Facts and Fears About Beauty Products Demystified

Facts and Fears About Beauty Products Demystified

 

Review of No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products, by Siobhan O’Connor & Alexandra Spunt, 304 pages, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010.

I really wanted to hate this book. It comes highly recommended by the likes of Ralph Nader and Eric Schlosser, two of the worst fear-mongers in the United States. Yet setting aside my biases, I found that while the book’s two young authors frequently attempt to be way too cute and even coarse, they have written an outstanding book.

They are bright, witty, wonderful researchers, and they certainly know how to make a buck by scaring every woman who uses beauty products.

The authors admit early on that they are taking a strong position that may not sit well with all readers but that it is up to the reader to decide about the vast marketplace of female beauty products. No More Dirty Looks points out that while concentrations of the hazardous chemicals used in these popular products are low, they are indeed filled with chemicals with no redeeming qualities.

“We imagine that some of the information you read will spark pretty strong feelings. You might think we’re fear mongering or going a little soft, depending on where you fall on the zealot spectrum,” they write. “You might also feel compelled to throw out everything in your bathroom (and maybe even throughout this book).”

 

Little Knowledge of Ramifications
The authors trace cosmetic law all the way back to the 1930s. They acknowledge the industry makes an effort to police itself through internal reviews by its trade groups, and they do not suggest the cosmetic industry is trying to harm anyone. The authors just don’t think there’s enough scrutiny of the industry.

It is amazing to me that many women use 20 products a day from body wash to mascara, each containing 20 to 50 chemicals, not to mention the perfumes whose chemicals are kept secret. No one really knows how these chemicals interact, either in their bottles or on the human body, and there are essentially no regulations to control them. The mantra of No More Dirty Looks is simple: “If you can’t be sure a product is safe—and it’s not doing your looks any favors—why bother using it?”’

The authors shine when, with the help of some advice from four major scientists, they give an easy-to-read treatment to a long list of common cosmetic chemicals. They explain what each is used for and how it is listed, pairing each item with the risk factors and expert opinion on the chemical.

A short list of these chemicals includes coal tar, ethanolamines, diethanolamine, triethanalomine, formaldehyde, hydroquinone, lead, mercury, parabens, nanoparticles, petroleum distillates, p-phenylenediamine, phthalates, all the glycols, a variety of sulfates, toluene, triclosan and dozens more.

 

What Works, What Doesn’t
The authors’ surprisingly enthralling discussion of hair products includes a tutorial on the health of your scalp and the effects of hair spray, hair gel, defrizzers, shampoo, straighteners, relaxers, keratin treatments, and perms. While they explain these things are expensive and often smell bad and could be dangerous, they quote one of their consulting experts, Dr. Joseph Schwarcz of McGill University, “who is of the general perspective that women’s exposure to chemicals in low doses through beauty products is not something we should be losing sleep over.”

No More Dirty Looks goes on to offer women alternative paths to achieving the desired results in more natural ways without chemicals, and it gives descriptions of all sorts of makeup procedures.  I obviously cannot speak to this with firsthand knowledge, but the recommendations seemed logical and not contrived.

The authors also include neat descriptions of how to wash your face and hair properly, offer advice beyond cosmetics to items such as vitamins, and do a good job of separating fact from fiction.

Don’t Lose Any Sleep
For some women, No More Dirty Looks’ section on Botox may be worth the book’s price. And the authors are brutally and amusingly honest regarding the value of acupuncture and massage—no one is putting anything over on them when it comes to real benefits to physical beauty. That said, they make the same mistake supporters of organic food make when they explain how to make your own shampoo with natural ingredients—failing to note that natural ingredients are chemicals, too.

I was particularly pleased with their knowledgeable position on the importance of vitamin D and the unnecessary fear of the sun which has left 70 percent of our population deficient in vitamin D, which we now know to be linked to any number of health issues.

Equally impressive is their awareness of stretch marks, acknowledging that tears in the dermis below the epidermis are scar tissue and that no amount of any creams marketed for the purpose can ever remove. Even their chapter on diets is superior to most of what one reads in diet books.

No More Dirty Looks is  an outstanding book if you read it with a grain of salt. I advise everyone to take Dr. Schwarcz’s advice not to lose too much sleep over the fearful portions. What’s more, I plan to put my money where my opinion is and give copies to my wife and daughters.

Jay Lehr (jlehr@heartland.org) is science director of The Heartland Institute.