Monday, October 12, 2009

Author Interview: Stacy Malkan: Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of The Beauty Industry

Stacy Malkan
Author of
Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry

CELESTE: What is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics?

STACY: A national coalition of health and environmental groups working to shift the beauty industry away from toxic chemicals and toward safer ingredients.

CELESTE: How can consumers find out if their favorite beauty item contains harmful chemicals?

STACY: Check out the Skin Deep database at You can look up your favorite products, find out how toxic they are, and identify the safest alternatives in every product category.

New Book Reveals Ugly Side of Big Beauty

Lead in lipstick? 1,4 dioxane in baby shampoo? How is this possible? Simple. The $50 billion cosmetics industry is so powerful they’ve kept themselves unregulated for decades. Stacy Malkan’s new book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007), follows a group of health and environmental activists as they knock on the doors of the world’s largest cosmetics companies to ask some tough questions:

  • Why do companies market themselves as pink ribbon leaders in the fight against breast cancer, yet use chemicals that may contribute to that very disease?

  • Why do products used daily by men and women of childbearing age contain chemicals linked to reproductive harm and infertility?

As doors slammed in their faces, the beauty myth peeled away and the industry’s toxic secrets began to emerge. The good news is that while multinational corporations fight for their right to use hazardous chemicals, scientists are developing non-toxic technologies and entrepreneurs are building businesses based on the values of health, justice and personal empowerment.

CELESTE: Are cosmetics regulated as to what can or cannot go into making them?

STACY: Most people are surprised to find out that companies can put nearly any chemical into personal care products with no required safety testing. Cosmetics are the least regulated product at FDA. It’s up to the companies to decide what’s safe, and companies are making decisions all over the board – some are making products safe enough to eat, while other companies regularly put carcinogens, reproductive toxicants and other hazardous chemicals into products.

CELESTE: Tell me about phthalates.

Phthalates are a set of industrial chemicals that are toxic to the reproductive system. We all have phthalates in our bodies. For 30 years, scientists have known that certain phthalates cause birth defects of the penis, infertility and testicular tumors in animal studies. These same health effects have been increasing in humans in recent decades and many scientists suspect phthalates. Unfortunately, many personal care products contain phthalates, but the chemicals are not listed on labels because they are part of the fragrance.

CELESTE: What steps should consumers take before they purchase health and beauty products to make sure what they are buying is safe and environmentally friendly?

STACY: A good rule of thumb is, simpler is better. Choose products with fewer synthetic chemicals, shorter ingredient lists, and try to avoid synthetic fragrance. Also check out the Skin Deep database to research your products and find the safest brands.

CELESTE: Do you think women are aware that what they spend their dollars on in the health and beauty department does have a HUGE effect on their health and the health of our environment? Please explain.

STACY: We’ve all been trained through millions of advertisements to put our blind trust in companies; but unfortunately, we’ve seen over the past few years that the world’s largest beauty companies can’t be trusted. All the major conventional brands have been unwilling to discuss legitimate concerns about toxic chemicals, and they continue to make excuses that “a little bit of poison is OK.”

The fact is, the beauty industry buys huge amounts of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals from the chemical industry, and they put these chemicals into products and into the environment. The poisons are adding up. The $50 billion beauty industry should be at the front of the line offering to reduce their contribution to the toxic load; unfortunately, many of these companies are at the back of the line. They continue to use and defend old polluting technologies and toxic chemicals even though safer alternatives are available.

CELESTE: Let's talk about 'eco-friendly' perfumes. In this case, how do I know the product is truly environmentally friendly?

STACY: Look for “natural fragrance” or essential oils, or choose products that have no added fragrance. Synthetic fragrances often contain toxic chemicals and there is no way to know for sure what’s in them because the companies don’t have to tell us.

CELESTE: What are some harmful substances that consumers should stay away from in:


SHAMPOO: Sodium laurel sulfate (toxic to the skin); sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds (often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane); synthetic fragrance

LIPSTICK: See the report, A Poison Kiss for list of lead containing lipsticks,

LOTIONS:Parabens, fragrance

MASCARA: Petroleum distillates, thimerisol/mercury

DEODERANT: aluminum, parabens, fragrance

CELESTE: Stacy, would you like to add anything?

STACY: This topic can be overwhelming, but I see a lot of reasons for hope. Change is happening fast.

  • Consumers are demanding safer, greener alternatives in all product categories.
  • Scientists are discovering new information about the toxicity of chemicals on an almost daily basis.
  • Many beauty companies in the natural sector are reformulating out toxic chemicals and creating safer alternatives.

The big companies will be forced to change too, it’s only a matter of time. We are working toward the day when all products on the shelf are as safe as they can possibly be.

What’s in your products?
Read the Toxic Beauty Blog:

About the Author

Stacy Malkan is co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups working to eliminate hazardous chemicals from personal care products. Stacy is a former journalist and newspaper publisher, who now works as a leading media strategist for national and international environmental health campaigns.

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