The Story of Cosmetics by Annie Leonard paints a scathing picture of the mainstream cosmetics industry. This video is a part of the Story of Stuff Project series that questions how our society is structured. The Story of Cosmetics was released in 2010, but 10 years later, many of the questions that are posed remain relevant. Are you concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals through the daily use of cosmetics? Are regulations in place to protect you as the consumer? Let’s examine the critiques on cosmetics, regulations, and the safety concerns, and what it might mean for the industry and the consumer today.
Due to its political nature, the Story of Stuff Project series often receives a polarized response. We think this is an important piece of work, regardless of whether you are just a fan of cosmetics, someone who wants to work in the beauty industry, or someone who is a big player in the industry. Many of today’s trends are reflected in the critiques brought forth in The Story of Cosmetics video. To focus on the main criticisms that are posed about the cosmetic industry, they are:
- The level of safety concerning cosmetic products and their ingredients
- Regulations and conflict of interest
Whatever your political or economic views, the anxieties with exposure to the unknown resonate with many viewers. This video was created a decade ago, but since then, there has been a surge of interest in green or clean cosmetics.
Toxins – Is it a Legitimate Concern?
Cosmetics is not a modern invention, and neither is poison. Lead, arsenic, and mercury were commonly used throughout history as part of cosmetics among the upper classes, and likely with the lower-middle class as well, often with dire consequences. The idea of being poisoned by cosmetics is not novel, but it’s also not conspiratorial either. Historically, Chinese emperors have suffered from metal poisoning, ironically, by seeking immortality. The idea that one could be made ill through constant exposure to beauty products is a legitimate concern.
It’s important to keep these fears in context. The scientific world has made an enormous leap forward in the last two hundred years. Standards of living have improved drastically, and regulations that protect the public have also been established. The safety of the average Westerner today is better than that of the most influential figures in history. The primary concern isn’t about the short-term dangers of exposure stemming from a lack of understanding of the ingredients; the concern is over the unknown consequences of exposure to chemicals that most are unaware of over a lifetime. There are over 10,000 cosmetic ingredients approved for use in cosmetics throughout the world. Though there is no way to measure exposure in any rigorous fashion, the average woman uses anywhere from 5 to 15 beauty products a day, while men use half as much. Women may be exposing themselves to over 500 chemicals a day. Even if individually, the ingredients are safe, what if we are exposed to hundreds for a lifetime? Also, if regulations require testing, the long-term effect would be challenging to isolate and measure, especially if it’s something that may arise from decades of use.
Regulations and the Precautionary Principle
Regulations vary widely from country to country, and in some cases, from region to region. The main criticism of the video is towards many of the Western nations, however. The United States, in particular, has come under scrutiny for its relatively hands-off approach in regulating cosmetics, but the climate is changing now with a series of investigations. Regulation of cosmetics has fallen under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938, which focuses on packaging and branding integrity. Oddly, common phrases such as “natural” or “organic” do not have a definition.
The FDA has taken a mostly hands-off approach, and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act does not require the FDA to recall or monitor ingredients used in products. Instead, the cosmetics industry largely self-regulates, under the Personal Care Products Council, a group representing manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers of cosmetics. In contrast, the European Union’s regulatory framework under the EU Cosmetics Regulation, which is independent of industry.
On a prima facie level, the overt conflict of interest is problematic. It also has real-world consequences. The regulatory body in Europe has banned over 1000 chemicals while the US counterpart has banned just 11. Perhaps two decades ago, this would be unlikely to draw attention, as very few people are experts in regulation and policy. Today, however, we are in the midst of the Internet age, and everyone is a click away from finding facts. The optics may be worse than the reality. Some of the traditional companies are now seeking more regulation.
“But now cosmetics industry regulatory legislation that languished for years is closer than ever to becoming law. And the traditional big beauty conglomerates are scared enough of the clean beauty backlash that even they are actively seeking more oversight.”7
Why would the industry want regulation? Part of the problem is that perception can be worse than reality. The word “chemical” has become a bit of a boogeyman. Many brands that tout “natural” has used the term chemical as a wedge – insinuating that traditional cosmetics are dangerous while their product is not. In truth, almost everything is a chemical, including water, and almost everything is toxic at a specific dose. The idea that chemicals are inherently dangerous is absurd, as we have regularly interacted with chemicals since we lived in caves. This line of marketing has become extremely popular in the last decade. In some respects, the Green Cosmetics that Annie Leonard was thinking would be a better future is a reality today, but the misinformation is still very much present in 2020 as it was in 2010.
Regulations can help the industry restore consumer confidence, and correct widespread misinformation as well. We live in a world of hyper-specialization. While this allows markets to be efficient, we also lose connection with the end products that we ultimately consume. The anxiety we feel isn’t unique to the cosmetics industry. Almost everyone in the West consumes processed foods full of incomprehensive ingredients; we ride vehicles and use technologies that we don’t comprehend, and are levels removed from producing anything that we interact with regularly. Consumers are responsible for educating themselves with accurate information and thinking critically. At the same time, though, the beauty industry needs to be more proactive in educating the public and to do this effectively, it does help to have independent oversight. Without this, competitors are free to make claims that are true or not, and it can end up hurting consumer confidence and the industry as a whole.