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.