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Toxicity and The Misaligned Incentives of the Beauty Industry

Leland Lo

What is Toxicity?

The words 'toxic' and 'toxins' are widely used today by products claiming to be organic or natural. Usually, it is to attempt to prompt the consumer to believe that the products are free of such toxins and that using the product will somehow rid the user of such toxic, harmful chemicals. The truth of the matter is more complicated, and as a consumer, to understand what 'toxicity' mean is vital to making smart, informed decisions.

The truth is, any substance can be toxic - in high enough doses. Toxicity, defined, is simply the degree which a substance can damage an organism. In high enough doses, even substances essential for life, such as water or oxygen, can be toxic and bring harm. On the contrary, highly toxic substances like arsenic or snake venom can have no effect at low enough concentrations.

Cosmetic Regulation and Safety

Understanding this, most cosmetic regulations focus on safety, ensuring that products that enter the market are safe to use and do not cause harm to the customer. This is of course a necessary thing, but as consumers, what we want are products that are not just safe, but are beneficial to our skin. For example, while McDonald's is no doubt safe for consumption, eating it everyday will probably bring all sorts of health problems. Similarly, using skincare products that are safe by regulation standards multiple times a day might not be dangerous, but can be detrimental in the long run. 

As a matter of fact, you will find that different countries have different regulatory standards for cosmetics. However, regulatory bodies will usually only step in when there is harm caused by a product -- so the cosmetics industry, in many parts of the world are mostly self-regulated. The fact that the product formulation changes based on the regulations strongly suggests that the cosmetics industry is affected by the following incentives. 

In a profit driven industry, the incentives that drive the development of products are not always aligned with the consumer's agenda. More often than not, you'll find chemicals that are unnecessary for skincare in commercial skincare products.

Reduce Cost of Production

In a mass-production, the slight reduction of price of a raw material will reduce the overall cost of production by a significant amount. If each bottle's cost is reduced by $0.10, manufacturing 100,000 bottles would save $10,000. It is unsurprising that when given a choice, cosmetics manufacturers would almost always go for the cheaper chemical.

The purer chemicals are, the more expensive they will be. Manufacturers will usually pick the cheapest chemicals to produce or utilize that are "pure enough" for their purposes. One example is Sodium laureth sulfate, a commonly used detergent and foaming agent which is often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. 1,4-dioxane is a a known irritant and potential carcinogen (cancel causing). It is recommended, but not required by the U.S Food and Drug Administration that this compound be removed in the manufacturing process.

Prolong the shelf life of products

Products that are manufactured could take months or even years before reaching the final consumer. Therefore, to prevent spoilage, preservatives and stabilisers are often added. Because preservatives work by preventing living cells (microorganisms) from growing (and thus, preserve the product), they are often bad for the skin. Due to the huge supply chain of beauty products, products usually have to last years before being used. There is a big incentive to add as much preservatives as possible (within acceptable toxicity levels) in commercial skincare products to prevent losses via spoilage. 

That being said, it is important to note that as every DIY skincare/cosmetic maker knows, any product that contains water will not last without preservatives, unless certain conditions are fulfilled. When purchasing a product from a natural skincare brand (in particular those with water in it), be sure to ask if it have been tested for safety or safety has been considered. Products may contain dangerous levels of microorganisms and have no visible difference, so it is important to follow the expiration date when using natural skincare products. However, even when preservatives are added, reputable natural skincare manufacturers usually use a lesser amount and choose less harmful preservatives. That is why natural skincare products rarely last more than a year and will start degrading once opened.

Add a sensation or effect

Finally, chemicals are added to include a particular feature or effect in the products to gain an edge against competing brands. With fierce competition between various brands, manufacturers often come out with gimmicks or features in their products that are not beneficial to consumers in the long run.When deciding whether to buy a skincare product, customers often test on their skin to get a feel of the product before purchasing. This gives a big incentives for manufacturers to create products that trigger such effects. Menthol, for example, triggers a cooling icy sensation when applied on the skin. Plenty of products have menthol in them so that the icy sensation let's one feel that the product is working. While it has a purpose in relieving mild itches and aches, it serves little purpose in general skincare and at worst, could irritate the skin. 

Another blatant example of this is in skin whitening products. Without furthering the discussion regarding the problem with lighter skin being more attractive, some manufacturers have resorted to include a foundation like layer of pigment to trick people into thinking that their skin has become somehow, immediately lighter after use. 

tricky skin whitening marketing

A blatant example of such a marketing tactic

Making Smarter Choices

Not all commercial products are bad, and not all natural skincare products are good. At the end of the day, different products have different quality standards and each individual's skincare needs are different. We hope that the information provided here will help you better evaluate products and make smarter choices.




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