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Burt's Bees takes on cosmetics

The Burt's Bees new ad campaign, fashioned by Pool advertising in New York, raises some magnificently sexy issues that are better than a dog-eared copy of some Danielle Steele paperback.

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Burt's Bees advertisement

Good for Burt’s Bees who has decided to "show one ingredient vs. another ingredient," rather than attacking other brands.

I decided to look up all of Burt’s Bees products versus Aveda products (now owned by Estee Lauder) to see what the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database revealed. Burt’s Bees had 72 products rated low health concern, although a goodly number were of moderate concern. Aveda products -- which are solely advertised as plant-based aroma therapy and whose very expensive products line our bathroom rack -- miserably failed with only two products of low concern. Now there's an ingredient vs. ingredient offensive.

Contrary to Mr. Bailey's assertions, personal care products are the least regulated FDA products on the market and that deal was sealed in a 1973 trade-off between partial labeling and an industry self-regulatory mechanism called Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Burt's Bees is doing us a favor because as Stacy Malkan noted, it will create a seed of doubt in consumer’s heads and prompt them to ask some questions -- hard ones.

The real villains here are the FDA, which has utterly failed to protect the American public from barely tested personal care products -- and the freshly PR'd Personal Care Products Council and many of its members who continue to put profits before consumers. In its defense, FDA doesn't have the regulatory authority to properly regulate these products so let’s throw Congress into that boiling cauldron of water as well.

Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face (the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry) revealed some truly horrifying stories, including the American Cancer Society’s joint program with the PCPC called Look Good…. Feel Good in which women with cancer are plied with up to 25 cosmetics (probably untested) to help them feel better. And they probably do feel a tad better but I found this feel-good gesture obscene, particularly since the ACS will not address the issues related to avoiding cancer (which tighter toxics regulation could help accomplish).

Ms. Malkan also went undercover for the 2006 industry Health & Beauty America conference where, at the regulatory panel, she heard that people are sick because they have horrible diets and that the people behind the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics were run by "the bored and the lonely with Internet connections" which I found amusing. More telling, she heard from Mr. Bailey about the new Consumer Commitment Code, which includes a website that will "enable consumers to search for cosmetic ingredients and get a message about safety." (p. 114, Not Just a Pretty Face). Now there’s a trusted source of consumer information! Go Burt’s Bees! Maybe Clorox will help them tame the pretty council.

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Great article - clear we need more regulation of cosmetics - might even want to keep lead out of lipstick.

When I went to the Skin Deep database, my eyes were drawn to their YouTube video <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN5IiaOaIt8">What is 'Fragrance?'</a>

Why? I have dramatic allergies, generally to scented things - hand lotions are the worst, plus perfume, shampoo, scented candles, and those auto-smellifiers in every public bathroom.

What happens? First, I become irritable, then I get a piercing headache... and finally I realize why I was snipping at my coworker three minutes ago. Oops. Sorry about that, Mark. Someone's using hand lotion again.

I doubt "irritable Jannes" are part of the database "safety concerns." But - cause and effect are. As an analytical person, I keep thinking that if I could identify what sets me off, maybe I could tell my coworkers and roommates and visitors what to avoid when I'm around. So far, "fragrance" is as close as I can get.

FDA, I'd love some help. (With fast action, it can be part of an "economic stimulus package" creating a dramatic increase in my employee productivity! Side benefit: long term reductions in health care costs.)

Burt's Bees is raising good issues & making good business sense with this campaign. Another of the ridiculously inadequate aspects of FDA's oversight of the multi-billion dollar personal care product industry is that the term "natural" has no legal meaning for cosmetics. Clearly this hurts companies like Burt's Bees who are (or at least appear to be) marketing products made from safer, natural ingredients.

It's also completely unacceptable that claims like "gentle" and "safe" on products like baby washes, baby shampoos, and baby lotions are not required to be substantiated in any way. Instead, they're just as likely to be found on a bottle that contains chemical ingredients that are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins!

Consumers deserve better and let's hope Burt's Bees continues to raise the visibility of this issue.

Great article Heidi!

It seems to me that it shouldn't be that hard to create a division in the cosmetics industry much the way the food industry has with Organic products. Having a classification for cosmetics, along with a set of standards and some form of oversight committee, gives consumers the knowledge of what they're using, and thus the power to change our environment for the better.

Thanks for the reminder that we need to do our own research with respect to the safety of skin care products. Disappointing that Aveda did not receive better scores. Even more disappointing that Aveeno Baby does animal testing.

Nice commentary. Perhaps Burt's will help us move away from the misguided mode of Race for the Cure (for cancer) and toward the Race for the Cause. Once Users (of cosmetics and PCPs) see what's in the products they use, perhaps it will be easier for them to make the hard choices Siegelbam describes.

Heidi - thanks for timely article and Burt's efforts (apparently have to register to access the ingredient vs. ingredient site).
Along with "safe" and "gentle" and "natural" (mentioned by other commenters), I just read that "hypoallergenic" can also be misleading. I am really learning my "ingredients" thanks to sources you mentioned. Hopefully my kids will benefit from my efforts!

Another good read related to this topic is Mark Schapiro's book, "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products". Certainly demonstrates that most of the cosmetic industry does not have consumer health as any priority.

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