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Illustration of a beauty-product junkie

Confessions of a Beauty-Product Junkie

Those potions, lotions, soaps, and shampoos I lavish on myself can be a toxic brew, but I can't live without them. Well, maybe I don't have to.

by Sarah Mahoney

Every time a woman buys a beauty product, cosmetics genius Charles Revson famously said, she's buying hope in a bottle. And although I am by nature a skeptic, once inside a drugstore I somehow lose my head.

For most of my adult life, I've feigned a natural look. It goes with my earth-friendly lifestyle. I recycle; I keep the thermostat at 68; I compost.

Yet on any given morning, I don't even switch on the coffee pot until I've dabbled in at least 16 different personal care products. You're rolling your eyes, but I'm not that unusual: A survey by the Environmental Working Group found that the average woman uses 12 products per day, and the average man 6. One woman in four uses at least 15.

In my case, each product was purchased with the belief that while it wouldn't exactly change my life, it would somehow make it better. At the moment I lay down my money, I actually believe that I will exude the serenity that comes from aromatherapy, that my eyes will have oomph, that I'll sport an allover radiance to go with my boundless hope. Blame it on the seventies: I grew up in a decade that celebrated bright blue toenails and pale orange lips. Over the years, I've developed an almost personal relationship with these products. I can close my eyes and visualize the rainbow of nail colors I have loved: Saturday Night Red, Fire and Ice, Cherries in the Snow.

I still fall for these things, even though many of them are swathed in wasteful packaging or ooze chemicals that are harmful to the environment. From time to time, the guilty reality hits me: I am part of the problem. There are mounds of evidence in my linen closet: half-used lipsticks, impossible-to-apply liquid eyeliners, and bars of soap that, on second thought, smell more like cats than flowers.

My pangs of conscience have become sharper over the past year, as my 13-year-old daughter proves that my passion for Rite-Aid spans the generations. Teens and tweens make up more than one third of the personal care market, reports Datamonitor. Add in the rest of us, and Americans collectively spend $26 billion on toiletries and beauty products, a number that is expected to climb to $30 billion in 2008. (Pretty amazing, when you consider that the total gross domestic product of Bolivia is in the $20 billion range.)

So many women buy lipstick to cheer themselves up that some economists pay close attention to what's come to be known as the Leading Lipstick Indicator: Greater lipstick sales indicate a looming recession. (Since we're too worried about money to splurge on big things, the theory goes, we stock up on VaVaVaBloom or Black Honey.) In the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, lipstick sales doubled. The average American woman consumes so much lipstick, in fact, that she inadvertently ingests more than four pounds of it over her lifetime, according to some industry estimates.

While I don't need these products (does anybody?), it's no accident that I want them. In 2002, L'Oréal alone spent more than $1.2 billion on advertising in the United States. Marketing promises only feed my addiction. My habit is personal grooming. So what I want to know is this: Can I act like a princess in the privacy of my own bathroom and still have a clear conscience? Can I have it both ways?

Check out your favorite brands using the Environmental Working Group's product guide:

Chemicals to avoid in everything from shampoo to eye shadow to sunscreens are explained by The Green Guide, at

Deciphering manufacturers labeling claims is tough. Get help at The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels at

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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Illustration: Craig Larotonda

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council