Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Tackling Beauty Products One Mutagenic Compounds at a Time: A Conversation with Montreal’s FemmeToxic

Written by Chloe Wilson, Intro by FemmeToxic's Elitza Mitropolitska

 

In 1991, a group of women who shared a breast cancer diagnosis, as well as the conviction that they were not being presented with complete information regarding the cause of their disease founded Breast Cancer Action Montreal (BCAM). Unlike most breast cancer organizations, BCAM takes a prevention-first approach to the disease. They work to educate the public about environmental health, the presence of toxicants in our bodies and environment and their connection to our long-term health. BCAM advocates for policies that support preventative measures and aims to create a resource sharing community of women who are passionate about erasing the disease from its roots.

 

In 2009 a group of BCAM interns created Femme Toxic, a subdivision of BCAM aimed specifically at youth, as younger people are more susceptible to environmental damage than adults; youth is also the time during which individuals form their decision-making patterns and habits that they likely keep for life. Among other things, BCAM seeks to deter young people from the media’s influence. It also aims to empower people to lead lifestyles less reliant on cosmetics and more reliant on manifesting their beauty through self-confidence and strength of character.

Judging from my own experience, true change is usually preceded by a shift in awareness. The more one learns, not only about the adverse health effects of some compounds, but also about the safe available alternatives, the more likely they are to adopt a less toxic lifestyle.

BCAM educates youth about the toxins in our environment and how they impact our health, especially those found in cosmetic products. They also offer safer alternatives.  Exposure to hormone-mimicking, carcinogenic, and mutagenic compounds during stages of rapid growth (especially pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence) can have detrimental effects later in life. Finally, BCAM aims to change the way Health Canada regulates and labels cosmetics, since it is important for people to know what exactly is in their products.

Chloe: What are some of Femme Toxic’s future goals as an organization?

Elitza: We certainly aim to continue with our work to raise awareness. We also hope to continue to encourage youth not to rely on cosmetics in order to feel beautiful. Our longer-term goal is to engage as many high schools and universities as possible, present in classes, [and] recruit students that are willing to spread the message in their own schools. The need to reach young people is crucial for the success of the safe cosmetics movement as a whole, as they will be the decision-makers of tomorrow. Furthermore, youth undergo rapid physical development, which makes them more vulnerable to environmental assaults. We work to protect the health of those who are here, as well as those who are yet to come.

Chloe: Apart from the website, how does Femme Toxic spread awareness about their mission and progress?

Elitza: Femme Toxic is especially active during the summer months. Aside from our regular events, we have been holding DIY sessions to teach people how to make their own creams, masks, and cleansers. Due to the local nature of these events, most of our campaigns involve radio announcements, putting up posters, and of course, social media. During the school year, we book presentations at various schools. The month of October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) is especially active not only for Femme Toxic, but for BCAM, and every other breast cancer organization for that matter.

Chloe: What kind of impact has Femme Toxic had on Canadian legislation?

Elitza: Changing legislation is perhaps our most ambitious goal. The government is rather slow in responding to such demands. Furthermore, this represents a highly contentious issue, with consumer health on one side and corporate profit-making on the other. We have been in contact with local members of parliament with varying degrees of success. What's important to note is that consumers can start making changes to the products they use regardless of whether there is legislative change or not; the power lies in each consumer's choices. But we certainly don't think that consumers should do hours of research and pay the premium price for the less toxic options. We firmly believe that the government must ensure that what is put on the market is thoroughly tested and proven safe.

Chloe: How does Canadian legislation compare to American legislation when it comes to cosmetics?

Elitza: To put this into perspective, there are about 85,000 chemicals in use today, with new ones being added to the market every year. The FDA has tested only 10 percent of those and has banned only ten compounds. Canadians rely on the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, which has banned or restricted 500 ingredients. The European Union has banned or restricted 1,100 chemicals. Although the number of compounds banned varies from one place to another, we all have to check the backs of bottles and make informed decisions about what gets into our bodies. It is unfortunate that so many people walk down store aisles, trusting that what's on the shelves is tested and innocuous.

