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Beauty Products Aren't Getting Any Safer in the Next Four Years

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Don’t Expect Cosmetics to Get ‘Safer’ Any Time Soon

In 2016, the so-called “safe” and “natural” cosmetics industry really hit the mainstream. People started caring about parabens and “clean” beauty brands, helped along by publications like Goop, the widespread use of the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics ingredients database to vet ingredients, and the popularity of brands like Beautycounter.

I’ve ranted about the fear-mongering language that happens in the clean beauty space and pointed out that clean beauty is a business with the ultimate goal of selling things, not philanthropy. It’s an admittedly cynical take, and I don’t believe all our beauty products are killing us. But I also believe there needs to be more studies and oversight of the cosmetics industry as a whole, from claims that brands can make on labels to ingredient safety.

Even brands that market themselves as “safer” have safety problems. Last year, the Honest Company had to address customer complaints that its sunscreens weren’t preventing sunburn, and last week it issued a recall of its organic baby powder, which had possibly been contaminated with microorganisms that cause infection. Some “natural” ingredients, particularly natural preservatives, just don’t have the years of testing behind them that mainstream ingredients do. And efficacy, particularly in a product meant to protect you, can be just as important as safety.

It’s often cited that Europe has banned 1,300 cosmetic ingredients, compared to a paltry dozen here in the US. What people need to understand is that the EU doesn’t have more information than the US, it’s just taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach. It’s using often inconclusive studies (like ones about aluminum-based antiperspirants) to make decisions.

A woman in a nice dress.

The truth is that a lot of the studies, like the paraben and breast cancer study that freaked people out about parabens in the first place, are poorly designed or cause people to leap to conclusions that aren’t supported by the study itself. This could be partially remedied by more studies and increased regulation by the FDA. The FDA currently relies on the cosmetic industry to police itself and only steps in when something dire happens, like the Brazilian blowout formaldehyde hoopla a few years ago. In December, the FDA announced it had tested lead levels in lipstick and made recommendations for the amount that was safe, and also updated its mercury guidelines. Good start, but there are thousands of ingredients used in cosmetics.

While legislation called the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced a few years ago, it hasn’t been turned into law. It would require the FDA to test five chemicals a year, as well as provide the agency greater oversight of the industry than it has now. It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a start, and it’s better than the self-policing that happens now.  

Don’t hold your breath about improved cosmetic oversight, though, particularly in the current political environment. First of all, the new administration has demonstrated a complete disregard for science, from the suspending of EPA grants to the president’s personal vaccine skepticism. Second of all, it seems to favor deregulating businesses and corporate oversight, not increasing it, and the men rumored to be in line for the FDA top job have radically different priorities and qualifications (none of them are MDs) than their predecessors under Obama and Bush.

Finally, and most significantly to me, cosmetics are overwhelmingly used by women. It’s very clear that women, from the president’s wife to the millions who stand to lose health insurance via the ACA and basic care from Planned Parenthood, are afterthoughts to this administration. As long as we look pretty in our lipstick, who cares how much lead is in it? Cheryl Wischhover, senior beauty reporter

Feature
I Quit Shopping After an Apartment Fire Took Everything I Owned
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Last January, I lost almost everything I owned in an apartment fire. While I was away on a trip to upstate New York, a random spark sent flames and shattered glass into my New York City apartment. I returned shocked and cold, and it took quite a while to warm up to the idea of buying new stuff to replace what I had lost. What was the point?

I used to proudly write down “shopping” as a hobby. I did it really well, and my wardrobe felt pretty full. Blame — or credit — my mother, who frequently took me to malls when I was younger. We’d spend hours combing through the racks, then in the dressing room looking at ourselves in the three-panel mirrors. Back at home, we’d play “fashion show” with all the stuff we bought. Other girls had dolls, I had a mom who I shared clothes and handbags with.

Throughout 2016, I barely bought anything new, partly because my friends generously donated gently-used items to me as if I were a grateful Second Time Around consignment store. A few times through my side hustle as a wellness guide I was paid in yoga athleisure, so I was covered there. And instead of replacing the wardrobe I owned for special occasions, I started to borrow clothes from a friend. The few exceptions included a Club Monaco cashmere poncho on sale for $30 in the heat of August while my mom was in town.

For a while, I was content with what I had — including new outfits my mom bought me this past summer and the “old” ten or so pieces I managed to salvage from my apartment. My taste and joy for spending significantly waned; since I lost so much, I wanted to save every bit I had, and saw no need to add anything else. The act of shopping didn’t feel necessary or fulfilling, and I think, on some level, I was afraid that replacing the items that were essentially stolen from me would remind of the incident.

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This Cleansing Conditioner Solved All of My (Hair-Related) Problems
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R + Co Analog Cleansing Foam Conditioner, $29

I used to get really annoyed when people would talk about ditching shampoo. (Mostly girl people, because half the dudes I know never seemed to use it in the first place.) They were usually extremely beautiful women with naturally clear skin and knowing looks and, of course, long, shiny, perfect hair. They made shampoolessness seem like a moral choice, a life free from the shackles of Big Shampoo and its accompanying vicious cycle. A life that I, with my lack of discipline and abundance of scalp oil, could never have.

I will probably never reach apple-cider-vinegar nirvana, nor that mythical point at which all grease is transmuted into nature’s styling product, but I have managed to cut way down on shampooing with the help of R + Co’s Analog Cleansing Foam Conditioner ($29, but it lasts forever).

My beloved hair stylist, whom I have followed to four different New York-area salons, recommended it to me after I complained about having both oily roots and dry ends, with no real luck in combatting both at the same time.

Unlike other cleansing conditioners that sit too heavily on my fine hair, this one is a light, airy foam. On days when I’m feeling too gross to skate by on dry shampoo or hats but don’t quite need a full shampoo-and-conditioner job, I wash my hair with a small amount of this stuff instead. It smells great and creates a deeply satisfying lather, and it leaves my hair clean without that stripped, squeaky feeling. It balances the whole moisture situation on my scalp even on days when I haven’t used it, and has allowed me to bust out the shampoo just once or twice a week. —Alanna Okun, senior editor

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