By Indiana Lee
Corporate social responsibility comes in two forms. The well-advertised side is the company’s attempts to set themselves apart from their competitors through their choice of ingredients and materials, or business practices. But the quieter side often deals with regulation.
In the United States, the beauty and cosmetics industry sits in a funny place compared to foods or prescription drugs. Cosmetics fall under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) remit. But unlike the other two products, the FDA only regulates cosmetics, which is a less strenuous form of oversight compared to the FDA pre-market approval process, which applies rigorous safety and effectiveness standards to medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Indeed, some of the biggest changes in the ingredients allowed in cosmetics products came from Congress, not the FDA. In 2017, President Barack Obama signed a law that banned environmentally harmful microplastic beads, which were a staple of cleansing and exfoliating products.
As consumers, it’s important to keep a keen eye on the products we buy. The FDA’s goal is only to make sure the product is safe to use and ensure the product is labeled appropriately (i.e., one brand doesn’t slap another brand’s label on its product without permission), rather than offering blanket assurance of zero harm on all humans, animals and nature.
If you take a closer look at some of your favorite products, you might find that the ingredients in each may be only tenuously safe for humans while also wreaking havoc on the environment.
What’s hiding in your health and beauty products?
In recent years, we’ve learned that some of the products we grew up using aren’t as safe as we initially thought. The case of the talc in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is the perfect example. Over the past decade, the once-trusted brand has been in the spotlight after several lawsuits and high-profile settlements regarding its baby powder products. Back in 2018, Johnson & Johnson recalled a batch of its baby powder over traces of asbestos found in its product, which women claimed caused them to develop ovarian cancer. What’s worse, Johnson & Johnson allegedly knew that some of the talc used in its baby powder tested positive for the substance.
What’s more, asbestos isn’t banned in the U.S., despite being a known carcinogen. Johnson & Johnson say that their talc is safe to use, and it cooperates with the FDA in product development. But the question remains, what’s hiding in your household and beauty products that you don’t know about? The answer is a lot of toxic ingredients — and it’s all legal.
A good example is the use of butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHA often appears in cosmetics as salicylic acid: it’s a waxy solid that companies use to create the texture needed for lipstick. It pops up everywhere, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists BHA as a potential carcinogen among experimental animals. In the U.S., there’s no federal restriction on its use, but California’s Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 requires manufacturers to list it on labels as being potentially carcinogenic.
Are you likely to get cancer from lipstick with BHA in its formula? The science says it’s unlikely, but it’s unlikely that you’ll even know it’s there unless you do your own research.
Corporate greenwashing in the beauty industry
All the bigwigs at your favorite beauty companies know that there’s a significant consumer trend demanding transparency on labels. Even corporate giants like Unilever are making it easier to see what’s really in each product. People want to know what they’re putting on their skin and increasingly what they’re putting back into the environment.
But even as consumers grow warier of companies that try to hide bad practices, we have a new challenge on our hands. Corporate greenwashing is more prevalent than ever, and today, it’s much harder to spot. It’s a practice that involves giving a false impression about the product (or practice) to suggest that the company’s practices are far more environmentally-friendly than they are in real life.
In the beauty industry, greenwashing often takes the form of mislabeled beauty products or even through philanthropy.
How to find low-tox and non-toxic beauty products
Finding products free from harmful ingredients that damage your health and the environment remains a challenge, even as the earth-friendly beauty trend continues to pick up steam. Even the most innocuous products can prove to be a challenge. Bath bombs are a great example: they’re found everywhere, including at ethics-focused retailers like Lush, but if you aren’t careful, you might buy one that contains glitter and other harmful ingredients that wash into waterways and contribute to the increasing problem of ocean microplastic pollution. Furthermore, they can even clog your drain.
However, you can prevent some of these effects by scooping out any solids contained within the bath bomb before you drain the tub and flushing your drain thoroughly after using one. The other alternative is avoiding the purchase of this product entirely.
One way to find out whether your favorite beauty brand is greenwashing is to use a third-party site to help you make sense of the label. Skin Deep is an American not-for-profit entity run by the Environmental Working Group. The online database contains information produced by staff scientists who research the ingredients in over 75,000 health and beauty products. When a product has the EWG Verified symbol, you know that the independent scientists have conducted many tests to ensure that the product meets the groups’ criteria for human and environmental health, but also business transparency.
It’s also helpful to do a deep dive into the topics of sustainability and organic ingredients and learn more about what they mean in today’s world. In the past, we considered sustainability as policies such as the Kyoto Agreement, which focused on cutting emissions and emissions only. Today, sustainability means ensuring that policies apply to entire supply chains. When you find a new brand, don’t just look at their label and make your decisions based on the information. Keeping an open and critical mind and ensuring that you are questioning their product claims is essential. Head to their website to check out details of their supply chain and learn more about how they treat their employees. A quick online search will also bring up any reputational and litigation issues. The results of this search can often say so much more about a company than any tag line and targeted marketing campaign ever could.
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- Love, Beauty and Planet: Unilever’s First Beauty Brand in 10 Years, and It’s Way More Sustainable
Cover image by Jennifer Chen.