2016 is going to be a huge year for green beauty. While Gwyneth Paltrow collaborates with Juice Beauty on makeup and skincare, iconic department stores are stocking May Lindstrom, and the major green beauty brands continue to innovate and release exciting new products. And the best part is that this is only the first wave of what I trust will be the great tsunami of green beauty. Yet, as with any emerging industry, it is inevitable that green beauty will go through some growing pains. Call me crazy, but one of the biggest problems I see green beauty as having is language. Then again, maybe I’m not so crazy after all because we all know language can be powerful and charged. Some studies have even suggested that the language we use can shape our very reality itself. 

I have previously mentioned that my introduction to green beauty came via No More Dirty Looks: first the blog and then the book. I read about formaldehyde in hair treatments and skincare ingredients releasing dioxin (particularly troubling to me as a Russian) and it was this newfound awareness that led me on the path to green beauty. I learned to read packaging fine print and to tell the difference between active ingredients and preservatives, PEGs and SLs, essential and carrier oils.

Fast forward 6 years or so and I have a blog of my own, as well as an obsession with ingredients and scientific research that belies the the “C” I barely eked out in my chemistry class. In those same 6 years, green beauty became the juggernaut we know it to be today and I couldn’t be happier. Still, there remains in the public perception of green beauty something fringe and the kooky. It should seem odd, especially considering the undeniable effectiveness and quality of green beauty products. And this is where we come to language.

I don’t know if you have noticed, but I am pretty sure I have not once used the word “toxic” when describing a conventional product (nor, for that matter, have I used “non-toxic” to describe a clean one). Perhaps this is to my detriment: the practice of calling out brands and products as toxic is a smart one for a green beauty blogger. After all, everyone loves a crusader, so positioning oneself as the Erin Brockovich of cosmetics is good for the ego and metrics. So why don’t I do it? Several reasons, really.
There is no denying that consumers need to be educated about the potential dangers of certain ingredients. Lists of ingredients to avoid are widely available (I link to one such list on my resources page) and it’s certainly a good idea to hold manufacturers to higher standards, especially since so many of these potentially dangerous ingredients are simply unnecessary. But here’s the thing (and the reason for my repeated use of the word “potential”): for the most part, the actual dangers of these ingredients are unclear.

Now, let’s get something straight: I am no Big Beauty apologist and I have no interest in greenwashing ingredients or downplaying their dangers. The reality, however, is that unless an ingredient is an actual poison, it is usually very difficult to give a definitive answer as to whether something is well and truly bad for you. Even when it comes to such universally maligned (at least when it comes to green beauty folks) ingredients as parabens, there exist plenty of dissenting  opinions; and even those who agree that parabens could pose a danger, admit that the science is, at best, not cut and dry. There is a lot of scholarship on the subject by people far better equipped to discuss it than me, but reasons for such discrepancies are manifold: from the general uncertainty and mutability of scientific discovery to the impossibility (and extreme inadvisability) of conducting toxicity experiments on human subjects.

So why do I refuse to use the word “toxic”? The first reason is that, as a lawyer, I have been taught not to give definitive answers or make declarative statements unless and until I am positively convinced of their veracity. Let’s take the example of mineral oil/petrolatum/paraffin: a derivative of the petroleum industry and one of the main ingredients in the legendary Creme De La Mer. I have seen mineral oil/petrolatum called toxic, irritant or both, but experts from Paula Begoun (with whom I rarely agree, by the way) to dermatologists and hospitals consider this ingredient to be one of the most non-irritating and hypoallergenic ingredients around. I am simply not convinced that mineral oil is a toxic ingredient. Here is the thing though: as far as I am concerned, it doesn’t even matter whether it is or isn’t. The thing that I really care about is that it doesn’t do a damn thing for your skin. So why would you spend a fortune (or $10) on a jar of mineral oil, when you can spend a much smaller fortune (or $10) on an oil that actually has a benefit to your skin?

I realize that my last statement sounds a bit cynical. Of course, toxins are bad, cancer is a horror (and one that has taken a massive toll on my family and the families of all of my best and dearest friends) and we all deserve to know what is in our skincare. But here is the toxic truth: our very world is toxic. Traveling on your honeymoon to Paris? You are subjecting your body to cancer-causing radiation. Drinking tea? It could be killing you. Bought a bottle of water on a hot day, reheated your dinner in Tupperware or ate a tub of yogurt? Are you insane? Oh and this is a fun one for all of us folks who got hit with the winter storm Jonas: are you letting your kids eat that fluffy, sparkling, delicious and delightful snow? You monsters!

Are you someone who is vigilant about every aspect of your life? Do you use air filters, completely avoid plastic containers or Saran wrap, never eat a single non-organic morsel and refuse to walk under power lines? Then I admire you and completely agree that you should exercise the exact same vigilance when it comes to your skincare. If I am honest, I do wonder exactly how much fun a life that pure can be, but that’s actually besides the point. The point is that we live in a scary and uncertain world and it makes us feel safe knowing that we are controlling our environments and protecting our bodies. And I wish I could say that this kind of vigilance guarantees a long and healthy life, or at least makes it an exponentially greater possibility. Oh how I wish I could…

Things have gotten pretty heavy ’round here pretty quick, haven’t they? So let me bring us back to practical realities. Frankly, this is a more important point for brands, but it’s something worth keeping in mind for those green beauty bloggers who see themselves as the cheerleaders and evangelists of green beauty. If there is one thing people hate, it’s being told that they are stupid. If I tell my mother that her beloved La Mer is toxic junk, she will most likely roll her eyes and completely ignore me. And she’s kind of required to listen to me. But if I tell her that I can give her a product that has somewhere around 80% active ingredients (or one that has 100%, for that matter) to La Mer’s 20% (and although this is a guess, it’s an incredibly generous one) she will listen.

I know I keep repeating this like a broken record, but green beauty will not win fans by scaring people and by telling them to clear out their bathroom cabinets. I didn’t switch to using natural fragrances because I am scared of phthalates (though they most certainly suck and are best avoided). I switched because 9 out of 10 conventional perfumes I try give me a migraine. This is yet to happen with a single natural fragrance. And I use green beauty because I can see the difference it is making to my skin.

There is no denying that fear sells, but you know what sells better? Sex. Green beauty is sexy, dammit! It brings intoxicating scents and powerhouse ingredients and glowing skin and better sex and bouncy hair and all the gifts of nature. In every industry, consumers are attracted to positivity, innovation and quality. The moment that green beauty learns to speak from the place of confidence, power and beauty and stops using fear as a crutch is the moment it will, finally and irreversibly, become mainstream.

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