Story of Cosmetics

My entry point into the true depths of a green lifestyle came through cosmetics and personal care products. Much of the information that we used in the formation of Teens Turning Green (originally Teens for Safe Cosmetics) came, and continues to come, from the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. And right now, I am buzzing about one of their stellar resources. Last month, the campaign released, what I consider, a landmark film by Annie Leonard about these very toxins and what the industry and government need to do to regulate and protect human and environmental health, The Story of Cosmetics: The Ugly Truth of ‘Toxins In, Toxins Out.’ Leonard’s 2007 film The Story of Stuff, an eye-opening story of where our stuff comes from and where it goes when we throw it away, blew me away; it is nothing short of brilliant. And this seven-minute short on cosmetics is equally, if not more, powerful!

Leonard narrates the animated piece, asking questions from the point of view of an everyday consumer. In reference to her personal care products, she asks questions whose answers are unknown: “How does it do that?” “What is this stuff?” Chemicals linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, birth defects, asthma, and more make up ingredient lists, even in products targeted to babies and young children still in development. Describing the bathroom as a “minefield of toxic chemicals,” Leonard sheds light on how products directly affect consumer health, as well as that of workers and communities. The average woman uses twelve products daily and the average man six, each with a dozen or more chemicals — only 20% of which have been tested. The bottom line is that no one knows the effects of these products; there exists an enormous data gap. We are merely waiting to see the ramifications, a dangerous place to exist when babies are born pre-polluted and body toxicity levels are off the charts. I, like Annie Leonard, have been body burden tested — and it is startling what our bodies retain, the combined effect, the accumulation of exposures in our systems.

There are endless sources of toxins in our surroundings, including the products that fill the shelves of drugstores and cosmetics departments. So what are we to do? Lessen the burden on our bodies wherever possible. Buy products that have been tested for human health and safety, for they most certainly exist! If you are searching for brands that work, check out our Teens Turning Green’s list of Greener Alternatives.

But Annie traces the supply chain a step further. “What counts is when companies and government agencies decide what should be allowed on the shelves.” Currently, there exists no regulation on labeling or packaging; herbal, natural, organic lack any legal definition. Leonard celebrates this fact sarcastically, “I get to choose between meaningless claims on a bottle!” We must demand better of the manufacturers and government indeed.

Ever heard of pink-washing? Leonard uses the term in the film, “to describe the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer (often labeling products with the iconic pink ribbon) while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease. Not cool!” I always wonder why more time is not spent searching for a cause, rather than a cure. Start at the beginning! Why are the toxins in these products in the first place? That very “why” is at the root of these issues. The human health impacts have been forgotten, sacrificed for modernization and the so-called “better living through chemistry” that has taken root in the last fifty years; this must change.

The FDA does not regulate the beauty industry; no one looks out for human health as it relates to daily use products. Ingredient disclosure on labels is not required and, out of the 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care products, only 8 have been banned in the US, drastically lower than the number of bans in the EU. The beauty industry now self-regulates and requires only voluntary compliance… hmmm. As Leonard states, “it’s a whole broken system that’s ignoring the simple rule Toxics In, Toxics Out.’ I could not agree more!

Alright, so what can we do now? Demand that the federal government pass laws to ensure our safety. Leonard sums up the need perfectly: “common sense laws based on the precautionary principle.” Therefore, we can be certain that the products stocking store shelves are safe for human usage. And it very much is possible to be “clean and shiny without toxic chemicals!” Green chemistry is doing its part to formulate products that are safe and non toxic. If organic industry leaders have been manufacturing responsibly for years and major companies have figured out how to comply with stricter regulations in the EU, they can certainly do the same for the masses in the US.We, as consumers, must purchase the safest and healthiest products on the market AND pressure the federal government to pass legislation to ensure clean choices across the board.

The national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has been instrumental in introducing numerous bills to eliminate toxins from the products we use 24/7… but that means going head-to-head with the multi-billion dollar beauty industry. We, Teens Turning Green, lobbied for The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 (SB 484) in California, which was signed in an unprecendented passage into law by Governor Schwarzenegger, and more. Now, the Campaign has a real opportunity to pass federal legislation that will protect OUR right to health. So make your voice heard and ask congress to get behind the Safe Cosmetics act 2010. Share this video and other resources to push for the change we need!

Published on: August 03, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Erin Schrode

Erin Schrode is a young ecoRenaissance woman. As the “face of the new green generation,” the spokeswoman and founding member of the national Turning Green campaign promotes global sustainability, environmental education, and conscious lifestyle choices.

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