Why We Made the Story of Cosmetics

What a couple of weeks it's been! More than 200,000 of you have watched the Story of Cosmetics since its launch July 21, and we've received an outpouring of support -- from cancer survivors, salon workers who've been harmed by chemical exposures on the job, green business owners and people around the world who are thanking us for raising the debate about toxic chemicals in the shampoos, deodorants and lotions we rub on our bodies every day.

The introduction of the Safe Cosmetics Act on the same day as the film premiere provides a vehicle to organize this energy into action. There are real opportunities ahead to shift the $50 billion beauty industry in a safer, more sustainable direction.

Not everyone is excited about these opportunities. Currently, the big cosmetics companies get to decide what's safe with very little government oversight, and they like this system just the way it is. The industry trade association has spent many millions of dollars over the past five years hiring lobbyists and PR firms to fend off attempts at new regulations.

So it's no surprise that we're seeing pushback about the critiques presented in the Story of Cosmetics (fully footnoted script is here) and the fact that a serious attempt to fix these problems is moving through Congress. The misinformation is buzzing, stirring up fears that the bill would hurt small businesses.

We'd like to take this opportunity to share why we made the film, and why we believe this moment offers huge possibilities to protect our health and future generations while also opening up new business opportunities for the companies that are already doing the right thing and making the safest products.

#1: Cancer Prevention

We made this film for Annie's grandmother who died of cancer before Annie was born, for Stacy's college roommate who died of cancer at 38, for Lisa who was 19 when she lost her mother to breast cancer -- and for all the moms, sisters, daughters, sons and fathers who are dealing with diseases that may be preventable.

We are living in a time when one in two American men and one in three women will get some type of cancer in their lifetimes. This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is not the way it was when our grandparents were born. Why is it this way now?

Part of the answer lies in the 1950s mindset of "better living through chemistry." That's when companies figured out how to process oil into chemicals, and billions of tons of synthetic substances that never before existed in nature were put into commerce with little thought to the impacts on health and the environment. Companies just weren't required to study that stuff.

Decades later, it's clear we've got some big problems. The risk of getting breast cancer increased more than 40% in just our lifetimes, and many other types of cancer including childhood, testicular and prostate cancers are on the rise.

As the President's Cancer Panel recently stated:

The true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.

The panel pointed to studies that have found 300 synthetic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. This is a wake-up call. When we hear that babies are being born pre-polluted with industrial chemicals, including fragrance chemicals, it's time to figure out how to do things differently.

Two big opportunities to do things differently are moving through Congress right now -- the Safe Cosmetics Act and a similar effort to regulate industrial chemicals under EPA jurisdiction. These bills will set up systems that should have been set up decades ago to assess chemical toxicity and put standards in place that encourage the development of safe products.

#2: Getting carcinogens out of baby shampoo is common sense

Some companies argue that baby shampoos and other products contain just tiny amounts of cancer-causing chemicals, and there's no proof these exposures are causing cancer in people. Never mind that no one is even studying the cancer risk to kids exposed to carcinogens every day in the bathtub.

How about just getting carcinogens out of baby shampoo? Many companies have already figured out how to make great products without using chemicals that are known to cause cancer in lab animals.

So why aren't all the companies doing that? It goes back to that 1950s mindset again. Despite their reputation for innovation, many cosmetics companies are using the same toxic chemistry processes they've been using for decades, and they justify it with a theory straight from the 18th century: "the dose makes the poison."

The old theory was that if a high dose of a toxic substance causes cancer in lab studies, then lower doses were safe. But it's not that simple. According to the more recent science, it's not just the size of the dose that matters, but the timing of the dose, the age and size of the person exposed, the potential for low-dose effects and the enhanced toxicity of chemical mixtures.

Most risk assessments don't even consider these complicating factors. So how can we trust the risk calculations? The common sense thing to do is take a precautionary approach. Let's work to reduce preventable and unnecessary exposures to toxic chemicals in the products we use every day.

Let's not argue about how much carcinogens a baby can tolerate in the bathtub, let's just get the carcinogens out of baby shampoo.

While we're at it, if we really want to protect children, let's get the hazardous chemicals out of products used by pregnant women, and women who may someday want to become pregnant. Might as well get chemicals associated with damaged sperm and feminized genitals out of the body sprays marketed to teenage boys, too.

#3: We believe in a better way

We believe it's possible to get rid of the toxins and still have a thriving healthy cosmetics industry with abundant opportunities for small businesses. We believe the best thing for the whole American economy is to move away from the old polluting technologies in chemistry and energy and develop the next generation of clean, green products that people around the world want to buy.

In fact, the fastest growing segment of the cosmetics industry, even during the recession, has been the natural and organic sector, largely driven by growing consumer concern about toxic chemicals. But with no legal standards for these products, it's challenging for consumers to sort through the greenwash and make the best choices.

There are no silver-bullet solutions. These problems are complicated and have been decades in the making. Solving them will require all of us -- consumers, business owners, chemists, scientists, government agencies -- to reach deeper and think bigger.

Part of the solution is to pass policies like the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 that will eliminate the most harmful substances, set up systems to assess safety, and shed more light on the health effects of the chemicals we put on our bodies. As with any bill, there are important details still to be worked out through the democratic process, and we look forward to the debate.

We believe the challenges can be worked out while still achieving the goal of safer products and without harming small businesses. The bill will actually provide many benefits to small businesses, such as providing access to toxicity information and making it easier for consumers to find the safest products.

Preserving opportunities for small businesses is crucial. These companies are the heart and soul of the cosmetics industry. They are leading the way in solving many of the toxicity problems and innovating safer alternatives -- they are figuring out how to preserve products without formaldehyde or estrogenic chemicals, how to make great suds without carcinogenic contaminants, and many are going a step further and sourcing sustainable, organic and fair-trade ingredients. They are proving it can be done.

Many small business owners were inspired to start companies because they got sick with cancer or other diseases, or they couldn't find products they felt good about using.

"I founded my company because safe baby products weren't easily available to parents due to a broken system that allows companies to use toxic chemicals in personal care products -- and promote them as safe," says Jessica Iclisoy, founder of California Baby. "We need a bottom line of safety and integrity in the cosmetics aisle."

Cancer survivor and make-up artist Britta Aragon, who founded the company Cinco Vidas to help other cancer survivors, added:

Manufacturers are slow to embrace change -- if they embrace it at all. The only answer is regulation that forces industry to consider the potential health effects of any and all ingredients used. The priority has to be our health.

For the health of all of us, for all the people who have suffered with preventable diseases, we need to figure this out. We owe it to our children and future generations to figure this out. Let's work together toward the day when all children are born free of toxic chemicals and with the best chance to live healthy fulfilled lives.

Please take action by telling your Congressional Representatives that safe cosmetics are important to you; ask him or her to co-sponsor the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010.

Annie Leonard is the creator of the internet phenomenon "The Story of Stuff" which has been viewed more than 12 million times online, and author of the bestselling book by the same name. Stacy Malkan is a co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry."