Fans of green beauty have been called neurotic, feminazi, anti-science, and fear-mongering—sometimes rightly, sometimes not. But what the critics fail to see is that, at its core, green beauty is something else entirely.
Green beauty is an act of defiance.
It’s defiance against a system that has long held its own interest above our own—and defiance against an industry that is currently fighting to evade the basic regulatory oversight women elsewhere benefit from. Green beauty is the reactionary force of engaging with cosmetics on one’s own terms.
For something so intimately part of the daily fabric of our lives, it’s surprising how little attention is paid to the products we use. Our skin—the largest organ of our body—becomes the canvas for countless lotions, sprays, soaps, and powders. It doesn’t get more personal than that.
When beauty is embraced as a mindful, deliberate act of defiance, it expands beyond a trifling twenty-minute morning routine. It becomes an exercise in self-determination, which makes it political. It expresses outrage at the growing rates of cancer, obesity, allergies, autoimmunity, and, more broadly, the chemical body burden. It establishes an opposing force to prevailing industry norms and the complicit inaction of legislative entities.
The green beauty movement’s momentum runs counter to the self-serving, yet fully lawful, practices of the mainstream cosmetics industry. In the United States, the beauty industry is—with few exceptions—self-regulated, creating a shameful lack of transparency and independent oversight. The FDA doesn’t approve new products or brand-new chemical ingredients (except color additives), and they don’t even have the power to remove dangerous products from store shelves. The inevitable result? American women are forced to accept a lower standard than in other places around the world. No matter how glossy it appears, this is the wild west. A well-manicured, contoured-and-highlighted version of the wild west.
Consider dibutyl phthalate (DBP), found in everything from hair spray and perfume to shower curtains and pesticides. It’s nasty stuff, categorized as a reproductive toxicant by California’s Prop 65 program and totally banned for use in cosmetics by the European Union.
So what’s a good little girl to do? Avoid products containing dibutyl phthalate—or any phthalate? Good luck with that. Full ingredient lists are often withheld from the public because of a little thing called the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966. Through it, “fragrance” was defined as proprietary information and allowed to be hidden from consumers. Fragrance may appear to be a single ingredient on the label, but a study commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics demonstrated the average fragrance product contained a whopping fourteen secret chemicals not listed on the label. And among those sneaky ingredients? You’re likely to find chemicals associated with allergic reactions, asthma attacks, and hormone disruption.
As long as the fragrance loophole persists, this paternalistic and outdated system will take advantage of unsuspecting consumers.
The prevalence of hormone-disrupting chemicals like dibutyl phthalate in personal care products is a particularly poignant insult to women. Not to diminish the male hormonal experience, but hormonal balance—or imbalance—is significant from our first period up through to the final rattle of menopause. As any woman over sixteen will attest, our health, happiness, and very sanity are tied to our hormones.
And what would this tale of gendered injustice be if it didn’t include compound repercussions for women of color? The business of beauty has not escaped the intersectionality of things. A study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology recently confirmed that women of color are disproportionately impacted by inferior and oftentimes dangerous ingredients such as phthalates and heavy metals in their beauty products. Nonwhite women are once again side-swiped by a corporate mandate that deems them second-class citizens, even as they spend above the national average on beauty products. Doubly-penalized by a system that takes advantage of our apathetic acceptance of “that’s just the way things are.”
But as I teeter between my privilege as a white woman and my identity as the mother to two young black daughters, this infuriating inconsistency fuels my resolve to compel change in this industry.
I say f*** the system. Adopt the defiant attitude of the green beauty movement as your own, even if you’re not interested in the organic products themselves. Demand full ingredient disclosure from beauty companies and their suppliers. You should be able to get whatever products you want—organic or not—but with the knowledge of what exactly you’re using. If we spend our hard-earned 79 cents on the dollar paycheck for a perfume or cream or lipstick, we damn sure should know what we’re getting.
So put fear where fear belongs. Don’t fear parabens—fear ignorance. Don’t fear oxybenzone—fear the lack of transparency. Don’t fear phthalates or propylparaben or diazolidinyl urea. Fear a system that has lulled us into a false sense of confidence in its ability to consider your interest alongside its own.
It’s your body. Your face. Your dollars. So speak up. The system can and must change. Let’s just aim to make that sooner than later because, in the immortal words of Maybelline, we’re worth it.
by Jacqueline Staph Jones