Inside Beauty Q&A: Where we talk to someone in the beauty industry trenches. Know someone I should interview (maybe you)? Email me at beautyschooledproject [at] gmail [dot] com.
VA: Do you think there are a lot of myths about what makes a beauty product “safe” or “unsafe?”
KM: Absolutely. I’ve been actively researching the topic for over a year now and all I have are more questions, and hardly any answers. We’re always hearing things like “parabens are bad,” “sulphates are bad,” “phthalates are bad.” But what are we supposed to believe?
I recently started an aromatherapy course in London and I was speaking with the head of the programme (who is very distinguished in this field) about toxic chemicals in personal care products. His first reaction was “oh parabens are bad.” It was a very simple statement, but it really got me thinking how someone who knows so much about the chemistry and production of essential oils his first reaction was to highlight the chemical du jour and state parabens = bad.
So just to use parabens as an example: Parabens have been around since the 1920s (which is a very long time for us all to get used to them) and in cosmetics they act as a preservative. Preservatives are important in cosmetics because they keep bacteria from growing in the product, which in turn keeps you from getting very, very sick. But parabens have also been found in biopsies of women with breast cancer. So at this stage there are “links” to cancer — but scientists cannot say definitively that parabens cause cancer. I wish it was that simple!
VA: So do you think it makes sense to avoid parabens? Or is that much ado about nothing?
KM: Personally I’ve decided not to put any products containing parabens on my body and luckily nowadays there are so many great products out there without parabens that we have choices. I would however caution someone from buying a product just because it says “no parabens” on the label. It could contain other chemicals that are much worse for your health than parabens.
VA: What about when we see words like “organic,” “natural,” and “green” on a product?
KM: There’s hardly any regulation around that terminology. Marketers throw words at us like “organic”, “natural”, “eco” and “green” and we rush out to buy these products because we’d like to assume that they are automatically better. And I want to believe. I really, really do, but the sad thing is at the end of the day every company is just trying to sell something, even the ones that appear to care about the health of the consumer.
VA: So how do you pick and choose your products?
KM: Personally, I’m committed to using the most natural products possible. Why? Because I believe in them! I believe, as if it were my religion, that we can harness the best from nature without hurting our long-term health. But this does mean making sacrifices sometimes — like when it comes to hairstyling and anti-aging products. (If someone’s got recommendations, please let me know, because you might have discovered the Holy Grail!) There’s so much more research that needs to be done both to develop competitive natural ingredients that can compete with toxic drug store brands but also about the long-term effects of the toxic products we’re using on a regular and long-term basis. However, I would rather be healthy with slightly less than magazine perfect glossy hair and airbrushed looking skin than use toxic products over the course of my life.
VA: Do you see this changing? Is the organic personal care market evolving — and is it evolving in the right direction?
KM: The big beauty companies aren’t going to change anything about their formulations so long as clueless consumers keep going out and buying their products. So I think it’s important that consumers are making educated decisions about what they are buying so that if the masses stop buying products with certain toxic chemicals then that will send the signal that the big beauty companies need to be reducing the toxins they put in their products.
There’s also a second component to this question which is bigger than just the organic personal care market, but also the mainstream market and that has to do with changing the standards of beauty. Somewhere along the line we learned that glossy hair and younger looking skin was good and the opposite was bad. But why should we all go around with smooth faces like teenagers when we’re 60? Seems weird and unnatural. Think about your grandmother and what you love about her — does it have anything to do with her hair or skin? Probably not. My focus is on keeping my skin healthy but putting good, non-toxic products on it. I don’t buy anti-aging creams because I don’t believe in them. Even if they “work,” any results you may get will always be temporary. Not to mention that I find the term “anti-aging” offensive. What’s wrong with aging and why should we be “anti” it? As long as you’re healthy, that’s all that matters.
VA: Amen to that. Any tips for helping folks decode labels and choose more natural products in the meantime?
KM: We need to be asking ourselves what we really want our beauty products to do — and at what price to our health? If you want to read about the science behind the experiments conducted on various synthetic chemicals then Google will turn up loads. I also rely on the Environment Working Group for chemical data since they are a non-profit. One of my favourite beauty blogs The Beauty Brains is written by cosmetic scientists who help debunk marketing and advertising myths like “will this product make me look 10 years younger?” by analysing the ingredients — but they generally come down on the side of synthetic ingredients since they are, after all, cosmetic scientists, so I don’t always agree with their take on things.
My own personal barometer is not to use any products that contain any chemicals higher than a 6 on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. I could also write you a long list of chemicals to avoid but I think it’s better for you to make your own informed decisions. Go to your bathroom right now and look up the products you have in Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Let me know what you decide to keep and what you decide to trash!