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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  What does it take to look pretty?

What does it take to look pretty?

What does it take to look pretty?

Graphics by Shyamal Banerjee/MintPremium

Graphics by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

In the autumn of my last year in Lady Shriram College in Delhi, our English dramatics society chose to adapt for theatre the 1989 Oscar-nominated movie Steel Magnolias. It is a tragi-comic tale about a bunch of women in small town Louisiana. Much of the drama takes place in Truvy’s Beauty Parlour, where they all have come to get dolled up for a wedding. Truvy, the funny, gregarious lady who runs the parlour makes a comment, that has stayed with me since. “There’s no such thing as natural beauty," she drawls in her southern American accent, while putting on eye make-up for one of the women.

Graphics by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Somewhere along the road to mass industrial production, all these natural ingredients became a speck in the jar, having been edged out by stuff such as sodium laureth sulphate, cocamide monoethanolamine or acrylate copolymers. The Food and Drug Administration, the champion of public health in America, oversees drugs, food and water but not cosmetics. So, effectively there is no watchdog to check whether the chemicals in cosmetics are safe or not. That job is left to the Cosmetics Review Committee which, surprise, surprise, is funded by the $50 billion cosmetics industry itself. Sounds like something that would happen in India but we are talking about the US here, where there is a high degree of regulation on safety of products.

According to a study by the European Journal of Cancer, there is a link between breast cancer and under arm deodorant usage. Deodrants, contain propylene glycol which blocks the sweat gland and aluminium whose usage is linked to Alzheimer’s disease (see earlier article “Our BO and our Deo"). One in three brands of lipsticks tested, contained more lead than was the upper limit acceptable. Lead is toxic and causes DNA abnormality which is why there is paranoia about crayons and substandard Chinese toys containing lead. The same vigilance doesn’t seem to exist for lipsticks, though they are as much a mass product.

Sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a chemical linked to cellular damage and hormonal disturbances. In a 2008 study conducted by Centre for Disease Control in the US, 97% of the 2,500 Americans studied had oxybenzone in their bodies. Clearly, looking pretty is risky business.

European governments are far stricter and have banned 1,222 more chemicals in cosmetics than the US. Activist groups in the US such as Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are beginning to fight for more chemicals in cosmetics to be tested for safety. The campaign’s biggest success has been a seven-year project where they worked with cosmetics companies to form a Compact (nice name there) that would pledge not to use harmful chemicals and fully disclose the ingredients in their products. A total of 1,500 companies signed up and a research team of the Environmental Working Group, closely tracked their compliance to the goals outlined. The project ended in August 2011 and 332 companies termed “Champions" were found to meet the goals of the Compact. These companies are now leading the industry towards safety by pledging to manufacture cosmetics without hazardous chemicals.

The website does huge service to consumers by listing nearly 70,000 cosmetic products and rating them for safety on a scale of zero to 10. A rating of zero to two is deemed safe. I looked up some of the popular, international cosmetic and toiletries brands endorsed by Bollywood stars and available all over India and was shocked to find they had ratings of four and above. So did some creams which are household names in India. Try it yourself. As a rule of thumb, at least in the US, the safer products seem to come from small, local manufacturers of organic cosmetics. Thankfully the world has shrunk, so a lot of them can be bought online and shipped to India. In India, we know of popular brands such as FabIndia, Khadi, Oriflame, Biotique, Himalaya and Shahnaaz which make organic products, but no one has done a comparative scientific study actually measuring toxicity of various brands available for the Indian woman. If readers know of small responsible cosmetic makers in India, using minimum chemicals, manufacturing on a small scale, and selling selectively, drop me a mail.

No cosmetic company can completely eschew chemicals because the products have to have a shelf life. But there are those which avoid harmful ones. Also, quantities matter. Even “safe" chemicals are “safe" only when used within approved limits. It pays to buy products from responsible manufacturers, even if you have to spend a little more. Because, after all, like that cosmetic advertisement says, you’re worth it.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues.

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Also Read |Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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Published: 02 Mar 2012, 01:15 AM IST
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