The Story of Cosmetics

Dec 6, 2010 by Erin M. | Story Popularity: 4

A couple of months ago I attended a talk by Annie Leonard, the creator of the "Story of Stuff." A friend I attended the talk with recently suggested that I watch another video by Leonard, "The Story of Cosmetics," that was released this past summer. She said it really made her think about the kinds of products she was using in her daily life. My friend, who is a SERIOUS animal lover, had for a long time kept close tabs on what companies test on animals, and now she started thinking about the chemicals we humans are exposed to by the use of these products as well.

She got me thinking about what kind of products I have in my cabinet. Even before watching the video, I began to think that reducing the amount of chemicals I expose myself to (or being more selective about what kinds of products I purchase) is just plain common sense. Toxics in = toxics out. I had learned a lot about pollutants in a class I took last year mostly we were looking at the industrial scale, but we also touched on household products. I was truly astonished at how many chemicals are used in all kinds of household products these days and how few have really been tested for long-term effects on humans. You also think of how many things we flush down the toilet and down our sinks when we brush our teeth, etc. and where all of those chemicals are ultimately going (in some cases, maybe even back to us...).

I was surprised that I had never really made this connection before. For as much as I feel I THINK about environmental impact, I am embarrassed to say that this is one area of my life that I have been slow to "improve" on. I still use "conventional" make-up brands, face/body wash, shampoo and conditioner. After watching this video, however, I decided to check out each of these items in my shower and make-up bag and to look them up on SKIN DEEP (, a website run by the Environmental Working Group, to see more of what's behind the labels.

As the website itself describes, "Since Skin Deep launched in 2004, EWG has gathered information on ingredients in thousands of personal care products and has matched these chemicals with hazard data contained in more than 50 toxicity and regulatory databases." The site gives an overall toxicity rating between 0-10 for each product, breaks down what chemicals are listed as ingredients in that product and gives a toxicity rating for them, and finally, includes a "data gap" percentage, indicating how much is unknown about that particular ingredient or product."

To show you how large this database is, I was able to find every product I had listed. I won't go into specific brand names here, but I found they had the following ratings:

1) Shampoo: 5
2) Conditioner: 5
3) Body soap: 4
4) Face wash: 6
5) Make-up remover: 4
6) Eye-liner: 5
7) Mascara: 5
8) Night cream for eyes: 3
9) Under eye roller: 5
10) Toothpaste: 6
(11)) I also use a couple of items I bought while living in Japan, so I guess I won't quite know those details)

Data gaps were quite high for most products, indicating a high level of uncertainty perhaps, but I can already think of products I can switch to that would probably be a lot better for me and the environment. (Lately I've especially been thinking of the kinds of products that have contact with my eyes, like all my eye creams, mascara and eye liner. I only have one set of those, so I should definitely take care)

I've decided that while it will probably cost more and will take me awhile to figure out what's NOT greenwashing, my first new year's resolution will be to gradually phase out the products I use now and switch to more environmentally friendly cosmetics If there is one thing I've learned at graduate school in environmental science, being surrounded by others who really take this stuff seriously, it's that there's always some part of your life that could use a little bit more examination. In 2011, cosmetics will rotate to the top of my list.


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  1. Joannie Pan says:

    Erin, thanks for sharing this very important video & the message it conveys.

    I use 6-12 bath and beauty products a day and they include what many ladies consider necessities (when really, they aren't), like lip gloss, hand lotion, body wash, deodorant. Today I was just thinking how I many different types of soaps I use. The ones at home, at work, and other public bathrooms.

    Aside from switching to more environmentally & health friendly products, a simple step would to start using less...

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