Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Great Skincare Swindle

How many cosmetic and cleaning products are you using on yourself? Do you know what they all do? We're becoming increasingly aware of what we put into our bodies, but not really thinking about what we put onto them.

The billion-squillion dollar cosmetics and skincare industry is genius. It offers a panacea to youthfulness and beauty and we throw our money at it, slathering our faces and bodies in beautiful smelling chemicals, without a clue what they do. This isn't new - from the Ancient Egyptians onwards we've been slapping on dubious products - lead, arsenic and belladonna have all been used in the pursuit of beauty.

I looked at the products I use on a normal day, and I recalled what I used 10 years ago, when I was 30 years old, and 10 years before that. It doesn't look like I use that many things, until you think about the fact that I'm putting all those things on my skin every day. And this is without the moisturisers, foot scrubs, face masks, hair dye and foundations I might want to use occasionally, when I actually make an effort...

A typical day in the life of my bathroom cabinet when I was 20 (basically just kept clean), 30, and then 40.
I think I'm reasonably low maintenance, but I've gone from using four products a day to 16. At this rate of increase (doubling every 10 years) I will be using 64 different products every day when I'm 60!

What do we want from skincare and cosmetics?

Women are complex always-changing creatures, so I can only speak for me, now. At 40, I want to look pretty, smell nice and preserve my attractiveness for as long as possible. I also want to do these things within my means and without damaging myself or the planet.

What do these things actually do? I still remember the time I went into the Body Shop and a sales woman started telling me about the special particles in something or other - sales patter masquerading as science.

We know that make-up works, because we can see the results immediately. Applied correctly, it makes us more attractive. We know that soap, shampoo and deodorant make us less smelly. Conditioner makes hair softer and easier to brush. What about the other things? I have no idea if the moisturiser I put on my face is actually protecting it, or what it's supposed to be protecting it from - damage and dust from the outside world, or the effort of holding up my face for 40 years?

Nine steps to loveliness

I looked up what the beauty gurus recommend I should be doing to my face every day, now that I'm 40. I found The Ultimate Skincare Routine for your 40s (written by two people who make a living from selling and writing about beauty products). It's pretty typical - there's a lot of stuff like this out there. You're supposed to do all these steps twice a day, with variations for morning and evening. I've paraphrased them for you:
  1. Cleanse - wash your face with chemicals
  2. Cleanse again - with some different chemicals (in case you missed a bit)
  3. Tone (rub some kind of alcohol on your face)
  4. Exfoliate (scrub in case the cleansing wasn't good enough)
  5. Antioxodise with serum - very concentrated moisturising stuff that no one seems able to explain
  6. Retinol - helps regenerate old skin cells or something
  7. Eye cream - because you're probably feeling a bit sore now
  8. Moisturise - put back the grease that you just took out
  9. Face oil (apparently different to moisturiser) - gives you something to cleanse off tomorrow
Do normal people really do all this every day? I do just three of these and it feels like a lot. When are you supposed to find time to do anything else? And it must cost a bomb!

There is so much written about skincare products, it's almost impossible to find any proper answers about what these things are - when you try, you are just deluged with articles claiming they are the best things ever without really having any explanation of what they do. Where 'research' has been done, it seems to involve giving a bunch of women a cream and asking them if they like it. I haven't yet found anything to say whether or not any of this stuff actually works.

Destroying the planet

Perhaps my biggest concern about all this consumerism is the toll it takes on the planet. There's the packaging for starters - a lot of plastic. Of course I recycle, but it would be a lot better if I didn't buy these things in the first place. If I want small bottles to carry around, then I buy large bottles and decant them into smaller reusable ones. I have switched to shampoo bars which cuts out plastic bottles and I use soap not shower gel, which is much more economical on packaging. But there's still a lot of plastic.

Then there's the products themselves. The ones with the exfoliating beads wash into our water supply and damage plants and animals (avoid them). Then there's animal testing. I Google cosmetics that don't test on animals before I buy, but invariably these brands aren't available on my small-town high street. I want to buy this stuff in a shop, not online, because that way I can try it on and see what I'm getting, and also save the ridiculous amount of packaging it's apparently necessary to post this stuff.

