The Cosmetics Cover-Up: Paying the Price of Beauty (and Ignorance)

A result of “going natural” (not relaxing my hair with chemicals) that I haven’t mentioned before is a greater awareness of all the chemicals in commercial products, especially in the health and beauty industry. I’ve learned about some things that affect all of us who use toiletries–men included. But first I’ll talk about something we use every day: water straight from the tap–whether it’s in our shower, or at the sink.

Why I Don’t Fool With the Tap

I don’t drink tap water anywhere if I can help it–not at home and not at restaurants (especially not with lemon slices, because they’re often found to have fecal matter and other bacteria).  One day when I still living in my house in Virginia, an offer to have my water tested was placed on my doorknob. I made the appointment. A man came to sell me reverse osmosis water, but I didn’t know that was his purpose. He started off by giving demonstrations.

First, he poured my tap water into a glass and measured the chlorine in it. I don’t recall the actual number, but he noted that it was several times higher than the amount typically found in swimming pools! Scary. Then he had my sister swish the tap water around in her mouth for a moment, then spit it back into the glass. When he measured the water again, it had no chlorine. Why? She had absorbed it into her system by taking it into her body for less than a minute– she didn’t even ingest the water, but the chemicals went into her system.

That demo was enough of an eye opener for me, but he wasn’t done.

He then asked if we thought that plain water could clean windows and other household items without detergent or cleaners. We said no. He attached something to my kitchen faucet, and then wet a paper towel. He smeared my kitchen window with butter, then wiped it off using nothing but the wet towel. He was right–the stain came off easily, and left no streaks. He then explained that the detergents we use for laundry, dishes, and other cleaning purposes were full of chemicals that react with tap water because the tap water is not clean, but he had products available that would save me money when used with their reverse osmosis filtering system.

I wanted it. It didn’t hurt that the man was easy on the eyes, either.

Although I was very interested in what the reverse osmosis water and other products, but since I knew I wanted to eventually sell my house and I was in a lot of debt, I declined.

Black Don’t Crack (Sometimes)

Have you ever noticed when a person’s face or hands are very smooth and supple, or if they’re weathered (tore up)? It’s not all about toiletries and beauty treatments. Your lifestyle–that is, the way you take care of your body, with regard to your eating habits, amount of sleep and exercise you get, and whether or not you smoke, all play key factors in how you skin looks. It’s been said that ‘Black don’t crack,’ because many African American women don’t get wrinkles and age as fast as Whites, but again, it all has to do with their self-care. Want a preview of your future looks? Look at the older women in your family.

No FDA Protection Against Sickening Toiletries

A week before my ‘big chop,’ I attended a natural hair conference for the first time, in Raleigh, NC. It was there that I first got schooled about harmful beauty products.

I attended a workshop facilitated by Oraje, who is a chemist and hair stylist in Brooklyn, NY. He explained that the cosmetics industry is not FDA-regulated because we do not ingest the products orally, but these products still go into your bloodstream through your skin. Our skin is the largest organ in our body, and it absorbs whatever we put on it– whether it’s the water we shower with, the lotion we rub on it after the shower, etc. For this reason, a lot of women who ‘go natural’ make their own products by going to stores like Whole Foods and purchasing carrier oils (many of which people already use for cooking), and other truly natural items. However, there is a big caveat: just because the front of the label says something is organic or all natural, doesn’t make it so.

Oraje also discussed the fact that some perfumes contain cancer-causing ingredients (known carcinogens).  He advised people to read the ingredients lists on product labels, and avoid certain ingredients that are widely used by manufacturers because they are cheap, such as sulfates, petroleum, parabens, and mineral oil.

Unfortunately, learning about potentially harmful product ingredients is not a surefire way to avoid them. Some of the most innocuous items in your bathroom could be making you and your family sick. For example: According to a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) published in May 2010, many chemicals in perfumes are NOT listed on products due to a loophole in federal regulations. These chemicals, sometimes disguised under the catch-all term “fragrance,” can lead to adverse side effects such as allergies and reduced sperm count in men.

The cosmetics industry is thriving, in part, because of consumer ignorance.
You can look up hundreds of cosmetics toxicity ratings, but what else can we do as consumers to keep ourselves well-informed, short of research? The first thing that comes to mind is to contact our legislators and let them know that we need stronger regulations over the cosmetics industry and mention specifics. Has a particular product made your skin break out? Do fumes of a certain product bother you? As long as we remain silent (or worse, continue to buy said products), companies will continue to manufacture and distribute them in major store chains.

What are your thoughts about the safety of health and beauty items? Do you consider a product’s ingredients before purchasing it, or do you assume that whatever is on the front of the label is enough information for you to make a purchasing decision? Do you have knowledge about cosmetics or the cosmetics industry that I haven’t mentioned here? Do you have any suggestions for promoting awareness and educating consumers? Let me know.

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