In an effort to avoid as many chemicals as I can in our toxic world, I do my best to not put anything on my face that I couldn’t put in my mouth. For many people, though, mainstream beauty products are standard items. According to a Bloomberg report, the average American woman uses about twelve health and beauty products on her face every morning. From formaldehyde in shampoo to lead in lipstick, that’s a lot of toxins to be absorbing.
What’s a chemical-packed cosmetic company to do? Clever marketers think they have the answer: Greenwash their products with the allure of nature, like a slow-motion waterfall pouring through the consumer’s heart. From advertising to product ingredients, cosmetics, their companies, and their commercials are an ecofeminist issue.
Many companies like to prey upon what they perceive to be the customer’s nature-loving-but-still-tech-savvy lifestyle. Aveeno, for example, has the slogan, “That’s the beauty of nature and science.” The sleek website has pictures of models spliced with silky packaging and even silkier nature pictures: shiitake mushrooms, stalks of wheat, chamomile blossoms. Mmm, the website hopes you think, those plants do look nice! I like natural things! But not, like, too natural, since one can plainly see that the nature pictures on Aveeno’s website look every bit as fake and photoshopped as the model’s faces. By photoshopping pictures of lavender and chamomile on a model’s face and body, they are exoticizing nature, turning it into a glossy pin-up, making it something to be admired, possessed, used, and ultimately, think of as unreal. These smooth, high-def pictures of plants, like the pictures of women, are unachievable, and therefore, not something we should think of as living and breathing.
Aveeno, like many other companies, additionally boasts that it has “science” on its side; sure, we want to use nature, but we will make it better, more digestible for the smartphone-using, iPad-wielding customer. Nature (plant photos) and women (model photos) are here for our consumption. Cosmetic companies are painting a Willy Wonka frosted fantasyland, and it doesn’t do women or nature any favors.
Lush, an extremely popular beauty product company, is another offender. Again, we see the romanticization of nature on the website, along with the romanticization of indigenous people in other parts of the world, mostly women, harvesting plants and stirring things. A video begins with products (signature “bath bombs,” I think) being laid in a field of grass and wind, but this is just the beginning. Driving the “we’re sooo natural!” point home, we see Lush employees travelling to underdeveloped countries, photographing women picking pink flowers and sifting through seeds. Later we see white people pouring liquids out of test tubes. This theme is familiar—in the ’90s, Anita Roddick’s Body Shop practically pioneered this image: Native women carrying “secrets” of nature, and western culture taking it to improve on it and decant it into a plastic bottle.
After Lush “ethically sources” (hopefully it actually does pay a decent price) these materials, they are mixed with chemicals into a concoction that definitely should not be ingested.
According to Skin Deep, an environmental watchdog, the ingredients for Lush’s Karma Komba shampoo bar are: Sodium Coco-Sulfate, Cocamide DEA, Perfume, Patchouli Oil (Pogostemon cablin), Orange Oil (Citrus dulcis), Lavender Oil (Lavandula hybrida), Pine Oil (Pinus), Lemongrass Oil (Cymbopogan flexuosus), Elemi Oil (Canarium commune), Gardenia Extract (Gardenia jasminoides), *Citral, *Geraniol, *Citronellol, *Limonene, *Linalool, FD&C Blue No. 1, Roman Chamomile Flower (Anthemis nobilis).
An example of Aveeno’s pernicious ingredients are these, from the bottle of their Calming Comfort Baby Bath: Deionized Water, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Decyl Glucoside, PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Lauryl Methyl Gluceth-10 Hydroxypropyldimonium Chloride, Di-PPG-2-Myreth-10-Adipate, Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract, Hydrolyzed Oats, Coco-Glucoside, Glycerol Oleate, PEG-150 Distearate, Glycol Distearate, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Glycerin, Tetrasodium EDTA, Laureth-4, Polyquaternium-10, PEG 14-M, Quaternium-15, Sodium Hydroxide, Citric Acid, Fragrance (Lavender, Vanilla).
Though Lush’s toxins are fewer, essential oils cannot make up for the poisons this product also carries, like Cocamide DEA and FD&C Blue No. 1, which are, among other things, potentially cancer-causing, allergy-inducing, hormone-disrupting, and toxic to your organs. Yum?
For both Aveeno and Lush, nature is far too “other” to be their solitary angle—plain nature just isn’t good enough. Customers, these companies seem to say, want nature to be technologically improved upon. They assume customers want nature in clean packages, digitally photographed, made into art they can stare at and examine. (I mean, doesn’t real nature mean, like, dirt and stuff?) They want the same for models in their commercials, and, in the case of Lush, they want this for “native” people that are used in these advertising campaigns. They want us to romanticize these people and look at them admiringly. Don’t worry, though, Lush says: our products aren’t all orange blossoms and sunflower seeds! We put, like, science-y stuff in them too! Yeah yeah, we visited Africa and everything, but our products are made in a FACTORY. So just relax!
My advice for actually relaxing, though, is something I say a lot: make it yourself. You have control over what goes on your body, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. I make everything I can, or buy from local makers, from face moisturizer to lip gloss to shampoo (Rosemary Gladstar, famed herbalist extraordinaire, recommends rinsing your hair with apple cider vinegar every once in a while instead of shampooing!). For a good lip balm, which I also make thin and turn into a face moisturizer, I will use a combination of jojoba oil or olive oil, coconut oil, an essential oil, and beeswax. Some ingredients you can get cheaply, some you can get thinking of it as a start-up investment that will last you months, even years (for example, essential oils and beeswax). Check out natural beauty product-making books from your local library, or look online for how-to websites and videos; there are tons. If you don’t have the DIY bug in you, you can also find makers of homemade products online, on sites like Etsy. My last bit of advice: Make sure you could eat it if you wanted to.
Any crafty commenters have suggestions for homemade beauty products or books?