Could sodium laureth sulfate be to cosmetics what BPA was to plastic water bottles?
The public interest group Environmental Defence is hoping so, launching the latest phase of its Just Beautiful campaign with a new ad warning consumers about chemicals in makeup and beauty products.
The 60-second commercial from the Toronto-based agency Open, entitled "How To Look Pretty Without Poisoning Yourself," depicts a game show contestant who has to find one among an array of a cosmetic products that does not contain toxins or cancer-causing chemicals. She fails.
Environmental Defence argues that current Canadian laws allow cosmetics to carry undisclosed toxic ingredients or explain them with benign headings such as the word "fragrance."
Maggie MacDonald, toxic program manager at Environmental Defence, says sustained consumer interest in the issue during the two year campaign helped further the latest phase's creative elements.
The new Just Beautiful phase includes online and TV media for the commercial and also expanded the Just Beautiful.ca website, which prior to now published a printable wallet card of chemical offenders that the organization wants eliminated from beauty products, dubbed the "toxic 10."
Those, according to Environmental Defence, are the 10 worst ingredients found in personal care products in Canada today.
The list includes sodium laureth sulfate, a foaming agent used in many shampoos; triclosan, found in products such as "antibacterial" hand sanitizers and antiperspirants; parabens, found in many moisturizers, and petrolatum, found in petroleum jelly and various lip products.
The website now carries more useful information for consumers such as recommendations from the "Just Beautiful cabinet," allowing consumers to see a list of recom-mended products that do not contain any of the chemicals, as well as a pledge section from companies who say the products they produce or sell are free of the toxic 10.
"The public is so eager to have these safer products," said Ms. MacDonald, adding the goals of the campaign include further testing of existing products, furthering public awareness of the issue, and government and retailer outreach.
"I think everyone in his right mind would balk at the notion that there are toxins in cosmetics," said Christian Mathieu, partner at Open, which has been working with Environmental Defence for about a year. "This is making people aware of the fact. You kind of take it for granted that because it is on the shelf, it's safe. It can be shocking to find out that is not the case."
This not the first time the small non-profit has been able to make big corporations bow to pressure. Hastened by social media, multiple consumer awareness campaigns have seemingly accelerated corporate action over the last decade.
In 2008, after a vigorous campaign from Environmental Defence, Ottawa banned the import and sale of baby bottles containing the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in this country after research linked it to health problems such as diabetes and interfering with the hormones of male babies. Soon after most retailers pulled re-usable plastic drinking bottles carrying BPA off their shelves and began replacing them with BPA free products.
As for cosmetics, the push in Canada has been helped by a global lobby and the existing ban on some of the chemicals in various jurisdictions such as Europe.
After a two-year effort to lobby Johnson & Johnson to eliminate two chemicals linked to cancer from products including its signature "No More Tears" Johnson's Baby Shampoo, the corporation appeared to accede to the demands. The chemicals 1,4-dioxane, considered a likely carcinogen, and quaternium-15, a chemical that releases the preservative formaldehyde, had already been taken out of the shampoo in the U.K., Scandinavia and South Africa.
In November, Johnson & Johnson said it would to remove all quaternium-15 from its baby products worldwide within two years, and do so earlier for baby shampoos. The company also promised to reduce traces of 1,4-dioxane in its products and, over the long term, seek alternatives to using the substance.
Consumer products companies are generally loathe to replace or change a standard formula because doing so costs money, said Toronto marketing consultant Don Holland. Companies also do not want to call attention to the fact that there could be something unacceptable about products of theirs that have been in circulation for years.
"Boycotts and consumer outcries are generally the way to force companies to change, and it often starts with organizations and campaigns like these," he said. The level of consumer interest is also critical, Mr. Holland added, noting several food categories and products have been free of genetically modified ingredients for years in Europe, but while there is some consumer awareness of the issue here, there is less of a push to get governments to ban the production or sale of genetically modified food.
Will the drive for better labelling standards and fewer chemicals in cosmetics result in change?
"Are we going to see it overnight?," said Mr. Mathieu. "Probably not. But I think people will see a similar groundswell [to banning BPA and other toxins]. It is not like there are not other countries in the world regulating this."