24 March 2016

Toxic Cosmetics

source: instagram

Last month, the French independant pro-consumer media Que Choisir has published an independent study about the cosmetics on sale on the market. They found toxic, allergenic or downright dangerous ingredients in 185 different products. After all this turning 30 reflection on how I feel about ageing, I thought it was as good a news as another to talk about appearance, cosmetics and the role of looks in society (and our happiness).

In this article (in French), Que Choisir explains that 185 cosmetics contain ingredients potentially dangerous for health: causing allergies, messing with hormones, irritating for the skin and more. This includes all kinds of cosmetics, from shampoos to deodorants, including baby stuff, and all kinds of brands from the supermarket's own chains to high end cosmetics.

This made me evaluate how many cometics I use. Even as I simplified my routine, there are quite a few bottles on my bathroom shelves. If you take the average bathroom shelf of a woman today, it is quite daunting to see how many consmetics we use every day. And for what? To clean our body, yes, but also to look younger, healthier, more attractive, thinner, etc.

When you think about it, we devote a lot of energy to our looks. From the choice of clothing and "uniforms" to make-up routine, it seems to be very important to most of us to carefully study our looks. Why? Why is it so important?

Think about it, we spend time, energy and money on items that have no other purpose than to affect the way we look. We cover our faces and bodies with toxic products in the hope to look closer to the social standard of beauty. As women, it's even worse, as we need to diet and exercise to remove the natural shape of our bodies to look as thin as possible.

Does any of this really matter?

It's been five years since I started simplifying my life now. Ironically, it all started with looks. The image I was projecting of myself through my looks didn't match with who I thought I was inside.

The simplicity journey: looks

I thought myself as an intelligent and curious individual, interested by literature, music and video games, happy to broach philosophical subjects and question life and the world.

My looks - studied uniforms of skirt or pants with tailored shirts, long hair, lots of make-up & jewellery and high heels, projected the image of a posh city girl unable to lift boxes at PR events and more interested in the latest issue of Cosmopolitan than Umberto Eco's theories about translation and languages.

I could say a lot about how prejudiced women are according to their looks, but that's not today's topic.
I started my simplicity journey questioning my looks and why they were so much at odds with the way I saw myself inside. Hence I started a huge wardrobe editing and style searching process --> what outfits should I wear to look the way I am inside?

From looks to soul searching

If you have been following this blog of a while (or perused the archives when you discovered the Nife), you have probably realized how this simplicity journey evolved from this looks starting point.

Little by little, I got less interested in how to express my identity through how I look, and more interested in what that identity is, and how my actions (rather than looks) reflect who I want to be. I started with questions like: "can I really call myself a minimalist if I own less than 50 items of clothing but replace half of them every year? " "I want to be seen as interesting and curious about the things of life, but Monsieur says i'm talking about clothes all the time, is that really the kind of conversations I want to have?"

Thus, wardrobe editing and luxurious minimalist designs have been replaced by TED talks, personality tests, psychology MOOCs and soul-searching week-ends of meditation and dragon slaughter on the PS4.

Simplicity and looks now

I found so many things through all this journey. Yes, I found that oxfords are my favourite type of shoes, that I prefer warm colors over cold ones, that I like black pairs of pants best and that jewellery with mineral stones make me happy.
But I also realized that none of this defines who I am. This is what I learned these past 5 years:

  • There will always be people prejudiced about who I am based on how I look. Sometimes simply because I am a woman.
  • What I do matters more than how I look in the way I see myself. If I want to feel in harmony with who I am inside, what I spend my time on matters more than what outfit I choose to wear in the morning
  • We do spend an awful lot of time and money on looks. And simplifying wardrobes doesn't improve any of this if I end up spending time on wishlists, donation bags and planning expensive purchases.
  • There are so many things I'd rather be doing with my time and money. Even if it means my looks are less 'perfect', less in line with what society expects of a woman.

This article about toxic cosmetics reminded me how much all of us sacrifice for looks. The simple pleasures of food when we diet to lose some weight that has all natural right to sit on our hips and bottom. Our health as we use toxic cosmetics daily on our skin. Our self esteem as we beat ourselves about not looking the way we'd like. Our time, money and energy.

