Toxic

The Toxic Truth

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.

69 responses to The Toxic Truth

  1. Thank you Lola for putting things into perspective. You’re so right that using scare tactics is not the way to influence change. Excellence in products, passion and education is more likely to create a great presence, change the industry and continued love for natural beauty. A great post!

  2. maisonpur

    Excellent post Lola! So many people just want products that work and work well, and would rather not focus on the danger (though perhaps some of them should). I think presenting cleaner products, that actually work even better than conventional, always wins over people’s hearts (and bathroom cabinets). Also, so many good points about the language we use surrounding it. Great job!

  3. Lola, I want to like this a million times! Thank you thank you thank you for so eloquently expressing your thoughts on this topic. I have been quite jaded with some recent happenings and you have restored my faith in green beauty. I will admit that I have used the words ‘non-toxic’ once too often (not to scare but to differentiate), and your words have definitely served as a reminder that I need to be mindful of how and what I am communicating. Xoxoxo

    • TheHermesHippie – Author

      Thank you so much for saying this! I have been planning on writing this for a while, but the recent events definitely pushed me to articulate my thoughts sooner rather than later. Xxx

  4. caprinic

    Oh how I positively adoooore you Lola. You said it all with much eloquence, flair and humor. Green beauty is not about fear, about pointing fingers, about admonishing this or the other, about judging. Those things never get you very far. It is all about what you said; positivity, encouragement, enlightenment, awareness and fun. This certainly needed to be said and I think you nailed it. From my Haagen Dasz lips to yours (sorry, can’t give up HD just yet, too damn good), a big kiss and a big hug.

  5. How did I not know that you’re a lawyer? I should have known from your writing — and I mean that in the best possible way, lawyer to lawyer.

    This post is spot-on right, and I’m glad you said it.

  6. As usual, your common sense take on this topic is wonderful, and very much appreciated. I’ve dabbled in green beauty for close to 15 years now, but it was only in 2011 when I began to think about having a child and started prenatal preparations that I got serious about it. I was a bit derailed when I had my twins, and only within the last year did I start testing things again, and really committed to cleaning up my act. And that included finding wonderful bloggers to follow. But the hysterical tone that can be found in some people’s writing is, indeed, a real turn off. When I see that kind of thing, I usually unfollow immediately and treat anything they write with suspicion. While I applaud anyone’s effort to commit to health, for self and planet, we cannot expect that we are somehow going to sanitize our life experience, be free from all disease, or save the planet through some kind of misplaced hyper-vigilance about what we put on our skin. Much like your analogies above, when I see that kind of writing, I cannot help thinking, “oh, do you refrain from EVER bringing a single iota of plastic into your home?”, etc. Maybe they do, but I bet not many can make that claim. I mean, you can find contaminates in breast milk, for goodness’ sake. Nothing in our world is pure. So as of yesterday, my skincare routine is now green. I now begin on my makeup journey. And people can call me a toxic ‘ho, but I’m not getting rid of my Chantecaille eyeshadow palettes. 😉 I may not buy anymore, but those babies are not going in the garbage.😉

    • “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?”

      Those were my exact train of thoughts given the recent hoo-ha! What about the clothes you wear, the furniture in your house, the car you drive? Are they all 101% eco-friendly and non-toxic?

      And yes indeed, the language used is very important. We may have certain issues we can nitpick at, but it’s not necessary to make things sound like it’s the end of the world/make mountain out of a molehill. There are more important things in this world to care and worry about.

  7. Love it, Lola. Everyone has their tone and angle when it comes to beauty and lifestyle products. It just depends on where you are coming from.

    I know a cancer survivor who rejects ALL overly marketed and expensive healthy beauty products and instead goes the DIY / simple ingredients route. Rock on.

    I know women who have tried everything to help with an irritation or condition and finally found green beauty products that were healing and non-irritating to them. Yessss!

    I know women who, after learning more about potentially hazardous ingredients and wanting only the best of what they can get for their bodies (and a lot of times, what’s growing inside their bodies!), clear out everything and start anew. Woohoo!

    Whereever you’re coming from, different messages and delivery of those messages can reach you. It’s all in how we respond to them. While I think that we may all benefit from toning down extreme messages about toxicity, sometimes that’s what gets people’s attention in the first place. And, one person’s definition of “extreme” can be vastly different than another person’s!

