A former “diva,” Marina De-Marco had every cosmetic and body care product imaginable. The Nipissing University student “bought into the idea of what it meant to look and feel good.” That is, until she visited the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and discovered products she used every day scored frighteningly high for dangerous chemicals. “I felt like I’d been lied to—I know all about living healthy, so why didn’t I know about this?” says DeMarco. “I threw out my makeup bag.”
It’s this aha moment that Environmental Defence aims to ignite with a new campaign highlighting synthetic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products. It includes a 30-second spot—“Try to Look Pretty Without Poisoning Yourself”—that takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to underscore what it considers inadequate government regulations and product labelling.
“The state of affairs is so ridiculous it calls for humour,” says Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence, which is taking on the industry in a bid to clean up sources of pollutants.
The environmental group has succeeded before. In 2008, Canada became the first country to ban bisphenol A—a controversial industrial chemical—from baby bottles. “Nobody had heard of BPA when we started talking about it in 2005,” says Smith, who’s also the author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, which helped propel consumer backlash so powerful regulators and companies were forced to create new laws and products spanning everything from toys to plastic containers. “What we are seeing with cosmetics is exactly what we saw with BPA.”
The battle is also reminiscent of the tobacco fight, ignited by similar awareness campaigns that transformed the cigarette industry. Today environmental and health advocates are lodging similar allegations, saying everything from lipstick to shampoo is riddled with dangerous chemicals that are hazardous to people’s health.
“You hear a lot of the same arguments and lame excuses that tobacco used in the early days of that debate, namely there’s no demonstrative cognitive link,” says Smith, adding today’s label-savvy consumers won’t buy it. “The name of the game in today’s consumer culture is transparency, but the information available is wholly inadequate.”
Darren Praznik, president of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CCTFA), the voice on this issue for its 170 members, disagrees. “This is a battle of fact versus fiction,” he says, adding CCTFA is retaliating through media and in retail with a new Beauty Specialist Certification Program to help those on the ground field questions. Social media is next and the group is hosting “Chemistry in the Crosshairs,” a webinar for “brand owners, managers, marketers and PR personnel defending the ingredients in their products.”
Praznik dismisses parallels between cosmetics and tobacco. “They did not base their information on sound science and [tobacco companies] were rightly condemned, but no one here is lobbying to keep unsafe products in the market…. [Chemical] exposure [in cosmetics] is so limited, there is no risk.”
But, says Lisa Gue, environmental health policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, “Consumers are just not willing to accept the line of ‘Trust us, it’s fine.’ People are looking for solutions and want products they know are safe for their health and the environment.”
She cites the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a global coalition effort that spurred health groups and parents to lobby Johnson & Johnson to reformulate its baby shampoo, which, the group claimed, contained potentially cancer-causing chemicals. In a letter to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the company maintained it disagreed with “the science,” but was responding to “changing consumer needs and values.”
Cosmetic companies need not jump to defend themselves in the wake of these ongoing allegations, says David Soberman, a professor at the Rotman School of Management. Instead, they should look beyond the hype and “assess the perception of the people who are actually buying your product. If they perceive it as dangerous, then you need to act.”
Advocates are demanding stricter laws, but it’s not enough for companies to wait for regulations to change before they do. Grassroots movements quickly go mainstream and perception is everything. “The web makes all the difference. BPA was the first effort that really took off online,” says Smith, adding social media is a game-changer. He predicts the tipping point is imminent: “We are going to see a consumer backlash—the phenomenon has already begun.”
Consumers like DeMarco are leading the charge. Following her aha moment, she founded Love the Label, an organization that promotes awareness about ingredients in cosmetics. “Initially people are shocked, then they ask, ‘If I throw out my shampoo, is there something to take its place?’”
Therein lies opportunity. Canadians spend more than $5.4 billion a year on cosmetics and personal care products, and brands that use natural ingredients are poised to reap the benefits. “The difference between this and the tobacco fight is while there is no such thing as a safe cigarette, there are safe cosmetics,” says Smith.
Cindy Stevens is the “cin” in Jaydancin, which manufactures organic makeup and skincare products in Sparta, Ont. She sees a dramatic shift in interest from fringe to mainstream consumers—Pharmasave recently asked to carry Jaydancin products. “Our company is six years old, but in the last year our clientele has quadrupled.” Even Johnson & Johnson launched its new “Natural” brand of baby shampoo.
The writing is on the wall, insists Smith. “We are going to see the wholesale reformation of the cosmetics industry in the next few years.”
Are Cosmetics the New Tobacco?