A few months ago, I have realized that if I don't put make-up on in the morning, I have 10 extra minutes to write fiction. I have thought about what matters to me, what I want to leave behind. I have stopped wearing make-up.

Well, this article turned out more philosophical than initially intended. Sometimes, I realize just how much I have progressed in my own journey when I write these blog posts. How do you guys feel about all this? Did your simplicity journey change the way to see your own body? Did it change the importance of looks in your life?


  1. I'm so glad that you're focusing on what's important to you! I need to start reading your fiction site more often, the little bit that I've read I've really enjoyed.
    And completely agree, I feel like simplicity tends to start out at the superficial level and then progress to the underlying issues (if we knew what those underlying issues were to begin with, we wouldn't be in this situation in the first place, now would we?).
    I personally still enjoy clothes and makeup, and find pleasure and creativity in them so I don't think that's ever going to go away. It certainly plays a smaller part in my life now though than it used to, and I don't think it's for everybody. I generally subscribe to the rule that if it makes you happy and improves your life, go for it! If it doesn't add anything, it's better to get rid of it :)

    1. Thanks Erin! My fiction blog is in French but if you feel like taking a look anyway, please do :)
      I think you are totally right, if we were aware of the underlying issues from the start we may have never needed to begin the journey to start with. That's an interesting one, although I wonder if I would have gone through all that if I'd known all the life questioning that would ensure (I regret nothing, for sure!)
      I agree with you, the point is that it makes you happy and improves your life in some ways. I'm not advocating for everyone to stop wearing make-up if that's what they like. It's a question of motivations I guess? Wearing make-up for fun and creativity isn't the same as trying to conform to a social image without ever asking if that's the way we want to be (if this makes any sense at all)

  2. I am with you on those four lessons. And about the time spent on putting makeup on, there was an excellent article (in Glamour magazine, of all places) a couple years ago about how much time women spend on (lose to) grooming vs men simply because of society's expectations, and marketing. I also still enjoy clothes and makeup, but like with Erin above, they are less a part of how I spend my time and energy than when I was younger. A lot of 'simple living/minimalism' blogs these days do seem to keep pushing materialism in a weird way, so thank you for making your blog about more than the superficial stuff.

    Lastly, in terms of skincare products and not makeup, I have found a good range of all-natural products through Credo, a San-Francisco based boutique. They were founded by former Sephora executive who aims to bring natural products more to the mainstream market - clearly there is a business case for this but personally I just appreciate the availability of such products, so at least I don't feel as bad about what I put on my body: http://www.7x7.com/culture/2015-hot-20-shashi-batra-organic-beauty-guru

    1. Ah, true, it's curious that Glamour, of all magazines, would publish an article about that. But it's very true! How much time, energy and money do we women spend grooming ourselves. And for what? Again, I'm not saying we should stop taking care of ourselves, it's a questions of intention and purpose I guess. I still take good care of my body, health and general grooming, but this is no longer taking me too much energy. The French sociologist and researcher Mona Chollet wrote a whole book about how women, supposedly more free since 1968 and all ensuing social changes are still chained by these physical constraints, spending much of their hard-earned money on clothes and make-up.

      Thanks for the natural beauty tip! San Francisco isn't quite next door for me, but there are similar small brands and natural here in Paris. I've come to look at the ingredient list now for beauty products as I do for food. After all, we do put them on our skin ever day too.

  3. 100% agree on the majority of cosmetics being a waste of time and money. I wouldn't worry too much about the "toxic" ingredients. I'm a scientist who works next to a lab that does that sort of toxic ingredient research. They get paid by rival companies to basically drown worms in an over-concentration on the ingredient. If the worm lives shorter, which it would even if you just drowned it in water, the ingredient becomes "toxic" in the literature. I assume that a lot of the ingredients in the study are labelled as toxic from similar studies. So don't worry! Your serum is likely not going to hurt you, but it is most likely a waste of time and money. This is because the benefits of ingredients are also tested in similar pseudo-studies.