Chloe: How can girls in the United States begin to make similar changes?

Elitza: Judging from my own experience, true change is usually preceded by a shift in awareness. The more one learns, not only about the adverse health effects of some compounds, but also about the safe available alternatives, the more likely they are to adopt a less toxic lifestyle. There is also a great misconception that safe alternatives are expensive and do not work as well. Be patient with yourself, because change does not happen overnight. It personally took me a few years to find and implement less toxic versions of the products I use. So take your time. Be patient with yourself. If you find a product that does not work for you, don't give up. The options are countless, and there is always something for everyone. Beware of “greenwashing”––claims such as “natural” or “pure” found on the fronts of bottles have no legal definitions and are used solely for marketing purposes.

A great resource that offers insight into the chemical makeup of cosmetic products is EWG Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, www.ewg.org/skindeep/. They provide ratings for numerous products currently on the market, giving consumers a wealth of information. Although EWG is not perfect, we certainly encourage everyone to use this amazing resource.

Chloe: What is Femme Toxic’s most current project?

Elitza: Currently, Femme Toxic is working on developing DIY sessions fine-tuned to accommodate the needs and capacities of different age groups. These workshops are fairly new to our project, but we enjoy them dearly and find them to be a very effective and eye-opening way of engaging the community in their quest for safe products.  Another project that we are particularly excited about is the launch of our blog, which anyone will be able to consult for tips, advice, and support on switching to safer products, and many, many, many of the easiest, most effective and cost-efficient DIY recipes! Stay tuned: The launch date is set for July 27th!

Chloe: What are some alternative, healthier products women can use to avoid harmful chemicals?

Elitza: Aah, my friends. This is my favorite part. There are, of course, products that contain little or no noxious ingredients, and it is always a good idea to support such companies (but again, beware of greenwashing). Another option is to look no further than your own kitchen and start making your own products! What I find most exciting about making your own cosmetics is that it is the perfect opportunity to only use the best (and safest) quality ingredients, while providing nourishment to your skin, hair, or nails. It is also a great way to save money––for example, since I started using canola oil to remove my makeup (read below), I have not bought a conventional makeup remover! Saving money by doing the right thing and taking prime care of our bodies is something we can all do. But remember: be patient with yourself and use the alternatives that you feel comfortable with.

Below are suggestions for easy, one-ingredient tricks you can use to lower your exposure to harmful chemicals from conventional products.

Microdermabrasion

Pour some baking soda into your palm and rub gently on your face. Works best after a shower, but you can exfoliate at any other time as well. As with any other exfoliator, don't overdo it, not more than twice a week. The results are excellent. You can also mix the baking soda with honey to form a paste and rub.

Makeup Remover

The secret is: canola oil. Flabbergasted? Don't be. Oils work just as well as any other makeup remover, even for waterproof mascara. They do not clog pores. Wash your face with a cleanser (as usual) after you have removed your makeup and there will be no oils left on your skin. You can also try this with sweet almond oil, or coconut oil, and I am sure the list goes on. I have even head of people doing this with olive oil, but it hurt my eyes. It may work for some, so don't be afraid to try it, at least once ;)).

Face and Hair Masks

Please, ladies, check your kitchen, and you will find products that you can put on your face right now. Here is a list of some of these:
•    Avocado (for hair and face)
•    Honey (facial masks, try not to put it on your hair)
•    Ground Almonds (can be added to masks, for example, a honey & ground almonds face mask)
•    Oatmeal (very soothing for the skin; can be added to masks, just like ground almonds)
•    Yogurt (facial mask)
•    Carrot
•    Oil: You can use this instead of night cream. It does NOT clog pores, is absolutely safe, and protects your skin wonderfully. (You can also use other oils – sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, chia oil, coconut oil, etc.)

Once you determine your allergies, do not be afraid to experiment with different combinations!

Good luck!!

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