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TV Review: Beauty Addicts: How Toxic Are You?

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The recent furore in the UK over misleading television should not only focus on rigged phone-in contests and kittens called Socks; television programmes like Beauty Addicts: How Toxic Are You? (Channel 4) are an example of a new kind of highly irresponsible shock-schlock TV where the content is designed and edited for maximum tabloid value and can end up seriously misleading viewers and consumers.

Beauty Addicts: How Toxic Are You?
aired on Channel 4 (UK) on Thursday 11th of October 2007 and was presented by Sarah Beeny. Sarah is a British television presenter who is best known for presenting Channel 4 property shows. 

The programme was interesting, but also incredibly frustrating to watch. This type of ill researched, scaremongering journalism (and I use the term journalism loosely) actually damages the cause of those who would wish the truth be known about benefits of using natural ingredients and safe synthetics. The truth, as it is, will evolve as new research is conducted and we learn more about the subject through experience and experimentation. Making any kind of categorical statements in this type of context is not helpful to anyone in the long run.

Two young girls were selected for a check-up on their cosmetic and cleaning product usage. Sarah examined the amount of products the girls were being exposed to, blood tests were conducted, and some alternative products offered. The girls in question were extreme product addicts, using ludicrous amounts of personal care products, colour cosmetics, and strong cleaning agents in their daily routines. They were not average consumers. In many ways, it would have been much more interesting to see an average example. It may not have made such great television though. Watching one of the girls admit to eating her toothpaste every day and the other to using up a can of hairspray in a week provided far more entertainment value. It's just a shame this programme appeared to pitch itself to us as a source of information rather than as car-crash TV.

The content also included a "natural hair colour test" performed in a hairdressing salon (in fact, none of the hair colours featured were totally natural; if we take natural to mean no synthetic ingredients). There were also some interviews of the general public on their perceptions of marketing and brand statements made by cosmetic companies. It was this section that left me especially frustrated, as I found it to be the closest to what this programme could have been — helping us all to get to the root of the issue and learn how to decode product labels and confusing advertising.

Indeed many sections left me wishing that more immediately useful information would have been on offer – instead we were served throwaway sound bites, unsupported vague claims, and scaremongering. In one particularly badly thought out scene, Sarah warned new mothers of the dangers of breast feeding as "chemicals will be passed to the baby".

It might have been better to stress the benefits that breast feeding has for both baby and mother (reduced risk of breast cancer for mother and huge immune system and emotional development benefits for baby) – and to help adequately educate people on what's likely to be genuinely toxic in their lives.

On the whole, I felt the terms "toxic" and "chemical" were thrown around far too freely without real explanation as to the programme makers' interpretation on what they wanted those terms to represent.

The language used in the programme appeared to have been designed to make viewers believe the following statements:

  • Every man-made chemical is bad for you.
  • Everything natural is good for you.

Just because something is a man-made chemical, doesn't automatically make it unsafe, or toxic.

If anything, sometimes it is entirely beneficial to produce something in a more controlled environment so that one ends up with a less volatile substance. The intended action and effects can be predicted to some extent, which can't always be said about natural materials. The trick is to get the balance, intended effects, formulations, dosages and usage instructions correct.

Just because something is natural, doesn't automatically make it safe. (Some of the most potent poisons in the world come from plants and animals: digitalis, deadly nightshade, belladonna, deathcap, black widow spiders, scorpions…). Natural ingredients are still made of chemicals. Yet the programme was fudging the issue by using "chemical" like a swearword.

Furthermore, the programme attempted to make the case that sodium laureth sulphate is bad for you. Sodium laureth sulphate is a coconut-derived surfactant used widely as a foaming agent in shampoos, bubble baths, and even toothpaste.

Now if you remember, one of the test subjects was a girl who actually ate quite a bit of toothpaste on a daily basis. Just because something is bad for you when used inappropriately (cinnamon is lovely sprinkled on my best apple pie recipe, but if I asked you to down a bottle of it in one, you would probably get ill). The programme also failed to present examples of toothpastes without sodium laureth sulphate. They exist and there are some lovely ones out there. Instead the poor girl was given quite an extreme option to try — a traditional Japanese seaweed product that made her gag.

If you happen to be unable to use products with sodium laureth sulphate because you have an allergy, the good news is that there are now plenty of alternatives available. Making that ingredient out to be bad for everyone, because "it is used in higher concentrations in garage floor cleaners" (I suppose garage floors can get greasy, so why not use an effective surfactant?) or because sodium laureth sulphate can cause irritation in some people is silly.

People can be allergic to anything. Just because someone gets a rash when they eat strawberries (a person I would feel very sorry for), doesn't mean we all have to stop eating strawberries, or that strawberries should be removed from all food and cosmetics and declared evil and toxic. There are even people who are allergic to plain water.

There is a very virulent myth about sodium laureth sulphate out there. This myth has penetrated traditional and online media to such a degree that researchers now quote it as gospel. Those who dig a little deeper usually find out that it's a hoax, but the makers of this programme did not.

