Poison Ives-y: Stranded in a Beauty Aisle of Toxins, Betrayal, and Greenwashing
It’s depressing to find out that the things you depend on to heal and clean you turn out to poison you too. Life is hard enough without being betrayed by a bottle, a compact, or a tube. But in the untested, unregulated grab-bag that is your bathroom cabinet, drugstore beauty aisle, or cosmetic case your personal care products hide a toxic tale indeed.
But how could there be a noxious nightmare brewing in my bathroom cabinet? I always considered myself a safe and responsible consumer. I buy used clothes, I don’t drink coffee out of styrofoam cups, and I always check out my makeup and skincare products on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, a fantastic website which rates the toxicity of commercial products on a scale of 1-10. But try as I might, I could not find a “safe” face scrub, so I traded my blemishes for a hazard level 4.
When a friend told me she had found St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub, a miracle scrub, all natural, cheap, and effective, I was thrilled. I immediately retired my hazard level 4 scrub for what I believed to be salvation. Six months later while looking up toxicity levels for my friend, I glanced at my trusted miracle scrub and realized that I had never actually looked it up. I innocently typed the name in the search bar; I wasn’t worried. It was all natural, right? Wrong.
When the page loaded, I could barely comprehend its treachery. My beautiful, miraculous, “green”, “all natural”, “herbal” face scrub was in fact a hazard level 7! A scary, rub your face in a waste dump, highly hazardous 7!
And just like that, my eco-idealist, informed consumer naiveté met its demise.
I fired off an e-mail to the Consumer Relations department at St. Ives and got this robo-response back. Not only did it address none of the issues I brought up in my email (like the fact that they are poisoning consumers with highly hazardous products.) but is an exquisite example of the blatant lies the beauty industry dishes out daily.
Dear Ms. Jailer Shannon,
Thank you for taking the time to contact Alberto-Culver [St. Ives' parent corporation] regarding your issues with our products. We are sorry to learn of your dissatisfaction with our product.
Consumer safety is Albert0-Culver’s top priority. In addition to our own strict product safety evaluation, Alberto-Culver only uses ingredients that are known to be safe. We appreciate your concern and want to assure you that St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrubs are not toxic products.
We appreciate you bringing your concerns to our attention. Thank you for contacting Alberto-Culver.
Senior Consumer Relations Representative
Let’s see what those “safe” and “strictly evaluated” things do to my body according to Skin Deep the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database. Here is the checklist provided by the webpage for that St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub:
- Developmental/reproductive toxicity
- Use restrictions
- Other concerns for ingredients used in this product: Neurotoxicity, Persistence and bioaccumulation, Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), Miscellaneous, Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), Enhanced skin absorption, Contamination concerns, Occupational hazards, Biochemical or cellular level changes
You know what I want, St. Ives? I want 6 months of your toxins out of my body! I want to walk into a drugstore and not have to pick my way through a minefield. I want to choose to wear makeup and wash my hair and scrub my face without exposing myself to toxins. I want to not have to do research to find safe brands; I want them all to be safe. I don’t want beauty to be something I risk my life for. That’s what I want.
Probably every consumer wants that. But most think that someone is making sure the stuff that we smear from head to toe daily is safe. The brands sure aren’t, so maybe the drugstores are?… Nope. The Government?… Nope.
Not only does the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have no oversight of ingredients in any cosmetic, skincare or haircare products, but they also have no jurisdiction to standardize, measure or enforce the “organic,” “herbal,” and “all natural” designations that so many products emblazon on their labels. Unlike in foods, these terms have no legal definition when describing ingredients in personal care products. Basically, companies can put anything they want in a bottle and call it anything they want on the bottle.
Since 1938, the FDA has banned a total of 8 ingredients out of more than 12,000 being used in personal care products. That’s less than .067%! Nobody can be error-free that often, much less an industry that will try almost anything to turn a profit. The FDA does not even make companies list all of the ingredients on the bottle. Consumer safety in cosmetics and personal care products relies solely on the Industry Safety Committee: a self-policed panel filled with CEOs of major personal care giants such as Procter & Gamble (which owns Dove, Herbal Essences and dozens more brands), and Unilever, which recently purchased… wait for it… Alberto-Culver, the owner of St. Ives — it also owns a bunch of other brands including Nexus and TRESSemmé. The Industry Safety Committee tests fewer than 20% of all products sold in the United States, and its recommendations are not mandatory. Huge corporations get to make the rules and then decide if they want to follow them, but nothing happens if they don’t.
Everyone uses toothpaste, soap, shampoo and a variety of other products. In fact, the average North American man uses 6 products per day and the average woman uses 12. That’s a whole lot of unprotected exposure to possible toxins. Even now with scientific studies linking toxins and chemicals in products to cancers, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, etc, not a single law in the United States tells companies what they can and cannot put in products. Not a single law in the United States forces them to tell the truth about what’s in their products either. Unless laws are passed that grant the FDA the power to police the industry and ensure truthful labeling and safe ingredients, you and I are left to choose among meaningless claims on a shelf full of bottles.
Celia Jailer is a student in Berkeley, CA.