    All of our journeys into green beauty are different, and lots of different voices are trying to achieve the same thing. The different “shades of green” are evident in this community: Self-describer purists, experimenters, newbies, medium green, open to anything-ers … you name it. The point is that we all have a place here and can find micro-communities within the green beauty space.

    I think the bigger idea to remember is that we are all after the same thing: Great products that work well, are made with high quality ingredients and don’t do more harm than good to both our bodies and the planet.

    It’s my even bigger hope that one day, we don’t even call this “green” beauty anymore. It’s just beauty … and a new standard of beauty.

    • TheHermesHippie – Author

      Thank you so much for this, Kim! Your blog was one of the few I consistently turned to when I was first discovering green beauty and you are the perfect example of someone who “gets it”. I actually have no issue whatsoever with the purists within the community. In fact, I admire people who have such a passion and commitment to their own health and/or the environment. I do think that people who already embrace green beauty know why they do so and make their decisions accordingly, but I do think that negative language limits the reach, power and success of green beauty. Oh and amen to waiting for the day when it’s all just beauty!

  8. Oh Lola, I agree with so many of the points you have raised here. It’s not what you say as much as HOW you say it.

    I think that people who have carved out a certain identity for themselves find it hard to back down because they put their entire sense of self-worth on being recognized for just that and any voice of dissent becomes a threat to their existence. Sometimes we forget that being kind is more important than being right, but discerning readers and green beauty enthusiasts will be able to make decisions for themselves amidst the fear-mongering, finger-pointing and name-calling. Bravo for another voice of reason!

  9. BeauTeaBar

    Simply amazing! You have so articulately said what I have felt for a long time, and I admit that at times I am guilty of playing the “toxins” card when try to explain why my products are better to customers, but deep down I’ve always known it’s so much more than that and I am going to challenge myself to rethink the language I use myself when marketing these products. It’s not about what’s NOT in them, but everything about what IS in them! xxoo

    • TheHermesHippie – Author

      Thank you, beautiful! And I totally appreciate the ease (and sometimes even the necessity) of using the “toxin” shorthand. Hell, I still talk about “clean beauty”, the implication being that the other kind is dirty. Ultimately though, green beauty can sell itself on so much more! Xxx

  10. Lola,
    So eloquently put!!!! You certainly have a beautiful way with words! Matches your beautiful face and the beautiful sentiment you express in this piece! Thank you! Thank you!

  11. Alyse

    Thank you so much for this! I think there is so much good happening in green beauty and I hope that those of us on the retail side and those on the brand side can continue to frame green beauty as a positive, beautiful world of powerhouse ingredients rather than talking about it as the only safe haven from a world that is trying to kill us.

    Is it important if you’re working in this industry to understand the health and safety concerns? Yes. Are there consumers that want that information and will use fear of “conventional” skincare to make their choices? Yes. But there’s so much more power in educating people about the wonders of pure ingredients and I love that you (and a few others in green beauty) are taking a stand on this. Thank you again!

  12. Bravo, Lola! What a great post and so very eloquently written. I love how you put things in perspective (I, too, let my kids eat some snow the other day. Monster!😂) and could not agree with you more. I think those of us who are already part of he green beauty community forget sometimes that the “all or nothing” approach can be overwhelming and completely off putting to someone who is just starting out. I feel the same about clean eating and green living in general. It’s great to strive for healthier and better but perfect (all the time) is simply not attainable.

    • TheHermesHippie – Author

      Hahaha! My kid was having so much fun eating the snow and had *just* read that NPR article and I swear, my head nearly exploded from the conflict! 😂😂😂

  13. LOVED this post, Lola!! I know you won’t think I am exaggerating when I say that I felt you were sitting in my head! I think, apart from ideology (whether these are in fact toxic etc. ) you raise an excellent point about language. I agree with you wholly, and I’ve felt that too, that the language that a large section of the ‘green beauty’ industry employs can alienate lots of consumers who might otherwise actually want to try these wonderful products.

    It goes without saying that most if not all of us who use ‘green beauty’ products came to use them to avoid certain questionable ingredients. But as you so eloquently put it, many of us eventually realized that that was not what kept us in love with green beauty. That is why most of us feel compelled to share the lovely products we have found and use – not just because they are ‘non-toxic’ but because they work and are effective and beautiful.

    “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.”