    But I am also going makeup-free and only doing the bare minimum of hygiene that men are also expected to do (face wash and moisturiser). Agree on that and bravo to you for taking that step! : )

    1. thanks for the scientist perspective on the "toxic" products, it's a bit reassuring I guess. Although I still prefer to choose what to put on my skin. Even if ingredients are not as toxic in real life as they may seem in a lab, I've seen many beauty bloggers complaining about allergies and skin issues, and I start wondering how this might be linked to the variety and quantity of products they put on their skin (of course, there can be no certitude, but I prefer to go simple on my own skin anyway)

      I'm happy to hear i'm not the only one who took this make-up free step. Like you, I do pretty much the same as is expected of men, now that you mention it (apart from the nail polish, I still indulge in this sometimes)

  4. I agree, bravo on the make-up! I too gave it up a while back. And when I was around your age (a long time ago!) I abandoned shoes with heels, and dresses/skirts. I've never dyed my hair, and don't wear jewellery . I'd like to think these decisions to save time for more intellectual things, but it was also practical, and a style statement. It certainly saved an enormous amount of time, not only in applying make-up etc, but also in researching it, reading about it, buying it… Some of the time has been used to focus on the style elements I've chosen to make my own; the perfect brogues, the best jeans and blazers, may favourite scarves, gloves and socks. And I love scented body products! However I'd like to think that at least some of that time was also used in more worthwhile activities, such as reading, work, and hobbies.
    Do keep us posted on your journey, and the next steps that you take!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, it does sound pretty similar as what I'm doing now. I also gave up impractical clothing in general (which encompasses high heels and most dresses/skirts in my case too). After spending 3 years style searching, I do have some preferences around which I construct this kind of uniform (simple V neck tee, oxfords, mineral stone jewellery...). It's a gain of time now, I know what I like to wear and spend very little time choosing an outfit in the morning. I wonder if it was Steve Jobs, or Barack Obama maybe? who explained he was wearing the same thing every day to avoid spending energy on the decision making of the outfit in the morning.

      I'm wondering about dying hair, actually. I haven't dyed my hair in ages (since my teenage years) and I intent to keep it that way, but I don't have grey hair yet. Many older women around me say that I may change my mind once I start havinf white strands in my hair. Social pressure I guess? We'll see when the time comes!

    2. I'm 31 with a few white hairs, and those hairs are by far my favorite. Free highlights! So cool!

  5. I’ve gone through a similar process, although I don’t go make up free (yet) and still enjoy the occasional ‘glamming up’ for a special event. But I have thoroughly simplified my daily make up routine, my body care routine, my hair style (no more colouring) and my wardrobe. All with a focus on easy maintenance (with some carefully thought-through exceptions) and earth-friendliness (think of all the chemicals we flush down the sink daily!). It’s not like I spend the extra time on better pursuits necessarily, but I do feel like I’m wasting less time now on things that hold no value for me thereby becoming ‘chores’. Like, when I handwash my wool sweaters for summer storage, it takes time but I don’t mind because I made a conscious decision to purchase real wool as opposed to synthetics that are easier to launder. Whereas I did mind weekly ironing cheap shirts just because it had to be done, I had to look ‘presentable’.
    If we could all just do a little less of what we think is expected of us and a little more of what truly brings us joy and gives us meaning, I think the world would be a better place indeed.

    1. It's interesting how many people who simplify their routine tend to do so for practical reasons (easy maintenance) and/or ethical reasons (environment friendly etc.). I wonder if those topics get more pregnant as we start to wonder about our place on Earth through the simplicity journey. I see what you mean about chores that are choices. I feel the same about the handwashing clothes I have. Although I tend to mitigate those purcahse with easier to maintain clothes toa void spending too much time on these things :)

      "If we could all just do a little less of what we think is expected of us and a little more of what truly brings us joy and gives us meaning, I think the world would be a better place indeed." --> totally agree! Thanks Liesbeth!

  6. I haven't read your blog in a while and have missed it! You evoke provocative thinking and radical self-assessment. Thank you! It is extremely difficult for me as an American woman to move past the focus on my appearance in order to explore my identity. I appreciate your transparen and openness. I have much to think about and explore.