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Poison Ives-y: Stranded in a Beauty Aisle of Toxins, Betrayal, and Greenwashing

2011 January 18

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.

Case 475710

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.


Shelby Hansen

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:

Ingredients in this product are linked to:

  • Cancer
  • Developmental/reproductive toxicity
  • Allergies/immunotoxicity
  • 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.

13 Responses
  1. Charlie S. permalink
    January 18, 2011

    Celia, I’m so glad you’re writing here! I’m really excited to start reading your pieces. Thanks for the warnings in this one, even if I do feel a tiny bit depressed after looking up a few of the products I use (a few to many 7s for comfort). Turns out, the only safe thing I’m using is my deodorant (and thank goodness that I can keep using at least that). Keep up the good work!

  2. Judy Branfman permalink
    January 18, 2011

    This is a wonderful piece Celia, but alas so much more bad news than I could imagine! I’ll repost tho because it’s really important. Looking forward to more of your stories – this is a cool site!

  3. Evelyn Arke permalink
    January 19, 2011

    Thank you so much Celia, this piece was very informative (and well written). I’m sure the people who read this will be more thoughtful when going down the beauty aisle, i know that i will.

  4. Miriam permalink
    January 19, 2011

    What a great article! Hope that it get St. Ives’ attention. I’m reposting to see how far it can go.

  5. Jenn permalink
    January 20, 2011

    Love the article, love the title, wish the truth weren’t so treacherous. Clearly there is nothing saintly in St. Ives. I’m reposting so that others read this powerfully written article and beware. Thanks!

  6. January 20, 2011

    What a great post, Celia! Thank you for sharing your letter to St. Ive’s. It is amazing how companies do not ‘hear’ the concerns of those who contact them. It seems to be a buffer to ‘listening’ which could possibly require them to do something, faced with admiting error and/or subjecting them to self responsibilities, red bottom lines and lawsuits.

  7. January 20, 2011

    Great article Celia. Young people are at even more risk from the toxin in products because you use more and your body is still developing. We’ve all been through this stage and through this betrayal. Consider it a gift in that it’s motivating you to be an informed consumer and I’m sure this will never happen to you again and you are now able to educate your friends, having a positive effect upon their health. And good for you for writing to the company and writing about your experience here.

    Really the only way to know your products are safe and that a company’s “natural” claims are valid is to buy certified organic products. Products that are certified organic are done so to food-grade standards and work just as well or better than conventional products.

    In the meantime, it might be worth talking to a holistic nutritionist or a naturopath about doing a detox to rid yourself of the toxins you were subjected to.

  8. January 20, 2011

    Go Celia! I love this article. I too used to believe that St. Ives was some kind of natural product – not so! Every time I see that product in somebody’s bathroom, I think, here is a person who wants to buy natural products and needs to be educated about the Skin Deep database. Many great resources are also available via the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at

    Thanks for bringing attention to this important topic.

    Stacy Malkan

  9. January 21, 2011

    I’ll be re-posting this. I too was very disappointed to find out how disgusting that brand is! I currently use various toxic (mostly acne products) and non-toxic face washes and mix them into a paste with baking soda and/or sugar to transform into a scrub.

  10. January 23, 2011

    Great article, way to channel your anger and do something positive with it! I agree with everything you said and wish I’d said it first! I’m noting for posterity that this is the first time I’ve heard the term “green washing.” I expect to hear many times in the coming weeks, months and year, in the fight t live a non-toxic existence.

  11. Laura Myerson permalink
    January 24, 2011

    Celia, I loved and hated your article. Loved it because it gave me important, vital information. Hated it because I now know that everything I’ve been putting on my skin, scalp and everywhere else is toxic, toxic, toxic. Thanks for forcing me to confront what I already tacitly knew but didn’t want to face.

  12. January 25, 2011

    This is a wonderful and powerful article clearly identifying all the reasons why there needs to be federal regulations! Consumers don’t know that they need to be concerned about their daily use products. We’d love to have you be an advocate for Teens Turning Green. We are in the Bay Area and could use a voice like yours!

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