    Oh Lola- I identify with this statement so much! I was thinking the exact same thing! Both as a blogger as well as a new business owner, I am also very uncomfortable making such pronouncements because one can never know for sure what is toxic and what is not. In the first copy on the beauty box, I didn’t have the word non-toxic at all..lol. The messaging ended up seeming all over the place because there actually doesn’t exist enough ‘positive’ language that can help distinguish ‘green and clean’ products from mainstream/conventional products without using words that scare. Which in itself is a problem. If you use just positive words it sounds just like green washing. And so I felt compelled to tag on the word non-toxic to allow people who were looking to transition to cleaner products to understand what kind of products we included. And I think this is a problem most skincare companies face especially while trying to reach people outside the green community (which is already familiar with the nitty gritty of ingredients).

    And I say all of this as somebody who rarely strays to conventional skin body care or makeup and is a bit anal about the furniture and flooring in my house as well. What I mean to say is (and you say it beautifully), that this is not at all about the choices that people make and whether those are right or wrong or how green you are (LOL), but just to open up these wonderful products in a less judgmental way, to a broader audience.

    OK – I knew I would get carried away in the comments section if I started. But Thank YOU again, for taking the time to write such an intelligent, thoughtful post.

    • TheHermesHippie – Author

      Thank you so much for this! I wish I could respond to every single line of this, but I am so grateful to have the perspective of business owners! Finding the right language is so tricky (this is why people like my husband, who works in marketing, has a job), but I think that as long as we try to focus on the positive, the pieces will fall into palace. I also think that it’s totally valid to point out that products you are selling are non-toxic (again, without getting mired in the minutiae of what “toxic” actually means), especially for consumers who are just starting to try and make informed choices. As long as that doesn’t become the sole/primary/most prevalent message🙂 xxx

      • Exactly! I think focussing on what’s IN the product rather than what isn’t is a great way to go! Words like ‘non-toxic’, ‘green’ and ‘clean’ can work as great shorthands. However since these words can be used both to inform as well as mislead (like most of language :)), after a point these words don’t mean much.

        I can’t seem to stop commenting, can I? *tries zipping her mouth..i mean fingers*

  14. thank for for this very well written article! it’s so true that fear mongering and brand bashing will not help the green beauty industry to grow in the long run. it’s a habit we’ve never gotten into and as we like to say, it’s always best to simply “let the products speak for themselves”🙂

  15. Yes, Yes, YES! Thank you so much for this – you are truly a brilliant writer. As everyone here has mentioned, you are incredible and this blog is expressed so extremely well. Thank you so much for this. I made a commitment when I started my brand, that I wouldn’t use fear of questionable ingredients to sell products. I wanted people to feel safe and have found effective skin and hair care that works, made from truly natural ingredients. I didn’t want to freak people out, and imprint my brand in their minds from that place. True education has nothing to do with fear, it’s uplifting and inspiring. We can educate and not scare – the world is toxic – make your best choices, when you want, when you feel it, on your own terms. The truth is in the actives ; ) Love you! XO

  16. Lisa

    Clapping*

    Well said

    Lots of bad stuff needs to go. but the world still turns. People need to settle down 😀

  17. OMG Lola, well said. Very well said. Your parole are so soft and positive, i think this is the best way to communicate a message.

    My best part :

    “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.”

    Toxic don’t afraid me in 2016 (like you said with all the example in this post, our world is toxic), but choosing a better product for my body, for environnement and supporting a beautiful small brand is why i choose natural product. Buying is voting so i want to encourage brand who are in line with my values. This is what is important to me.

    I admire & respect you for this beautiful post, thanks Lola.

    Julie❤

  18. I couldn’t agree more with you, Lola! Btw I had no idea you’re a lawyer, but that’s freaking awesome!!! That amazing revelation aside, I love that you are coming from a standpoint of confidence and positivity. I always try to write about green beauty in that way because I definitely think it’s played such a huge role in my life for bringing me more happiness, love and confidence (for myself and by myself) . I am not a fan of fear mongering and like you said, I think it turns people off more than makes them want to try something new. Great post!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts🙂

    Please stop by & chat with me if you like! 🌷 http://storybookapothecary.com

  19. Yes, yes and yes! I think the only instance I use “toxic” on my blog is within the word “intoxicating” LOL! I can’t thank you enough for this measured and logical approach as that has always been my goal for nearly seven years of blogging. People need to feel welcomed into their discovery of these amazing products, and any time fear or condescension enter the conversation people will not join in or worse, will turn away. As a midwife I talk to women all of the time about their concerns (and often anxiety) regarding potentially harmful foods, products, medicines, etc. and let me tell you, fear-based discussions are certainly not therapeutic or informative for them!

