Non-toxic beautyHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 25 » Non-toxic beauty
Our culture reveres the flawless look of youth - and we have a beauty industry promising anti-ageing products galore. But like badly applied foundation under bright lights, things start seeming a little dodgy
How long did you spend doing your hair or putting on makeup this morning? According to the nationwide Around the Clock survey, Kiwi women spend an average of 43 minutes on personal hygiene and grooming each day. Yup, we’re still at the mirror long after most men have headed out the door.
A British woman spends 3,276 hours on average (that’s 137 days) over her lifetime getting dressed and applying cosmetics, compared with 1,092 hours (or 46 days) spent by a man, The Telegraph reported. And of the 1,000 women surveyed, 67 percent considered the time spent making themselves look good – the “host of waxing, exfoliating, moisturising, straightening, polishing and plucking” – as just another chore.
Once, as style icon Coco Chanel put it, you could be “gorgeous at thirty, charming at forty, and irresistible for the rest of your life”. But now on telly, in glossy magazines and online, billion-dollar campaigns and a lineup of skinny, airbrushed models and actresses sell us the vision of today’s ultimate woman. She’s thin, has flawless skin and looks amazing no matter how old she is.
Her secret? A bathroom cabinet stacked with anti-ageing products that miraculously keep her that way.
There are luminous hair dyes, volumising shampoos and multifarious magical anti-wrinkle creams. There are home microdermabrasion kits, retinoid-based products, antioxidants, peels, fillers and, even if you give Botox the flick, a baffling array of nonsurgical options with names such as ‘endovenous laser ablation’ or ‘microfoam sclerotherapy’. New products are constantly being launched, promising youth for older women and extra glamour for younger ones. And we’re taking the message – and the products – on board.
In Britain alone, women collectively use 4,000 litres of foundation, more than 16 million sweeps of the mascara wand, and enough lipstick to draw a line from London to New York – every day, according to the QVC Beauty survey.
It wasn’t always like this.
Our grandmothers held the tides of time at bay with bottles of Oil of Ulan, dusting powder and a bit of lippy – and perhaps some Rawleigh’s salve in the medicine cabinet for chapped skin or a dab of 4711 for special occasions. By contrast, the modern woman’s arsenal is more akin to the contents of a science lab.
We’re not just talking makeup to enhance our natural assets, or face creams to combat the inevitable wear and tear – today’s ultimate grooming regimen is to help us achieve the highest ideals of physical perfection and defy ageing altogether.
If you want to attract a man, wrote columnist Julie Burchill recently in the British newspaper The Observer, some high-end women’s magazines suggest you need to look like a child. “‘First-flush balms’ to restore adolescent lip colour, ‘baby-skin secrets’ to cheat a ‘childhood complexion’, ‘virgin hair’ dyes to evoke ‘the soft-to-the-touch, angelic quality of children’s hair’ and the best blushers to ‘mimic the kind of fullness we have in childhood’ are shamelessly flogged using the sort of descriptive imagery that wouldn’t seem out of place at a paedophiles’ convention,” she writes.
All this maintenance doesn’t just take an inordinate amount of our time, it takes serious money. Several years ago Worldwatch put the total global expenditure for cosmetics at US$18 billion (about NZ$24 billion) a year. Incidentally, at the same time the annual expenditure required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition was estimated to be US$19 billion. Even in today’s financially straitened times, the investment bankers Demeter Group estimate that in 2012 the American beauty market alone will reach US$59.8 billion.
Let’s face it, those bright young things are gorgeous: plump lips, shiny hair, perfect skin and all. But where does that leave the rest of us – facing the first unwelcome appearance of a grey hair, burst blood vessel, saggy wrinkle and what must follow?
Beauty is a “short-lived tyranny”, wrote the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Was he referring to the brief time it allows a beautiful person to hold power over someone else – or the fact that beauty’s notorious tendency to flee gives way to a tyranny of a more long-lasting kind?
Few of us relish the prospect of our bodies growing older, or the idea of losing our looks. But before handing over the credit card for the latest unique triple-concentrate formula, it’s worth remembering that the beauty corporates know just how to target our insecurities – and our desire to believe. It generally doesn’t cost a lot of money to produce a small tub of cream.
“Basically they’re all the same,” says British science writer, doctor and psychiatrist Ben Goldacre. “They all moisturise, like Vaseline, but without the greasiness. And most also contain mashed up protein chains: these are long and mobile when they’re soggy, but curl up and contract when they dry, for instant tightening gratification. Companies give these proteins French sciencey names such as Tenseur Peptidique Vegetal.”
Beauty giant L’Oréal had to pull two 2011 advertising campaigns after Australian and British watchdogs upheld complaints that their ads were exaggerated and misleading. Lancôme’s Teint Miracle foundation supposedly created a ‘natural light’ that emanated from beautiful skin – as shown by a glowing Julia Roberts. Maybelline’s ad featured supermodel Christy Turlington promoting its ‘anti-ageing’ foundation, The Eraser. Both advertisements professed to show the miraculous effects of the products; in reality the women had been significantly airbrushed and enhanced.
