My Story of Stuff: The Stuff Industry Insiders Have Told me About the Battle over Safe Cosmetics

July 31st, 2010

For two years I’ve been blogging about whether we really need  government regulation of the chemicals commonly used in both personal care products and household care products.

I’ve not just been blogging, as I’ve shared here, but asking questions of just about everyone I’ve come across who has a connection to the chemicals and personal care industries.

I first went directly to the source. But Johnson & Johnson – who spends millions “courting bloggers” according to this Ad Age article – wouldn’t answer my questions about chemicals reform – even after a phone conversation, email, and a blog post. (Maybe they’ll answer my questions next week, when I see them at BlogHer).

And the industry council, The Personal Care Products Council? They wouldn’t talk either.

So I asked a professor of environmental science  about the issue. “It’s bad,” she said. “Really bad. Nobody really knows what the impact is of all these chemicals.”

I stood up at the annual meeting of the Soap and Detergent Association and asked my questions. All I got in return was a bunch of non-answers from a lawyer who was clearly trying to evade the issue.  It was frustrating, and it caused my skepticism to grow.

I asked the chemicals industry consultant who sat across the aisle from me on a long plane ride.   Just like the professor, he acknowledged that the industry really doesn’t know the cumulative impact, but it didn’t look good. They could go with other chemicals, but they’re more expensive and it’s a cumbersome process to change.

“Why don’t they resolve it within the industry and avoid regulation?” I asked.  “The regulatory process is just a waste of tax payer money. Industry could do a better job of fixing the problem anyway than via government oversight.”

“I tried to get them to do that,” he said. “But they’re afraid of litigation. If one company admits that there’s a problem with their ingredients, the lawyers will come after them.”

Here was a guy who was clearly frustrated – and disgusted.

The fact is, there’s no incentive to find out what the cumulative impact is of repetitive exposure to everyday chemicals. There’s disincentive.

The introduction of the Safe Chemicals Act purports to change that.  Its supporters tied the launch to the debut of a controversial new video by Annie Leonard of “Story of Stuff” Legend. In just 10 days, it’s already racked up nearly 200,000 views.

But just like the truth, the stories I’ve been told are not all one-sided.

There was the brilliant toxicologist who spent 30 minutes with me, discussing the issues in the clear, straightforward way that is common to really bright people who can distill an issue down to its simplest elements.

He denied that his company made one version of product for sale in the EU, where chemical laws are tougher, and a different version in the US.

He also railed against the EWG, saying that their database distorts science and scares people (essentially the same  arguments the formaldehyde lobby made on my blog, but stated in a much nicer way!)

And he’s not the only one. Quietly, even organic and natural beauty advocates say the same thing.

Has the EWG stretched their case to make a point? Perhaps.

But would we have come this close to having government re-examine the safety of our everyday products were it not for the efforts of the EWG? Of course not.

Just five days ago, a rebuttal was posted to The Story of Cosmetics. Far from 200,000 views, The Critique of The Story of Cosmetics has attracted just 12,750 views.   But of course I watched it just to see if it answers my questions.

It didn’t. Never does the critic address the central issue at stake: what is the impact of the cumulative exposure of these chemicals?

I read the response issued by the Personal Care Products Council to the Annie Leonard Film.  It doesn’t address the issue either.

And now I feel confident I know why.

They just don’t know.

It’s not how business works. Each company is worried about its own products – not the interaction of their products with others.

So what can a consumer do?

1. Use fewer personal care products, particularly if you’re pregnant or someone who may wish to become pregnant (or impregnate someone! – yes, chemicals like phthlates have been linked to decreased sperm count). Avoid personal care products for infants and young children.

2. Consider products that can be used for more than one purpose. (Guess what? Most of the “special uses” are all about marketing anyway!)

3. Think organic and natural (yes, I realize they contain chemicals, but not the types of chemicals that are linked to hormone disruption).

It’s all very confusing. And to make things even more so, a coalition of independent cosmetics makers (you know, the sweet ladies who sell natural and organic make-up on Etsy and at the local fair) have come out in opposition to the Safe Cosmetics Act. They’re concerned that the bill’s requirements will put them out of business. While the supporters of the SCA dispute that, it’s easy to sympathize with these women. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the government made a mess of CSPIA legislation, driving similar small businesses (consignment shops and the like) out of business.

Thanks for reading this far! A long post I know, and without all the links, which I’ll add in shortly!

I want to hear your thoughts as well. What do you think about the debate over cosmetics and the SCA?

This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Cosmetics, to be hosted here at OrganicMania.

