Green City Diaries: Shear Innovation, Part 2

When we started our conversation last week about sustainable stylists in Detroit, I mentioned that Sebastian Jackson of the Social Club Grooming Company is considering several interrelated areas for improvement over time. One is the toxicity of the products he uses and sells. "There are real health benefits to this industry," he says, "but also the potential to do real harm. I don't want to hurt my clients."

Jen Willemsen concurs. She owns Curl Up & Dye, a non-toxic salon in the Cass Corridor, about a mile down the street from The Social Club. When she opened the business four years ago, she used and sold standard, high quality beauty products, without giving much thought to the potentially harmful effects they could have on her customers, her employees, and the environment. "Providing non-toxic products and thinking about sustainability were never goals when I started this business," she says. "Honestly, it's the last thing I ever thought I would take on. But at this point, I can't go back."

Jen started thinking seriously about cosmetics ingredients after some of her vegan customers asked her to provide professional quality products that weren't tested on animals. For the first time, she started really paying attention to the labels on the products she used every day. She started investigating the ingredients she found listed there: ("chemicals," as she puts it, "with repercussions"), and her research led her to some disturbing insights into the beauty industry.

For one, the Food and Drug Administration's oversight of the industry is scant, at best. From the FDA's website: "FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices. Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives."

But if the FDA doesn't test cosmetics ingredients for safety, who does? From the same site: "Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing." A self-regulating multi-billion dollar industry? Yikes. But surely the FDA at least recalls products that are proven to have hazardous ingredients? No, actually: "Recalls of cosmetics are voluntary actions taken by manufacturers or distributors to remove from the marketplace products that represent a hazard or gross deception, or that are somehow defective."

The fact is, when it comes to monitoring the safety of cosmetics and other beauty products, we're on our own. And the hazardous chemicals are there. According to the Environmental Working Group, a national environmental health research and advocacy organization, there are more than 500 products on U.S. shelves that include ingredients banned as toxic in Japan, Canada, and the EU.

It gets worse. (I hate to say that, but it does.) Think those products with labels that say "Natural" or "Organic" are better for you? Not necessarily. It's classic greenwashing: those words have no legal definitions in the cosmetics industry. Anyone could use them to describe any product. Jen makes the irony appallingly clear: "'Natural' used to mean non-toxic," she says. "Now it usually means...not natural." And while we're talking about words, how about "fragrance?" In a list of ingredients, that single word may mask "any of 3,163 different chemicals, none of which are required to be listed on labels," according to the EWG.

"This situation," as Jen puts it bluntly, "is overwhelmingly disappointing and upsetting. Cosmetics companies are poisoning us and we're paying them a lot to do it. From the cradle to the grave, we put products with toxic ingredients all over our bodies, every day, then rinse them down the drain, and the companies get rich off it. People have to start educating themselves about this."

The good news is that there are tools available to help you. Here's a great video, for instance, that concisely explores this complex problem and encourages concerted political action to resolve it. But impactful change starts at home, with individual decision making, and there is one tool out there, recommended by both Jen and Sebastian, that you can put to use right away. EWG's Skin Deep cosmetics database provides toxicity ratings for over 79,000 products and their individual ingredients, as well as a "data availability rating" that quantifies how much scientists know or don't know about an ingredient or product's toxicity.

You could also start by visiting your sustainable neighborhood salon, which is actually set to be transformed in the next couple weeks into a kind of general store, selling all kinds of non-toxic products for the home. Jen and company aren't interested in preaching to their customers ("We lead by example," she says. "After one or two visits, you'll pick up what we're putting down."), but they're happy to talk about what they do, why they do it, and the variety of products they have on hand. These include a few different national and international non-toxic brands, but also Cass Brand Organics, a popular in-house product line that Jen started producing in 2009.

Jen realized around that time that she wasn't able to provide non-toxic versions of all the products her customers wanted so, in true Detroit fashion, she started making her own: more innovation by another local stylist who's working hard, every day, to lead her industry toward a better future.

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. If you'd like a hand navigating the Skin Deep database or would just like to talk to somebody about the issues raised in Shear Innovation, stop by the library, located inside the Green Garage at 4444 Second Ave. Email us about this or any other sustainability-related topics at [email protected]

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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