Cosmetics brand Rimmel got into trouble in the UK for advertising its 1-2-3 Looks Mascara product with the model Georgia May Jagger – who was wearing false lashes. Meanwhile, a 2011 CoverGirl advertisement for LashBlast Volume Mascara promised a false lash effect, while admitting in the small print that lash inserts had been applied to the model’s eyes before the mascara. Occasionally a claim is made that stretches credulity too far, but mostly, complains Goldacre, the multinational cosmetics firms are “just too good at constructing legally defensible pseudoscience”.
So it pays to cultivate a sceptical eye when considering the latest pots and promises – and to remember that trends vary, sometimes swerving towards the ridiculous. In Elizabethan England, beauty involved pale skin and plucking your forehead to make it seem larger. There have been times for small bosoms and large bums, tall women and thin lips. Once, it was cool to be pale. Now it’s hip to be spray-tan orange – or at least among certain social groups.
Which kind of underscores the point. Beauty by the current standards of the industry is permanently young and decidedly skin deep. It seems to require a huge investment in time, money and energy and is ultimately only possible in a digitally enhanced reality. Growing old with grace and style? Now that takes imagination.
Human beings are hardwired to prefer good looks. A 2004 University of Exeter study discovered that even babies stare longer at faces adults find attractive. One possible explanation is that the features we’re most attracted to (clear skin, shiny hair, bright eyes and so on) are typically also signals of ruddy good health and fecundity.
Generally speaking, we feel more confident and better about ourselves if we can present an appealing face in public. We want to be attractive to the people we love – and those of us with image-sensitive teenagers don’t want our tragically untouched roots to cause them undue mortification, either.
There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that looking attractive (for example, having clear skin, a symmetrical face and most of your teeth) stands you in good stead in other ways. In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff cites research showing that it pays to be beautiful at any age. The closer you are to the classical ideal, the more likely you’ll be rewarded with jobs, pay rises and promotions.
Likewise, research by University of Texas economist Dr Daniel Hamermesh found that, when all other factors are taken into account, ugly men and women earn less-than-average incomes, while beautiful people are typically paid more. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon.
In China, Dr Hamermesh’s research found that ugly women were paid 25 percent less than the average income, while for ugly men in the US and Canada the figure was nine percent. Ugly British women were paid 11 percent below the average and beautiful women were paid one percent higher – the ‘beauty bonus’ rising to five percent above average in Canada and the USA.
Dr Hamermesh maintains he “wouldn’t and can’t” define beauty, but he knows it when he sees it. “We all tend to have similar, but undefined, standards, so if you think someone is beautiful or ugly, most other people will be in pretty close agreement.”
So where does that leave us? It seems all peachy for those who’ve had a stroke of genetic good luck, but particularly unfortunate for those of us who’re not gifted with natural beauty.
Fairness and facial symmetry aside, one conclusion is that making the most of our looks is worth at least a bit of effort. Approached with a good measure of common sense, beauty products can help us achieve the best versions of ourselves – but, ultimately, they’re no more helpful than eating healthily and endeavoring to always be kind and friendly. Although we might admire good looks in others, excessive vanity or an unhealthy preoccupation with appearance is less attractive.
The good, the bad and the beautiful
What are you putting on your face? Considering a typical daily beauty routine can involve slapping around 126 different ingredients onto our skin, it’s worth taking a closer look at the ingredients list of your trusty cleanser or favourite lippy.
If you’ve ever read the fine print on the back of your moisturiser, you’ll probably recognise ingredient names like phthalates, parabens and triclosan. These all belong to a group called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can play havoc with the thyroid as well as natural androgen and oestrogen (male and female hormones). Research has found EDCs in our bodies, meaning we can absorb them through our skin. Evidence suggests links between EDCs and lower sperm counts, birth defects, breast and testicular cancers as well as attention deficit disorder.
Phthalates are one group of EDCs associated with reproductive abnormalities – one study from New York’s University of Rochester found that babies born to women exposed to phthalates had smaller penises and perinea than normal. Another study, commissioned by WWF and Greenpeace, found eight chemical groups occurring in umbilical cord blood, including phthalates, synthetic musks and triclosan.
Although there are only tiny amounts of EDCs in skincare products – normally one percent or less – these chemicals are found in everything from pesticides to plastics, so the concern is about the cumulative effect of exposure from multiple sources.
One nasty ingredient which may not appear on labels is 1,4-dioxane, a chemical created during the cosmetic manufacturing process. Because it’s not intentionally added, dioxane doesn’t need to be declared on the label. It’s a byproduct of a process called ethoxylation, where ethylene oxide (a carcinogen linked to breast cancer) is added to chemicals such as sodium laurel sulfate to make them less harsh. It’s a known carcinogen, is thought to cause birth defects and is readily absorbed through the skin, says the USA’s Enviromental Working Group (EWG).