Sodium laureth sulphate is an effective de-greaser and very bubbly – lovely when used correctly – but not suitable for eating or for products that stay on your skin for a long time. I have seen it used in body lotions, which did not seem like a good idea, but when used in a shower gel, or any product that gets rinsed off, it's perfectly safe. It can be a skin irritant (but most people don't react to it) and if ingested, it can cause a stomach upset. That's about it. The SLS-is-bad myth started as an online hoax chain email some years ago. There is suspicion that the myth was started by a source intending to market "sodium laureth sulphate free" products.

Regurgitating other people's marketing messages, generating deliberate hoaxes for profits, badly researched publicity releases and repeating easily obtained anecdotal data makes things so much easier, not to mention has the added credibility of having been repeated via various sources to such a degree that when a consumer is exposed to it, they think "oh yes, I saw that mentioned somewhere else too, so it must be true."

One of the other main claims in the programme was that parabens are bad for you. (Even though when you closely listen to the script, the main statements are: "Parabens are preservatives used widely in food, cosmetics and toiletries. They are man-made chemicals. They can be found in your urine.")

Presence does not prove causality. Just because something can get into your system and can be found in your urine doesn't automatically make it a toxin. Vitamins? Minerals? Beneficial medications? Again, it can be about dosage and appropriate use.

For example certain apparently benign over-the-counter health supplements can cause liver damage and serious medical complications if used inappropriately.

I went to the Channel 4 website to check what they'd written about their own programme. I found this [emphasis added]:

Parabens are related to a chemical called benzoic acid which was discovered in the 16th century, and subsequently used to preserve products against moulds, yeasts and some bacteria. The most commonly used parabens have been methylparaben (E number, E218), ethylparaben (E214), propylparaben (E216), and butylparaben. But E216 is one of two parabens (the other being sodium propylparaben, E217) which have recently been withdrawn under revised EC regulations on food additives. While some parabens are found naturally in plants, those used as preservatives are made in the laboratory.

Recent worries about parabens are based on a series of British studies linking the chemicals to breast cancer. In one study, laboratory tests showed that parabens weakly mimic the activity of the natural female hormone, oestrogen. While all women need oestrogen, the hormone is known to help some breast tumours to grow, and part of breast cancer treatment aims to stop the effects of oestrogen.

In another study, parabens, especially methylparaben (E218), were found in 18 out of 20 samples from breast tumours. While there is no proof, it has been suggested that parabens contained in deodorant products may be absorbed through the skin under the arm and be involved in development of cancer in nearby breast tissue.

Neither of two leading cancer charities, Cancer Research UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, support this theory. Instead, they point out that it was a very small study, and it did not compare parabens levels in breast tissue from women who did not get breast cancer. Instead, they quote a large US study which failed to show that women who use deodorants or antiperspirants were more likely to get breast cancer.

Cancer Research UK points out that over 90% of today's deodorants and antiperspirants don't contain parabens. So if you are worried about a possible link with breast cancer, you should be able to find products which are parabens-free.

I found it interesting that the content on Channel 4's own microsite presented the subject with a different slant. The above text was not included in the script of the TV show. Instead the programme was almost devoid of real content. An interesting addition to the television show, for example, would have been to report that The European Commission had planned a technical hearing on behalf of the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) on the safety evaluation of "Parabens in cosmetic products", in order to follow-up the SCCP opinions on the subject. The hearing was on 23 October 2007 in Brussels.

Telling the truth about matters, whether you're a business representative or a journalist, or a medical professional, or an aromatherapist should be on everyone's top agenda.

It most certainly isn't. Why? Because telling the truth requires patience, knowledge, the ability to be objective, and real effort on all sides. It also requires continuous further study and is often not the most immediately profitable option for businesses or anyone with something to sell or promote. And it doesn't always make for very exciting television.

The consumer is left out of the loop in terms of easily available unbiased information on cosmetics. There press releases from beauty companies that beauty writers use as their primary source of material are a closed circle. Most beauty scoops and articles are almost exact reprints of a patchwork of press releases; nothing more. I have spoken to beauty journalists off record and they tell me how frustrating it is for them to be effectively pushing product rather than to actually report on anything. The mutually beneficial relationship between the beauty PR and the beauty journalist is unlikely to change in a hurry, if ever. It is in neither side's best interest to break the deal.

I feel that this television programme was such a huge wasted opportunity.

My advice? Don't blindly buy into any lovely marketing stories, brand names, press releases, beauty articles, or any of that jazz. It is all subjective and often heavily tainted. The best thing we should all campaign for — as consumers and as business people — is a case for CLEAR, HONEST and EASY TO UNDERSTAND labelling. If you know what's in your product and what it's supposed to do for you, you'll have all the information you need to make your own decision.

There are some real poisons that we are exposed to; some of them can indeed be found in commonly used cosmetic products. Now we just need proper exposure on these issues.

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About Nukapai

I learned to write before I could read and my first story was published when I was only 9 years old. I'm interested in a range of topics - particularly in science fiction, fantasy, horror, illustration, cosmetics industry, consumer psychology, marketing and perfumery. I keep a personal blog at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk