“We have the power to say ‘No, I’m not going to buy your toxic products. No, I’m not going to believe your messages about how I need to be. Yes, I’m going to invest in companies that are doing the right thing, that are making safer products.’” – Stacy Malkan, Co-Founder of U.S. Right to Know and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry
We talk a lot about what goes in our bodies, but it’s equally important to talk about what goes on our bodies. Although unable to control everything we come into contact with, we can make choices about what we use in, on, and around our bodies every day.
Ironically, many products marketed to keep us “healthy” and “clean” actually do far more harm than good. Even essentials like shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and other personal care products are often full of toxins and may be linked to a plethora of serious health issues, including cancer and infertility.
Labels on products in your bathroom or toiletry bag are likely ridden with long lists of unpronounceable, untested, and unsafe synthetic ingredients. A simple word like “fragrance,” found in 95% of body products, can contain up to 600 compounds that companies can claim as “trade secrets” and not disclose to consumers. Data compiled by Women’s Voices for the Earth reveals that one-third of all fragrance chemicals have been flagged as potentially toxic by scientists. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics brings awareness to toxic chemicals in beauty products. Founded in 2004, their work initially focused on breast cancer reduction but is now a broader campaign for general safety around the products we use daily.
Some people are more at risk than others. Women are exposed to far greater amounts of chemical-laden products (an average of 100+ individual chemicals per day!) and tend to accumulate chemicals in their bodies faster than men.
This unequal risk is even greater for women of color. Products designed for Black skin and hair have unusually high levels of toxic compounds. The Environmental Working Group found that nearly 1 in 12 Black personal care products contain highly hazardous ingredients. For example, hair relaxers and skin lighteners can contain immune system toxins like BHA and carcinogens like DMDM hydantoin.
Even with well-documented risks, strict regulation on what ingredients are allowed in body products is entirely lacking. This is why we are so passionate about helping you to learn what is safe and act accordingly.
In the United States, no governing body conducts pre-market safety testing or reviews ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, not even the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). In fact, no federal laws governing the cosmetics industry have been passed in the US since 1938. In contrast, Europe has banned nearly 1,400 harmful chemicals from cosmetic and personal care products, while the US has banned only 11. In California, the Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act (signed into law October 2020) is an attempt to make information about harmful fragrance and flavor ingredients public, the first national or state law to require this disclosure.
We have to become informed consumers because claims on product labels don’t always match what’s inside. With no government oversight, words such as natural, herbal, pure, and organic without a third-party label (a certification that products meet specific health or environmental standards) are largely meaningless. This is called greenwashing, when a company markets products as natural, safe, eco, or ethical, but ingredients and business practices tell an entirely different, conflicting, and problematic story.
The personal care industry also contributes directly to environmental degradation and climate change. Toxic chemicals in products pollute natural resources and the earth when washed down the drain, exposing more people and animals to harmful health impacts through soil and waterways. At the same time, the plastics used to produce, package, ship, and store products end up in landfills, are largely not recyclable, and contribute to already enormous pollution and waste levels. Each year, the cosmetics industry generates 120 billion units of packaging globally, not even including accessories, applicators, or other tools. All that we learn and do throughout PGC is interconnected!
Period products are massive contributors to pollution and environmental degradation. With plastic used for packaging and in the products themselves, it is estimated that a person who menstruates will produce approximately 400 pounds of plastic waste from pads and tampons over the course of a lifetime. Period products have a significant impact on the environment, but are necessities for people who menstruate, creating a difficult dilemma for those who want to lessen their footprint. Add these concerns on top of the period poverty experienced in the US and around the globe, and we’ve got a serious issue! Luckily, companies such as Natracare and Diva Cup provide sustainable and reusable alternatives that help you save money, reduce your environmental impact, and provide for those in need.
Yes, that is good news! Many thoughtfully made, effective, ethical personal care brands are easily found. Our partner, Acure, formulates affordable, healthy products that work and are good for you and the planet — 100% vegan, no animal testing, and free from harmful chemicals. Great resources dive further into this topic, like those from nonprofit partner, MADE SAFE, whose mission is to verify goods with safe ingredients that avoid harm to human health. Our organization, Turning Green, has also compiled a list of our favorite natural and ethical products, including bath and body, and personal care products here. There are so many ways to take better care of both your body and the planet; you just have to know where to look — and we are here to help!
When you buy personal care products, what are you looking for? Items that leave you looking and feeling your best? How often have you flipped over a package to read an ingredient list? Even then, do you know what anything really means? Let’s take a closer look.
Start by watching the “Story of Cosmetics” to gain a big picture understanding of the issue.
- What are three things you learned?
- What might you change in your use of personal care products or skincare routine after watching this video?
- Create an image, text, or graphical interpretation of one thing you learned
Even if you read ingredient labels before purchasing products, you may not get the full story. A single ingredient can actually mask hundreds of different chemicals with proven health risks. In the United States, there are no laws requiring that ingredients found in “fragrance” or “parfum,” for example, be listed on the packaging or elsewhere, amounting to a serious lack of transparency for consumers.
Now tell us about your morning or evening routine, and the products you use. Pick one skin, body or makeup product that you cannot live without. Read the ingredients. How many have you heard of? How many can you pronounce?
Snap a photo on your phone to scan the barcode or search for the product. If you can’t find that specific one, pick another or use the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Red List to check ingredients from the label.
- What is the product called? Include the brand and specifics.
- According to your research, what is its overall hazard rating?
- How many ingredients did you find to be potentially hazardous? Share the most hazardous ingredient in the product and basis for that rating.
- Share the health and environmental impacts the product is shown to have.
Find a sustainable, clean, conscious alternative for your conventional product at an online retailer. Look for brands like Acure, Dr. Bronner’s, EO, and more. You can also check out MADE SAFE’s Certified Products list for ideas.
- Share the name, brand, and ingredient list from the clean option and where you found it.
- What is the cost of the conventional vs. conscious product?
- Will you make the switch? Why or why not?
Create an infographic comparing the conventional and eco-friendly products. Include three facts
Yes, we all purchase products, but we can also make skincare ourselves! It’s a fun way to save money, ensure total transparency with ingredients, and create less waste by reducing packaging and upcycling. Disclaimer: Not all DIY skincare products are created equal! You should not be putting acidic products (like lemon) on your skin, and coconut oil is comedogenic, meaning it can clog your pores. Use your best judgment about what works for your skin type, and know that no two bodies are alike!
Check our list of natural DIY recipes that you can make to replace a conventional body product, or look up a few on your own. Think about the products you use most often. Which would be easy to replicate? What ingredients might you already have on hand? Document the process with photos and/or video and respond to the following:
- What recipe did you choose?
- How did you select ingredients? Could you source any organically?
- What did you put your product in? A repurposed container? Plastic-free?
Now it’s time to share your DIY product with a friend, housemate, or family member. Explain why you chose to make this product, let them try it (or watch you use it!), and share 3 facts you learned from the body challenge. Capture their responses:
- Did they enjoy using your DIY product?
- Were they surprised by any of the facts?
- Will they follow your lead and take a look at ingredients in their current products?
- Are they open to switching to conscious personal care products?