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.