— Lynn

Copyright OrganicMania 2010

13 Responses to “My Story of Stuff: The Stuff Industry Insiders Have Told me About the Battle over Safe Cosmetics”

  1. Tweets that mention Organic and Green Mom Blog | My Story of Stuff: The Stuff Industry Insiders Have Told me About the Battle over Safe Cosmetics at Organic Mania -- on August 1, 2010 3:05 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Green Moms Carnival, Corey Colwell-Lipson. Corey Colwell-Lipson said: RT @organicmania My Story of Stuff: The Stuff Industry Insiders Have Told me About the Battle over.. #cosmetics #beauty […]

  2. Organic and Green Mom Blog | @GreenMoms Take On Cosmetics: Safe or Unsafe?: It’s the Green Moms Carnival! at Organic Mania on August 1, 2010 8:11 pm

    […] Alone among the @GreenMoms, I’m not so sure the Safe Cosmetics Act is the answer. Check my post out here, where I blog about what I’ve learned in two years of following these […]

  3. Amber on August 1, 2010 9:23 pm

    I don’t really know enough about the CSA or the science to comment on that. Plus, since I’m not American, it feels sort of like it’s outside of my sphere of influence in any case.

    However, I will say that I appreciate the work of the EWG. Are they perfect? No, nobody is. But they have done an excellent job of stepping up and pointing out the issues. Their work has helped me personally to understand why I need to carefully consider what products I use on myself and my children.

    I would hate to see small business suffer because of a poorly-designed bill, as happened with the CPSIA. But I would also hate to think that we miss the important message about cosmetic safety (or lack of safety) because we don’t agree 100% with the EWG.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Visiting the EcoDairy =-.

  4. Colin on August 2, 2010 2:00 am

    One thing the EWG doesn’t do is allow comments they don’t like on their website. The reason is very simple. They know that most of their case does not stand up to scrutiny.

    But you don’t need to get into the details. Just watch the Story of Cosmetics video and see if you can spot a single actual fact.

    Whatever their motives, they are not helping the debate one bit.

  5. Lynn on August 2, 2010 10:29 am

    Yes, good points, Amber and I agree with them. Also, let’s be clear – the EWG didn’t make this film. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics produced the film with Annie Leonard. The EWG did produce a video, which is far more even handed and informative than The Story of Cosmetics. (And if you look closely, you’ll see a few close-ups of my husband and me, as we trekked down to DC to help them fill the theatre with audience members). I’ll try to post that tonight.

  6. Lynn on August 2, 2010 10:31 am

    Hi Colin, thanks for your comment. I read the post on your site and liked it very much. I didn’t have time to go through your entire site, and couldn’t find an “about.” So I wonder: What do you really think about the debate? Do you think there is reason for concern about the interaction of all these chemicals used in personal care products? And how is the system similar (or dissimilar) in the UK? — Lynn

  7. Mindful Momma on August 2, 2010 11:19 am

    Thanks for asking all those questions Lynn – I’m impressed by how many people you have spoken with about this. And you’re right…there is so much that just isn’t known about the cumulative effect of all these chemicals in our lives. Your advice to steer toward natural and organic is a good one. What you buy may not be ‘perfect’ but it’s most likely better than conventional.
    .-= Mindful Momma´s last blog ..Clay Dyed Clothing from Earth Creations Giveaway! =-.

  8. Lynn on August 2, 2010 12:11 pm

    Thanks for your kind comment, Micaela! (Actually I’ve spoken to even more people – including people who’ve approached me to talk about the issue! But if I included all that, my post would be EVEN longer!!)

    The real problem is that organic and natural is so often more expensive (but not always) than conventional products. Where does this leave the family that must shop at the Dollar Store?

  9. Jennifer on August 2, 2010 1:45 pm

    I’ve been taken aback by the vehemence of the protests against the Safe Cosmetics Act by small, independent cosmetics makers. I see their point, but at the same time, I don’t think consumers should have to take any products on trust — independent or largescale. Although plenty of Etsy sellers are highly conscientious and use only high quality materials, there are also plenty who use artificial fragrances and other chemicals I’d want to be regulated. So…I don’t know. At the moment, as a consumer, I’m in favor of the SCA while conceding that it’s far from perfect.

    As a side note, natural cosmetics and products are in fact within every budget — apple cider vinegar makes a fine hair rinse, baking soda works as shampoo, plain old olive oil works well as a moisturizer for skin and hair. I think the problem is that people either don’t know about, or don’t trust these inexpensive, old timey solutions.

  10. Lynn on August 2, 2010 4:14 pm

    Jennifer, great points you make, and like you, I was surprised by the protest, but I think it’s important to consider these womens’ opinions.

    And as for natural products that you make – yes, within every budget for sure, but I think it is hard for most women to make that leap – and just getting harder, when you think about how many commercial messages kids are exposed to at such a young age. It seems easier to trust a drugstore brand than an old time solution that might require some mixing up at home.

    Thanks for your comment!

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