In 2007, the EWG found dioxane in 22 percent of all personal-care products, while a follow-up study in 2009 found it in 67 percent of children’s bath products. It’s also present in hair dyes, shampoos, body lotions, face creams, and anti-ageing products, say Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt in their book No More Dirty Looks. “It may occur in products that list the ingredients PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol or polyoxyethylene, as well as ingredients that end in ‘eth’ or ‘oxynol’,” they caution. One way to avoid exposure to 1,4-dioxane is to choose products with reputable organic certification – see page 107 for more.
Sodium laureth sulfate
Sodium laureth sulfate (often abbreviated as SLS or SLES) is found in soap, body wash, toothpaste, face wash, mascara, conditioner, exfoliants and baby washes. “SLS and SLES penetrate the skin and scalp easily and cannot be metabolised by the liver. They are possibly endrocrine disruptors, and common skin, scalp and eye irritants. But the biggest concern is contamination with 1.4-dioxane,” say O’Connor and Spunt. Dr Hauschka, Savar, Antipodes, Living Nature and Trilogy are all examples of quality skincare ranges that are sodium laureth sulfate-free.
Flavours & fragrances
Most cosmetic labelling comes under the remit of New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which requires ingredients to be listed from largest to smallest. However, ingredients in concentrations of less than one percent can be listed in any order. This creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through when it comes to fragrances.
Scents can be made up of more than one component (sometimes hundreds), but rather than listing each one, they can simply be included under the terms ‘flavour’, ‘fragrance’, ‘aroma’, or ‘parfum’.
This matters because fragrances can contain allergens that can cause skin irritants or exacerbate asthma, as well as endocrine disruptors such as phthalates. The labelling loophole means you might inadvertently end up with a fragrance that contains something you’re allergic to, or one that contains phthalates in product that’s otherwise phthalate-free.
This is the reason why Vicky Woolford, Kiwi founder of premium natural skincare range Savar, decided to keep fragrances to a minimum. “There are just as many allergens in essential oils as parfums, so we have chosen to lightly fragrance our range with a few essential oils and very low levels of parfum,” she says.
Lead and mercury
Another couple of nasties are lead and mercury – they’re highly toxic to humans and can be absorbed through the skin and into the body. Lead’s been linked to depression, aggressive behavior and miscarriage, while mercury is associated with renal failure, dementia and mental deterioration. Cheery stuff.
According to O’Connor and Spunt, “both appear in cosmetics as contaminants, or as an ingredient called thimerosal, a mercuryompound used as a preservative in mascara”. In one 2009 study by the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), lead was found in all the lipsticks tested – at levels exceeding the FDA’s guidelines for lead in children’s lollies by about ten times.
Triclosan is found in a wide variety of antibacterial products, as well as soap, toothpaste, deodorants and lipstick. The FDA says there’s no health benefit to adding it as an antibacterial agent as it’s no better than washing with regular soap and water. But triclosan isn’t a harmless bystander – it’s potentially a skin irritant, and it reacts with chlorine in water and UV light from the sun to create dioxins – a toxic lot of endocrine disruptors linked to birth defects and cancer (1,4-dioxane is a member of this nasty crew).
It’s dangerous to breathe in even small amounts of petroleum distillates, or ‘light liquid paraffin’ as it’s sometimes called. The EU has banned certain distilllates in cosmetics, but elsewhere in the world, they can be found in mascara as well as other makeup, hair, nail and skincare products. Waterproof mascaras from Revlon, Max Factor, Maybelline and Covergirl have been reported to contain petroleum distillates.
Synthetic preservatives such as parabens have a tendency to accumulate in our bodies (not to mention waterways) while another popular preservative, phenoxyethanol, is linked to cancer and nervous system damage when used in high doses.
Even certified organic and acceptable natural alternatives, such as benzyl alcohol, have their “foibles”, says natural formulations expert Kate Robertson. Benzyl alcohol, for instance, is a known irritant and allergen, while grapefruit seed extract has been found in some cases to be contaminated with harmful synthetic substances. “You can’t forget what preservatives are designed to do: inhibit microbes, kill fungus,” she says. “By their very nature they’re not going to be nice.” Robertson recommends choosing products with preservatives that have gone through the extra scrutiny provided by organic or natural certification.
Happily, preservatives are one area in which we’re ahead of the curve. Kiwi brand Living Nature was one of the first in the world to develop a purely natural preservative based on native plant extracts, including manuka oil.
What’s going down the drain?
We don’t think of the tubs and tubes in our bathrooms as having much impact on the environment. But those pesky endocrine-disrupting chemicals, for instance, not only affect our bodies – every time we use hair or skin products containing EDCs, we’re washing them down the drain and into our waterways.
Because EDCs aren’t completely removed by wastewater treatment, they can affect fish and wildlife and make their way into the food chain. Common culprits found in New Zealand waterways include phthalates, triclosan and synthetic musks, according to a report commissioned by the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. Unless you’ve been careful to choose natural skincare alternatives, they’re also likely to be in some of your current favourite facial products.
Authors of No More Dirty Looks, journalists Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, blog regularly at www.nomoredirtylooks.com
Search ingredients on the Skin Deep Database to find out how toxic they are – or not: www.ewg.org/skindeep