You are what you buy: wake up & smell the toxins / by KirstenStudio

bday_candlesThere’s a line from the 1938 Frank Capra film, entitled “You Can’t Take it With you”, in which Jean Author tells Jimmy Stewart “…people commercialize on fear, you know, they scare you to death so they can sell you something...”

I’ve been interested in the history and current practices of advertising for a long time now. Over years of observation I’ve come up with some obvious findings – that when it comes to selling beauty product, advertisers seemed to have found the magic formula.  The formula will often first sell the fear (by way of reminding or inventing), and then sell “the solution” to that fear, which is undoubtedly the product. This works so well, it’s been a popular marketing tool since the beginning of consumerism. 

I think the seduction of the female buyer is particularly interesting within the cosmetic industry because the product is often what the consumer should be anxious about.  I read somewhere that Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do on education.  Over time I have become (and obviously many others) acutely aware of the strong influence media has on women’s self worth, perception of the world and who they should be (or appear to be) in it.  Today I’m thinking of a particular aspect of the personal product business.

 I’ve been wondering what exactly we’re getting when we bring home a new beauty item.  Have you heard the phrase “You are what you eat”?  I question if “You are what you buy”. 

 There is a popular factoid floating around the green and organic world that claims we absorb 60% of whatever is applied to our skin.  Oddly enough, there are fairly vague regulations enforced in the United States that keep the beauty industry up to safety standards.  From what I understand these laws are full of loop holes. Presently cosmetic products and their ingredients are not subject to FDA pre-market approval (the only exception are color additives).  There are two U.S. laws pertaining to the beauty markets.  One is the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the other is the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act.  The FD&C Act prohibits marketing of adulterated or misbranded cosmetics in interstate commerce.  The FPLA Act requires an ingredient declaration to enable consumers to make informed purchasing decisions.  A person might think that would cover it, but it really doesn’t.  It’s a shame the cosmetic firms are the only parties responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing.  Kind of a contradiction in interests.


There is a short list the FDA has come up with which limits the use of specified ingredients deemed harmful in certain quantities.  Not only is the list of no-no’s short, but other components, like parabens, are listed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services merely as “preservatives” that “can cause skin to become irritated or infected”.  Ingredients such as parabens (also on product ingredient lists as ethyl, methyl, butyl, propyl) are one of many chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogenic in some studies. (try Googling Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS (2004). Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology or check out The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Christian G. Daughton and Thomas A. Ternes, "Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Agents of Subtle Change?" Environmental Health Perspectives • Vol 107, Supplement 6 • December 1999 for some light reading).  Other ingredients like fragrances (phthalates), petrochemicals (sodium lauryl sulfate, polyethylene glycol, propylene glycol), coal tar (FD&C, D&C) are known or suspected to hold carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins.  What really gets my goat too is there are healthy, natural alternatives to these questionable ingredients currently used.


A ton of these goods include potentially deadly chemicals that could not only cause serious physical problems for those that buy them, but they are also passed on to the consumer’s family, into sewage systems and water ways, where they enter into wildlife and the rest of our environment which we, of course, re-consume.

Although consciousness about the implications of some of these ingredients is growing, based on my experience, a lot of consumers don’t care that much.  I’ve wondered why this is and I’ve come up with two ideas about it.  One being the average person is too overwhelmed with information and stretched too thin with time to investigate and make health mindful decisions about every thing they purchase. The other being women would rather listen to the illusion than the reality, and they’d rather take the risk of possible illness than the risk of looking their age.  People don’t want to hear that our favorite mascara or nice smelling, long lasting deodorant contains cheap and dangerous preservatives. We like our 7 hour lipsticks (that chaps our lips but holds the color for at least two hours) and don’t want to learn it contains petroleum.  An even more bizarre aspect to this phenomenon is these products almost never deliver on their promises and I know this from years of my own stupid research.

We continue to buy based on who sells it, what is promised and how appealing the packaging is.  I think many of us are addicted to an illusion and the consumption of it for no good reason.  I’m not condemning anyone who wants to alter their appearance for something that makes them feel better.  I am like everyone else.  My concern is when women are willing to do this at the sacrifice of their health.

I don’t think consumers should be suspicious of everything we buy either, that is a whole different kind of fear that can be very unhealthy.  I’m just suggesting that the FDA might want to beef up their regulations so we don’t feel the need to be leery and that consumers care about what they buy because they care about something beyond their insecurities that are often invented by someone else.

 If you ask me, this story is ripe in depth, multi-layered documentary.  There is a rich history of corporate irresponsibility and deceit, consumer addiction and lack of effective laws governing it all.  It would take the United States Congress to pass new, strict and specific FDA regulations that would truly protect the consumers. That’s a big story.

 There are a growing number of organizations challenging the beauty industry and putting pressure on the FDA to develop stricter guidelines (you know, something more than suggesting to avoid make-up application while driving, as a major beauty safety tip.  Check out The Federal Government for Women’s Health Information cosmetic page).  Following suit are cosmetic companies advertising organic, paraben and petroleum free cosmetics.

 There would be a number of ways to develop this documentary.  A filmmaker could track someone from an organization, like The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep division. Another good resource would be, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. 

 The beauty business is one of the few industries that is still holding it’s own in our currently depressed economy.  So in a way this seems particularly timely now, but when you really think about it, the advertiser’s seduction with the consumer, and product dangers have been going on since the beginning of supply and demand.