Dangerous Beauty

by Kezia on July 4, 2008

An Interview with Stacy Malkan

Phthalates scare me. They’re linked to infertility and genital abnormalities in baby boys. Phthalates (a slippery hiss of a word) are many products we use every day, including baby powders, shampoos, lotions, some cosmetics and vinyl shower curtains and more. I learned this and much more in “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” Stacy Malkan’s expose about toxic chemicals in beauty products.

I saw Malkan read a few weeks ago at Red Hill Books and was moved by her stories about her work with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. I’m thrilled that she agreed to an email interview.

Stacy Malkan is the Communications Director of Health Care Without Harm and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The Coveted: What inspired you to write this book?

Stacy Malkan: For years, I had been working with some of the top researchers and activists in the field of environmental health. Their stories were so amazing and inspiring. Then we started interacting with the world’s largest beauty companies, and asking them to stop using chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects. It all made for a very intriguing narrative!

TC: Cosmetics are virtually unregulated in the United States. Meanwhile, in 2003 the European Union banned chemicals strongly linked to cancer, mutation, or birth defects from personal care products. Why are we so far behind?

SM: The corporate lobby is very strong in the United States, and the regulatory system for chemical safety is completely broken. For decades, companies have been allowed to make any kind of chemical and put it into products with almost no required safety testing. Then it’s up to consumers to prove a chemical or product is causing harm before it can be regulated. It’s ludicrous. Europe is shifting to a more precautionary approach – requiring companies to safety test chemicals and eliminate known toxins. The result is that European industries are innovating safer, less-toxic products – while the US businesses fall behind.

There is a belief in the United States that regulation holds back innovation, but exactly the opposite is true. Cosmetics is a perfect example: companies have continued to use the same old toxic chemicals for decades, even though safer alternatives are available. It’s just easier for companies to keep doing what they already know how to do.

TC: Do you think there’s hope for change with a new administration?

SM: Yes absolutely. There is a huge increase in public awareness about these issues; people care about toxins in our environment and in our own bodies – especially women. And nearly every day you read about how all the politicians are courting the women’s vote. There is a lot of work to do though. Not only do we need to reclaim the administration, but we need to reclaim the agencies that are supposed to protect the health of the American public and our environment. Over the past years these agencies have been eviscerated, underfunded, demoralized and gutted.

All the major companies lined up at the hearing to complain that it’s too hard for them to get lead out of lipstick.

TC: The California State Senate recently passed the first bill in the nation that bans lead in lipstick. Next steps?

SM: They did! But unfortunately the bill died in the California Assembly under huge lobby pressure from the cosmetics industry. All the major companies lined up at the hearing to complain that it’s too hard for them to get lead out of lipstick. The outrageous thing is that many of them are already making lipstick without lead, and some of them aren’t bothering to do so. The bill will be re-introduced next year.

TC: How can we reduce our exposure to the toxic chemicals in personal care products?

SM: Simplify simplify. Choose products with fewer chemicals, no pesticides, no synthetic fragrance, and use fewer chemical products overall. Eliminate unnecessary chemical exposures wherever you can.

TC: I remember reading “The Beauty Myth” (way back in 1991 when I was a college freshman) and how profoundly it challenged and changed my world view. Your book had a similar effect. But what about the women who don’t- for whatever reason- want to hear these messages. How do you speak to them?

SM: Thank you, good question. It’s hard to speak to them because they usually run away! There is definitely a segment of people who are not ready to hear the message. I’ve seen them literally back away from the book when they see the cover. And that’s ok, that’s where they’re at. But I’ve been totally amazed by how many people are ready to hear the message – and in a big way. I’ve heard so many stories from people who say the book and our work has changed the way they think about the world, or inspired them to change their career, their major in school, or their life path. That’s huge! It’s exciting. I am especially hopeful about the stories I hear from teenagers. These girls are going to be the ones who change the world.

TC: How can nail salons be made safer for their workers?

SM: Better ventilation. Labeling of salon products. Long term health studies of nail salon workers, and air quality studies of the salons. We need better work safety laws. But ultimately, it is going to take the beauty industry making a serious commitment to women’s health. This industry needs to eliminate all chemicals suspected of causing cancer, birth defects, infertility, learning disabilities and other health problems, and develop safer alternatives. They can do it. They just haven’t had to do it.

Simplify simplify. Choose products with fewer chemicals, no pesticides, no synthetic fragrances…

TC: Is it possible to ensure product safety without testing on animals?

SM: Yes. It is true that animal testing is currently the best method for understanding the health effects of chemicals. However, companies continue to use chemicals that are known to be toxic – and continue to test them on animals – rather than going back to the chemistry lab to figure out how to make non-toxic chemicals. The new field of green chemistry is very promising. But it needs to be funded!

TC: I have to ask, given all that you know, what’s your beauty routine like? Any favorites?

SM: Given all that I know, the first thing is, I don’t allow the products made by the largest beauty companies into my home. L’Oreal, Revlon, Estee Lauder, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Avon – not allowed. It’s a challenge but I can’t support these companies because they have been so resistant to our concerns. The good news is, there are many companies making wonderful products. I can’t say which brands I use but I favor smaller companies, local companies, companies that get a good score on Skin Deep, and companies that show a commitment to taking care of the planet and the people on it. I still use lots of products as I always have, and my skin and hair is healthier than ever.

Related Posts:

Beauty Politics
Be Wary: 5 Un-pretty Ingredients
Green Wishing
M’Lady Organic
How to Buy Vintage

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Imelda Matt July 4, 2008 at 3:17 pm

I’ve never given thought to the dangers of working in a nail salon. But now that i think about it I’m horrified. Brilliant interview. I’ve finally gone back to Twitter and discovered that you ‘found’ me. I’m still a little retarded about how to use it :)

oluchi July 4, 2008 at 8:02 pm

omg thank you for this. so many ppl, including myself don’t thinka bout what’s in our beauty products. i try as much as possible to be organic but because i rarely wear makeup, i forget that when i do, it can be damaging. if you could post sites (esp. europeans ones) that offer makeup w/o all these toxins, it would be very appreciated. i don’t mind spending a bit extra if it means i can have a healthy baby boy in the future.

meli July 4, 2008 at 10:55 pm

this is awesome.
thanks for posting this up, here in SF there was recently loads of press given to the dangers of nail salons (the risks workers take) and it made me think about many peripheral situations in public spaces for beauty. Anyhow.
Im putting this book in my summer list. Also thanks for the site, I found there is a special event here in SF, July 19th. Ill be there.


kezia July 6, 2008 at 5:52 pm

thanks for all your wonderful and insightful comments! Oluchi- I review organic (or non-toxic) beauty products from time to time. Because there is such an interest, I’ll def. be adding more product reviews. I’m a big fan of EcoFabulous- check out its beauty section. http://ecofabulous.blogs.com/ecofabulous/beauty/index.html

kezia July 6, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Meli- i’m planning on attending the July 19 event too. will post more info on The Coveted to spread the word.

oluchi July 6, 2008 at 8:39 pm

thank you kezia!

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