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When I was a teenager, my thoughts about makeup extended no further than wondering if our local drugstore would indeed be stocked with my two adolescent essentials: electric-green mascara (yes, it’s true) and frosted brownie lipstick, a pearlescent blend of brown and pink that was decidedly unflattering on everyone, but particularly unfavorable for redheads who had yet to transition through their “awkward stage.”
I moved through my teens and throughout most of my twenties unconscious of what, exactly, I was putting on my skin in the form of lotion, soap, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and cosmetics. In my mind, my skin was an impenetrable barrier, protecting my internal organs and bloodstream like a rain slicker that keeps you warm and dry. I assumed that whatever substances I placed on my epidermis would stay put and, furthermore, that if a personal care product was available for purchase at a national drugstore chain, it was obviously safe.
In retrospect, it wasn’t a crazy thing to think.
The FDA assures us that no life-threatening food products end up on the shelves of our grocery stores, so it seemed only natural that there would be some form of governing body that would guarantee that personal care products with toxic ingredients stay far away from the shelves of our drugstores. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. And I may have been clueless in the ’80s and ’90s, but people — especially young people — are starting to do something about it today.
Currently there is still no federal regulation for personal care products, but armed with a significant handful of alarming statistics and momentum of the country’s increasing interest in all things “green,” Teens for Safe Cosmetics is on a mission to educate consumers — young and not so young — about the toxic ingredients that lurk in the 15 to 25 grooming products that they use each day. Founded in 2004 by Judi Shils, a Marin County mom concerned about her county’s growing breast cancer rates and her teenage daughter, Erin Schrode, Teens for Safe Cosmetics has partnered with some of the biggest names in the cause for natural, organic and sustainable personal care products. A panel held last week in New York City featured, among others, Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the National Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Lynda Fassa, founder of Green Babies (the leading manufacturer of organic clothing for babies and kids) and Jeremiah McElwee, global whole body coordinator for Whole Foods Market (he plays a key role in deciding which personal care products end up on the shelves of each Whole Foods Market).
The numbers are hard to ignore. According to the teen-fronted organization, of the 10,500 chemical ingredients used in personal care products, just 11 percent have been tested for safety. And because the cosmetics industry is as yet unregulated, companies are free to use chemical ingredients in whatever quantity they choose. Teens for Safe Cosmetics has dubbed the 12 most common of these substances “The Dirty Dozen,” and encourages consumers to look for the offenders on the labels of products before purchasing them (GreenDAY readers know the importance of reading labels!). Among the bad guys are petroleum — currently banned by the European Union, the popular ingredient is linked to cancer and allergic reactions; phthalates — linked to birth defects in the male reproductive system; and sodium laurel sulfate — which allows other chemicals to penetrate deep into the skin and into the bloodstream by altering the skin structure.
While there is minimal scientific data supporting these claims (remember, there is no governing body regulating the cosmetics industry, which makes it difficult to fund such studies), the teens behind Teens for Safe Cosmetics won’t be stopped. In January 2007 they lobbied in California — even going to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento — for the state to pass the first safe cosmetics bill. It passed. And a few months later they took over San Francisco’s Union Square outfitted in prom dresses and combat boots for Project Prom, a high-profile rally held during grooming-heavy prom season. In 2008 the group will be busy on both coasts educating consumers about the contents of their favorite care products and introducing many quality organic, all-natural, sustainable alternatives — many of which have graced this GreenDAY column.
There’s nothing like a collection of motivated, inspired teen activists to make you feel like you wasted your youth thinking about boys and parties, but their enthusiasm is contagious even as an adult and extends beyond health and wellness. Generating awareness about the personal care products we use spills over into the bigger environmental equation, as we are encouraged to ask questions about everything that we purchase (think clothes, furniture, food, toys). Before laying down your hard-earned money, take a good look at the object in your hand — be it a tube of toothpaste, a loaf of bread, or a T-shirt — and ask: What is it made of? Where was it manufactured? Who manufactured it? What is it packaged in? How did it get here (what method of transportation was used?) and what happens to it when I’m finished with it?
Now, do you still want to buy it?
Learn more about Teens for Safe Cosmetics at teensforsafecosmetics.org.
Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com have been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.
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