It's hard to find soap that doesn't contain palm oil. This stuff is an environmental disaster that has led to epic deforestation with species like chimpanzees losing their homes and therefore their lives. I don't want to kill chimps so I'm trying to find products without palm oil. It's almost impossible and made even more difficult because palm oil masquerades as other things on packaging (palm kernel, palmitate, palmate...)

All the mainstream brands of soap that I have found contain palm oil. I ventured into Lush (for the first time) to buy a bar of palm oil free soap. It cost me £6.70. That is ridiculous. I just want to wash my body without orphaning any chimps. Does that really involve paying nearly £7 for a bar of soap? What did we do before they invented palm oil?

Destroying my body

So I'm tripping along smearing moisturiser into my face and then I see something on Facebook about cosmetic products linking to cancer. Because what are these things made of? Chemicals. So we're smearing chemicals all over our faces and bodies. And thinking this is a good idea. Far from giving us the appearance of eternal youth, they may actually be hastening death.

If we follow the nine steps above that so many skincare gurus are telling us then we are smearing no fewer than none types of unknown chemical into our faces every day, probably more if we use different products in the morning and evening. On top of that there's the washing products - shower gel, shampoo, deodorant, and of course the make-up, made of more chemicals.

What the great skincare swindle means for all of us

To summarise, if you are a woman then you are probably spending a lot of your time and money smothering your face and body with chemicals that could not only damage you, but are very definitely damaging the world around you. I want to be beautiful. You want to be beautiful. But maybe we need to be more sensible about our pursuit of beauty. And apply a healthy squirt of scepticism to the skincare and cosmetics industry, before we hand over all our hard-earned money.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

How Trump’s America is taking back women's bodies

The United States of America considers itself one of the most progressive countries in the world. It's the Land of the Free with the Great American Dream. What they don't say it it's The Land of the Free Men, where any opportunity is open to anyone, just as long as you're a man.

In the country that has never yet had a woman in charge, Alabama this week passed a bill stopping women having abortions.

Whether the child is severely disabled, the result of incest or the product of rape makes no difference. Once a woman has seen the blue line on the pregnancy test she's responsible for it for the next 18 years. A doctor performing an abortion can be sentenced to 99 years in prison.

The Pro Choice argument

It should be enough to say women should have the right to abortion because no one should be forced to have a baby if they don't want to. But it's obviously not, so I'm going to spell it out anyway.

We know from history what banning abortion means, and it's not more happy smiling children in idyllic family settings. It means bringing yet more unwanted children into the world who will be at risk of physical and mental suffering, who may have to suffer the distress at being removed from the parents who didn't want them in the first place. It means children of women who have been raped growing up hating a part of themselves knowing their existence is only down to abuse. It means desperate women seeking out dangerous underground solutions to terminate their pregnancies which put themselves at risk. It means women having to give up the lives they wanted to care for children they shouldn't have had.

The anti-abortion argument

What shocks me most is that there doesn't seem to be much of a counter argument. It goes something like this: "I think that this supreme being that I believe in probably doesn't want women to terminate their pregnancies, so therefore it should be stopped." It doesn't seem to take into account all the people who don't believe in that particular supreme being, or in this assumption about their god's beliefs. Or indeed the lives and bodies of women.

Men taking over women's bodies

There were 25 people who voted to approve the new law. Six who voted against it. Of these 31 senators, four were women. Can you guess which group the women were in? Yes, they were the small minority that voted to continue allowing women in Alabama to have abortions. So only two men voted that women should be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies.

The new ruling is opening the floodgates to 16 other states which are considering cracking down on women's rights over their own bodies.

I hope that in a few years time those 25 (white) senators will be prepared to open their homes to foster some of the many children who will be born into difficult circumstances as a direct result of this legislation.

Photo by Victoria Pickering via Flickr Creative Commons
Abortion may not be for everyone, and if you don't agree with it, then don't ever have one, but pregnancy, childbirth and bringing a child into the world should be a choice, both for the women and the children involved.

When a society stops allowing women to make their own decisions about our bodies, then we are instantly made more vulnerable and less important than men, who do not have these restrictions. If men really want women to stop having abortions then maybe they should stop having sex with them.


