When I was fifteen years old, I found out that my favorite mascara, Maybelline Great Lash, contained an industrial chemical used to wax airplane wheels. I was crushed. I considered putting on makeup a “rite of passage,” and I was so loyal to my beauty products you could almost say I was dating my cosmetics bag. But when I found out that none of my products were regulated or tested for safety, some ingredients were even hidden from the labels, and many of the chemicals used freely in the United States have already been banned in Europe, I was heartbroken.
I remember when I first started working on this issue, an industry expert told me that he overheard the founders of Benefit Cosmetics describe their products as, “Shit in a pretty pink box.” That one line describes the commercial beauty industry in total.
The beauty industry betrayed me. So I decided to fight back.
The first thing I did was bring together the loudest teenagers I knew to build a campaign around this issue that affects us all. I was one of the founding members of Teens for Safe Cosmetics, a teen-led coalition committed to educating the public about the hidden dangers of our everyday products. We created collateral materials like the Dirty Thirty, organized teen summits and street actions, and impacted the passage of SB484, the first piece of legislation regulating the beauty industry in California. Almost nine years later, SB484 is finally in effect, but all that it requires is that cosmetic companies disclose carcinogenic ingredients to the public.
When I moved to New York City six years ago, I was shocked to learn that most people still do not know to question the ingredients in our products. I was frustrated by the limitations of the grassroots movement, so I took extreme measures and put warning labels on products in stores, first targeting Secret Deodorant, and then Johnson & Johnson, as a part of a larger campaign to persuade them to remove carcinogens from their baby shampoo.
Johnson & Johnson has agreed to eventually phase out the carcinogens, and when they were asked in a press conference what compelled them to make the change, they stated, “It was the consumer outrage, including one crazy girl that went so far as to label products in stores.” I am proud to say that crazy girl is me, but there is still so much work to be done.
We deserve more than “shit in a pretty pink box.” We shouldn’t have to choose beauty over health.
by Jessica Assaf