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The Reasoning Behind My Public Battle With L'Oreal


The Reasoning Behind My Public Battle With L'Oreal

Jessica Assaf

I have been trying to educate the public about the unregulated beauty industry for almost ten years. Whenever I tell someone about the potentially harmful ingredients in our cosmetics and skincare, these are two typical responses: 1. There are way bigger problems in the world than the chemicals in your makeup.

2. Everything causes cancer. Why should I worry about my products?

At the same time, I have overheard the most popular beauty brands refer to their products as "just shit in a pretty pink box," referencing the fact that some of the most expensive brands at Sephora use the exact same ingredients as the cheapest drugstore brands. These are the companies, like L'Oreal, who have gone so far as to post dozens of pages on their websites, justifying the use of parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metals. These are the companies that already have safer formulations for countries with stricter standards, yet they continue to claim that there is absolutely no evidence suggesting these chemicals are unsafe.

Yes, there are bigger problems in the world than the ingredients in our beauty products. And yes, everything too many things cause cancer, and yes, everything is made up of chemicals. But the reality is that the European Union has banned or restricted 1,373 chemicals off the market, and the FDA has banned 11. Cosmetic legislation has remained untouched in the U.S. since 1938, when sixteen women became blind, and one died from a contaminated ingredient in Lash Lure, a popular eyelash product. There is no direct scientific evidence that proves any of these ingredients cause cancer, because the industry is self-regulated, so why would any company fund a study that would link their products to increased cancer rates? And there is no direct scientific data that proves any of these ingredients do not cause cancer, because there is no way to prove that a lifetime accumulated exposure to a single chemical is the cause of a certain health outcome. There is also no way to prove what happens when these chemicals interact in our bodies over time.

Companies like L'Oreal tell us that there is no health risk at a small enough dose, yet we are using these products every single day, for our entire life, on our body's biggest organ, and 60% of what we put on our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream. That is all the math I need to know to consider the safer alternatives.

Did you know that when a woman is diagnosed with cancer, her doctor recommends that she immediately shift her diet to only organic, whole foods, and eliminate parabens, hormone disruptors, and other chemicals from her daily routine? This standardized protocol suggests that these chemicals do play a role in the spread of the disease, and who knows if they could have contributed to the initial diagnosis. Why should we wait for cancer or infertility to make a change, when we can make a preventative change right now?

L'Oreal does not care about creating healthy products. Jane Iredale initially launched Iredale Mineral Cosmetics for women undergoing chemotherapy, as they are especially sensitive to chemical exposures. Adina Grigore founded S.W. Basics because every other skincare product gave her an allergic reaction. These are the companies that truly care about safety.

To be perfectly honest, I never thought I would go to business school. I thought I would be the crazy/annoying girl protesting on the street forever, committed to building a grassroots movement with the sole mission to improve cosmetic safety. When I was accepted to Harvard Business School as a senior at NYU (where I studied Public Health and Social Activism,) I came to the realization that if I could work with businesses that create the safest, highest-performing, most affordable products possible, I would be providing a solution to the conventional products on the market. I spent two years working for a skincare company in Brooklyn that makes products with five ingredients or less, without any preservatives, and they still have a two-year shelf life. I discovered that in many ways, consumerism is activism, as it is an opportunity to endorse companies with a real mission, companies that proudly advertise their products as "paraben-free" on the front label. These companies are growing fast, and they show that harsh preservatives and industrial chemicals are completely unnecessary. Just yesterday, the company I worked for launched in Target. I am convinced that one day, future generations will look back in shock over the fact that we used to think it was totally normal to rub endocrine disruptors and petroleum-derivatives on our skin every single day.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was casually checking my email before class and discovered a typical mass recruitment email from L'Oreal. Several people (including many HBS students and alumni,) have commented on my intentional decision to post the email and response on this blog, without even blurring out the sender's name. Here is my reasoning:

The only way the industry will change is if companies like L'Oreal feel threatened by increased consumer awareness. Based on my past experience (like convincing Johnson and Johnson to remove formaldehyde-releasing preservatives from their baby shampoo,) and the insight I have gathered from observing the transformation of other issues (like the food industry and climate change,) the most effective way to impact positive change is to call out a company and provide others with the tools to join the fight. In sharing Shadan's email address, I am enabling the maximum number of responses from fellow concerned consumers who wish to join me in pressuring the company to consider reformulation. I have no obligation to protect this recruiter's privacy, because my end goal is to protect the health of my generation from harmful and unnecessary chemical exposures. That is my one and only mission. And to those of you who feel I missed a major opportunity to join the L'Oreal team and inspire internal change, I have two responses for you:

1. I would never work for a company I don't believe in, when there are hundreds of other companies choosing to make safer, better products.

2. The last thing I want to do is spend my professional career trying to convince a corporation that the safety of their ingredients matter, when an entire portion of their website is dedicated to justifying the use of known or suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metals, a company that already makes safer products for countries with stricter regulations, yet knowingly pollutes U.S. bodies with the chemicals many companies boldly advertise their products as not containing.

Even Walmart has a "paraben-free shampoo" section on their website.

There are so many things we can't control. We can't control the quality of the air we breathe, or the water we drink. But we can control the products we rub onto our skin every single day. If we collectively decide to stop buying and defending and working for the companies that are continuously and consciously using and justifying (potentially) toxic chemicals, they will be forced to reevaluate the health standards they decided were acceptable for us. We control the market, and we can use our voices and our blogs and our social media accounts to demand safer products for ourselves and our families.

So if you agree that many companies, such as L'Oreal, can do better, email: or contact the company via Facebook: @LOrealparisUSA and join our efforts to #boycottparabens (and heavy metals, and endocrine disruptors, and phthalates, etc.) & #boycottLOreal in the meantime.