Today it's Alabama, but anti-abortion bills have been introduced across the US and other states could follow suit. I know I'm writing this purely for the people who already think as I do. But if I can provide just a few more words in support of those women in Alabama who are fighting for their freedom, then it's worth it.

It is absolutely essential that we, as women, insist that we are the ones qualified to make decisions about our own bodies. Men should not be doing this for us.

If ever there were an argument for women to be involved in the political process, then this is it. Because if the Alabama senate had been reflective of gender balance, with 17 female senators instead of just four, this bill would never have got through and women in Alabama would still have been able to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Turning 40

I turned 40. I’m still getting over it. I expect that by the time I have got over it I will be well past it. Possibly closer to the next big milestone.

The year I turned 40, life hit me in the face. I had two miscarriages, a collapsing roof to deal with, and then I very nearly lost my Dad. Oh and my daughter started school. I don’t lump that in with the other things, but it was a major life event and having a child in school is another being a proper grown up milestone. No matter that, at 40, I am one of (if not the) older mothers in the tiddler section of the school. It was the year that I had to face life and think about death

So a couple of months ago I finally became middle aged. And I can’t get my head around it. It’s only a number, but it’s a big number, it marks a new life stage and, even if I live to 100, I’ve now used a large chunk of my time.

My friend invited me to her husband’s 40th birthday party, shortly before I reached the milestone. I puzzled over the invite. “But I’m sure we already did this, a couple of years ago.” Slowly, it dawned. That was 10 years ago you idiot - that was his 30th. So there goes a decade. It’s true you know – time really does speed up as you get older. Except for Monday mornings. 

Chocolate and mortality in Bruges

Turning 40 came as a bit of a shock. I’d just about come to terms with being in my thirties. I was comfortable with that. I felt like I got good at it. I accomplished a few things as well. When I turned 30 I was married with no children. Since then I have gained a PhD, a divorce (surprisingly not related to the PhD) a good job, a five-year-old child and a new partner. I have also moved house four times (maybe not an achievement, since one of the times was moving back with my parents) and grown out my fringe (we’d been together a long time). I have still failed to publish a novel, but I have a blog which was going pretty well until my annus horribilis kicked in (more on that shortly). Put like that, maybe I don’t sound so bad. I mean, at least I’m doing stuff with my time.

Turning 40 was the bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for me. Two miscarriages, a collapsing roof (very expensive and stressful to sort out), redundancies at work and my Dad spent 12 weeks in hospital dicing with death (he got better).  

My 40th birthday was spent wandering happily around beautiful Bruges hand in hand with my beloved, drinking beer that is stronger than I can possibly handle. It was idyllic. The icing on the cake (metaphorical at the time, although I got one a few weeks later) was my mum’s heartfelt message that my Dad had suddenly taken a huge turn for the better.

My new favourite place in the world: Bruges. Photo by Jacob Surland via Flickr Creative Commons

Fear begins at 40

I moved into my 40th year on this planet feeling bruised from a relentless few months. Trying to spend and treasure every possible moment with my loved ones. And feeling terrified about the future, because when the past 12 months can do that to you, then you can’t help wondering what the next 12 will bring. My dad came face to face with his own mortality this year, and we faced it too. There were many times when my family and I were certain we were losing him. Once, my daughter, who always starts difficult conversations from the back of the car, asked me: “Will I ever see Grandad again?” And I had to keep driving and say brightly “of course you will, sweetheart” hoping that it was true, not least because I knew he, the one who was waiting outside the door when she was born, was missing her even more than she was missing him.

And I look back on my year of horror and realise that so much of that is what being 40 is. I’m grown up now, so while my little girl is allowed to fall apart, I am not. Disasters, like collapsing roofs, will happen and I will just have to deal with them, not necessarily alone. Miscarriages – if you’re going to try and have a baby at this time of life, then they’re more common too. And whilst once I needed my parents' support (and still often do), now sometimes they need mine.

I've noticed I type my date of birth now self-consciously – it seems such a long time ago. I don’t want to admit to my younger colleagues that I remember the eighties, that I grew up in a world without memes and mobile phones.

Many of my friends got to 40 ahead of me, and they seem to be coping OK with it. Is it just me?