    Lola, cheers to you for taking time to address this. It is very apparent that you spent a great deal on this post.

    XOXO
    Trish

  20. I absolutely love this, Lola! Much love and many applause. So eloquently put.

    The word “toxic” is constantly on my mind because I live in a state that has Proposition 65. Proposition 65 regulates substances officially listed by California as having a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer over a 70-year period (or birth defects or other reproductive harm.) My state has slapped a “this product is known to the state of california to cause cancer” warning on just about every product on it’s shelves since 1986. I was shocked at the recent bru-ha-ha given this fact, since this warning sign is on absolutely everything, including the door of every Whole Foods, Wellness Spa, Sprouts, Mother’s Market and 99% of the products you will buy here if there is any kind of plastic or carcinogen. You can find more info here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_65_(1986)
    http://oehha.ca.gov/prop65/prop65_list/Newlist.html

    Everything has some level of toxicity, and I too heavily avoid that word for those reasons. It’s practically impossible to avoid, and I agree with you that I can’t imagine that kind of existence is very fun. This is well put and I hope it ends this whole debacle and we can all go back to doing our best at educating in a responsible, healthy way. Thanks for getting the ball rolling, girl!

    xo
    Tara

    • TheHermesHippie – Author

      Thank you so much, Tara! And how fascinating about Prop 65 – I didn’t actually know about it. This is unfair: you guys get the great weather *and* ingredient regulation?!😉

      • Haha yes- we are spoiled! We also get carb2 regulation (california air resource board) for composite wood products that release formaldehyde..:). However, as Tara mentions because the prop 65 is on everything – it becomes hard to know what to avoid because obviously not everything can be avoided and it makes people immune to the warning after a point. Wait ! I just found Aloe Vera on the prop 65 list – What?!!!

  21. Amber

    I love this! You are 100% on target. Thank you for this I will definitely share this with everyone I know.

  22. What a great read! Thanks for articulating your points so well and spreading the message that green beauty is sexy! I’m really happy to have found your blog🙂

  23. Lola, this is exactly how I feel. Fear mongering is not the way to “convert” people. I agree, the language should be more positive and should never make people feel bad about themselves. Thanks for writing this!

  24. consumerista

    Lola! Brava! 👏
    This is sooooo well put, I truly enjoyed your post. Yes, sometimes (if not often) positivity lacks when talking about green beauty. Fear sells well exactly how you rightly say so it is extremely tempting to follow this rhetoric. But it is easier to convert some people at some stage let’s admit it.

    Green beauty is all about joy, pleasure, safety, friendliness, positivity and freedom. Freedom of choice. Becoming free to choose conventional and becoming free to choose green. People often are strongly convinced that what they are using is the best without realizing that there may be better options. Like someone liking spread without knowing about the existence of butter. Like in your example with your mom using La Mer.

    I totally agree with you that green beauty should have a welcoming, inviting and inspirational language. And it should not be difficult because it has so many benefits. Let the scary language leave for something lacking benefits and arguments ☺

  25. I’m a little late on reading this but I’m having a huge catch-up on my bloglovin feed! I absolutely loved this post and I think it’s shone a lovely bit of light onto what I think was quite a dark course of events that took place a couple of weeks ago. I think it put quite a bad feeling on the green beauty community and I’m glad it’s finished now. I find it baffling when brands use other brands “harmful” ingredients to sell their own products it is simply unnecessary!

  26. Love this so much! I had a friend working with a “natural” MLM brand and their presentation was all based on fear tactics. Even if the information was accurate and true, it was a horrible way to get sales. It felt wrong.

    I also love how you point out that you can pay hundreds for a product that does actually nothing for your skin or you can pay way less and put something on your skin that actually benefits it. As a teen, I was always of the mindset, I need to put things on my skin to banish pimples, to make me glow, etc. etc. It was all about products doing the job. However, as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I treat beauty the same way I treat my health. I try to give my body and my skin the ingredients it needs to do the job it knows how to do naturally.

    Thank you for this post!

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