some slippery standard of beauty. And it reflects your point about carcinogenic and allergenic ingredients.

Even a woman who doesn't go in for mascara, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil and makecream for the skin etc will still have to worry about shampoo, conditioner and handcream.

It is very difficult. You say that for you it is a case of both wanting to know and not wanting to know at the same time. I agree about not being bothered to go and do the individual research, but imagine depending on a beauty product company to be open about their ingredients.

Imagine the ad on tv "Ladies, your skin will look flawless. Of course we cannot guarantee your future babies won't have developmental abnormalities, but hey... beauty is worth a few little problems".

ChrisJ said...


It's apparently quite bad for workers in nail salons - higher than usual birth defects and fertility problems. We don't often think about the workers surrounded by these chemicals.

I Wonder Wye said...

The companies need to be held accountable to higher standards. Our grandmother's had better product...

Owen Gray said...

I know nothing about cosmetics. When I give them to my wife, she has previously purchased them from the AVON lady, and subtly suggested that the next time I'm looking for a gift for her, I should consider this.

I rely entirely on her judgment. And I trust she reads the labels on cosmetics with the same diligence with which she reads the labels on groceries.

Pearl said...

I don't get makeup. it just makes people look old. my hair and skin have been remarked on as remarkably undamaged. I don't do creams or lathers and scrubs and whatnot.

minimal scent shampoos and laundry detergents are my load of toxicity risk. and the heavy metals and chems in ambiant air and water and soil of course.

ChrisJ said...

I Wonder Wye,

Our grandmothers probably did have better products, as effective, cheaper, and less toxic.

ChrisJ said...


Diligence about reading labels is good, but doesn't work if the bad stuff isn't on the label - and doesn't have to be. That's a big part of the problem.

ChrisJ said...


We would all probably look better and save a ton of money without "stuff."

I wonder about the chemicals present in our bodies from air, water, soil. The tests I've heard of always have much higher results than anyone expects.

Meam Wye said...

I like the title of your post ... very creative and appropriate! No wonder, various types of cancers are becoming increasingly common. In one of my recent attempts in going truly natural and toxin-free, I made a home dish washing liquid detergent from reetha (soap nut)and vinegar. Although it produced less lather, but the cleaning action was equally effective. For skin and hair care, my personal experience for my very sensitive skin is that various combinations of edible items prove to be far more effective with better long-term results as compared to some of the best (and most expensive) international brands.

ChrisJ said...


I usually give up on the food as beauty product after awhile. I know it's better, but is also , in my experience, very messy. The green tea mask I tried was all over me and the bathroom!!

P. M. Doolan said...

Great post. The manipulative and deceitful use of language in the so called beauty industry is more than a little annoying. Many products come with the label "Natural" even when most of the ingredients are petroleum based - because petroleum is natural I guess.

ChrisJ said...


There could be a whole new genre of advertising to "spin" petroleum!