The Story of Cosmetics, fronted by consumer activist Annie Leonard, has attracted well over 350,000 views on YouTube, much to the annoyance of much of the mainstream cosmetic industry, which has dismissed it as a shockumentary. The message of The Story of Cosmetics is not a subtle one: your shampoo and lipstick are toxic and Big Beauty doesn’t care.

Annie Leonard makes some valid points. Many ingredients in cosmetics are irritants and some are potentially carcinogenic. We don’t know what effect the combination of these ingredients is or their cumulative effects (the average woman uses 12 personal care products a day). I 100% agree that buyers should be aware of them and at the very least make their purchase an informed one – that’s basically what the mission of Truth In Aging is. But while I applaud Annie Leonard’s agenda, I fear that The Story of Cosmetics shoots itself in the foot with crude generalities.

As we approach Breast Cancer Awareness month, I agree with Ms Leonard when she accuses some companies of pinkwashing. She cites Estee Lauder’s hypocritical campaigning while selling products with carcinogenic ingredients. She notes the greenwashers as well, pointing to Herbal Essences, grumbling  “since when was oil an herb”.

One of the key arguments that she makes is that the cosmetics industry is barely regulated. This is true (we have about written the vast difference between Canada, Europe and the US and banned ingredients for safety reasons) and I believe that the Safe Cosmetic Act is a good initiative to help remedy this.

However, I don’t think she has done the cause a service by bringing up lead in lipstick. The Story of Cosmetics implies that regulators haven’t addressed the issue. Actually, they have. This is a well-worn subject and the FDA has (for once) gone into it in some detail, measured the lead in a range of lipsticks and concluded that the quantities are safe.  The Story of Cosmetics needs to make a more credible and scientifically validated counterargument.

Similarly, there are other points that are sloppily made.  Annie Leonard tells us that she’s been tested and is contaminated by mercury, triclosan and flame retardants. I can’t think of too many beauty products that include flame retardants. They are an issue, certainly, but not one that can be thrown at the doors of Big Beauty.  I am sure that she does have mercury in her body, but more likely as a result of eating fish than wearing makeup. The FDA says “the use of mercury compounds as cosmetic ingredients is limited to eye area cosmetics at concentrations not exceeding 65 parts per million (0.0065 percent)”. Personally, I think it should be banned altogether, but this limitation hardly poses a major threat.

Annie Leonard is a welcome voice in the campaign for safer cosmetics, but her examples are too easy to shoot down and there are a host of others (phenoxyethanol anyone?) that might serve her better. You can watch The Story of Cosmetics below. What do you think?