Ever since ancient Egyptians mixed up soot and lead to produce kohl for their characteristic cat-eye makeup, chemicals and cosmetics have enjoyed a long and close relationship.
Throughout history, human desire to improve our complexions, facial expressions and coiffures prompted men and women alike to use highly dangerous substances such as mercury, lead and aluminium.
According to researchers, an average female uses 12 cosmetic products on her skin every day (less than half of that number, 5 on average, for guys). Very often, these products add up to a toxic cocktail we unknowingly expose ourselves to. To find out more, see this great slideshow by Bloomberg.
Now that the fast fashion industry seems to be finally taking some steps to clean up its act, not least thanks to Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads campaign, wouldn’t it be timely for the beauty industry to follow suit?
Just like fashion detox campaigners, the world of cosmetics has its own sustainability champions. One of them is the Environmental Working Group, and its extensive SkinDeep database of skincare and makeup brands and products, which rates them from quite benign to downright toxic.
As with other eco-claims, cosmetics names can be quite misleading. My search for “natural” came up with 5,867 results, with ratings anywhere from 0 (safe) to 9 (high risk). “Organic” returned over 3,000 search results, with several rated as hazardous, although the level of greenwashing seems to be lower in this category. I was relieved to see that my own favourite daily moisturizer was classed as a relatively safe 4.
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the biggest offenders when it comes to the misuse of “pure and natural” claims are Aveeno, St. Ives and Clairol’s Herbal Essences.
So as you are planning what to put in your Christmas stockings, here are a few tips on what to look out for.
First, avoid anything with formaldehyde. Yes, the same kind that was used to preserve frogs and organs in jars, and is still found in hair straightening and other beauty products.
Second, stay clear of parabens, widely used in shampoos, moisturizers, shaving and self-tanning products, which could interfere with hormonal development.
Third, banish products containing aluminium, such as deodorants, which are linked to breast cancer.
Fourth, avoid anything with benzene, a known human carcinogen, found in nail polish and other products.
Fifth, beware of what may not be listed on the packaging. For example, a recent study found lead in lipstick sold by major brands, including Revlon and L’Oreal. The heavy metal is linked to a wide range of neurological problems (for example, lower IQ), and there is no safe level of exposure.
On the positive side, some of the brands that have generally scored safe ratings in the SkinDeep database include La Roche-Posay, Burt’s Bees and Clinique.
A major part of the problem is that, unlike the food industry, there are no global legal standards for organic or natural personal care products. Until that happens, we should all colour with care.