Living in a Chemical World

Grace LuckettNovember 29, 2016Beauty and the SensesMedia

Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan is a non-fiction book dedicated to exposing the chemicals used in beauty products and other chemically-based products.

The author is the co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which tries to convince big cosmetic corporations to become more health and safety oriented. She is considered an expert in the field of chemical studies and wrote the book in order to raise awareness about harmful substances used in beauty products. I think this book is intended for people of all ages who want to begin to understand exactly what is in their products, and whether they want it there or not.

The majority of the book spends its time pointing out the harmful chemicals in many beauty products. There is a long compilation of facts meant to persuade the reader of being wary of anything from wooden cupboards to nail polish, because of the toxic chemicals used in production and in the finished products. It offers few solutions to these problems, and only briefly analyzes current beauty topics, such as the way modern women feel about their bodies, and how the media influences these feelings. The book would be better suited to a shorter environmental article as the way it is written offers no solutions to avoid dangerous products such as pesticides. Methods or solutions on how to avoid dangerous products should have been included in the book, as it talks a lot about how harmful chemicals are for people.

The book even states outright: “Naturally, everyone wants the quick fix, the easy shopping list. But unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.” Although this book does offer some difficult and time-consuming ways to avoid chemicals, like finding the ingredients in your products and entering them to an online database, there is no quick or easy way for a person to learn if a product is safe or not.

Although I think the subjects touched on in this book are accurate, such as we should take action against cosmetic companies, I feel as though they are repeated too often. While I agree with those points, I wish there were more. Many of the examples of groups in this book are inspiring, like a group of mothers called MOMS, fighting to keep harmful chemicals out of their breast milk by writing letters, protesting and boycotting several products. It made me really want to protest as well.

The author spent about 60% of the book discussing toxic cosmetics. She also revealed toxins in wood products and foods like chicken, pork, and soda. However, the book was advertised as being about cosmetics and beauty products. If the author wished for it to be about toxins in general, she should have described it differently. I don’t see anything wrong with discussing these topics; I just was slightly misled by the title.

Culturally, there are problems with how we perceive beauty and use makeup, but they were discussed only very briefly in a section about skin whiteners in China and other countries. The author reveals the dangerous toxins in these, the companies that makes them, and why women want paler skin. There is also the connection to how African American women have a higher rate of breast cancer, which may be linked to hair products and pomades they are more likely to use. As a reader I found these to be the most interesting and best chapters to read because this really is a worldwide issue. However, I feel as though it was slightly glossed over, and I wish she had spent more time on it.

The positive side of Not Just a Pretty Face is that it really does show the problems within the beauty industry. However, without offering a solution, the book feels slightly depressing. I understand that the author may be using this as a tactic to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage others to investigate it. But, for me, a child without a degree in chemistry or the ability to solve this puzzle, it raised a lot of anxiety. It made me feel as though I have no control over what enters my body, and no power to change that. The author did briefly examine the possibility of green cosmetics, which involves removing toxins from certain products, and certain eco-friendly companies, like Tom’s of Maine, the toothpaste company. Unfortunately, it seems the cosmetics industry is just too large a giant to be taken down. Even the author seemed hopeless, saying, “My head is spinning. I feel like Alice who fell down the rabbit hole.”

In the last chapter, there are a dozen bullet points, such as: “Use your nose” and “Go natural.” These are good points, but given the way the author describes the problem, the solution should have had been given a lot more depth. It is an important topic because there is much evidence showing that chemicals and pesticides are harmful to humans and the environment, and that many diseases could be prevented if we created an open debate about what products should and should not enter our bodies. While I think the book was well-meaning and had a good central idea, the author could have found solutions to better suit the needs of the average person hoping to avoid toxic chemicals.

Grace Luckett is in the 9th grade at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn, New York. Grace is an avid reader, skier, baker, and singer.