The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to Supporting Family, Friends, Neighbors -- or Yourself

The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to Supporting Family, Friends, Neighbors -- or Yourself

by Leslie Garrett

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Sure, there are people who chain themselves to old-growth trees, raise their one child diaper-free, and make their own soap. The Virtuous Consumer is for the rest of us, struggling to make choices that are better for the planet — and for us. Leslie Garrett has created a comprehensive reference guide that — like a smart, funny, and eco-conscious friend


Sure, there are people who chain themselves to old-growth trees, raise their one child diaper-free, and make their own soap. The Virtuous Consumer is for the rest of us, struggling to make choices that are better for the planet — and for us. Leslie Garrett has created a comprehensive reference guide that — like a smart, funny, and eco-conscious friend — will steer you toward ethical purchases for everything from lipstick to cars, kids' toys to a new mattress. The Virtuous Consumer is your key to shopping consciously and creating a simpler, greener lifestyle.

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The Virtuous Consumer

Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World

By Leslie Garrett

New World Library

Copyright © 2007 Leslie Garrett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-810-1


Speaking Personally ...

What the virtuous consumer says about:

The flesh

Lotions, potions, and ugly notions

The blood

Feminine hygiene that doesn't shame Mother Nature

The pleasure

Sex toys that please the planet

The planning

Earth-friendly birth control

You don't have to signal a social conscience by looking like a frump. Lace knickers won't hasten the holocaust, you can ban the bomb in a feather boa just as well as without, and a mild interest in the length of hemlines doesn't necessarily disqualify you from reading Das Kapital and agreeing with every word. Elizabeth Bibesco

Cosmetic Perjury

I strode onto the schoolyard, eyelids smeared with my mother's cast-off iridescent blue eyeshadow and my lips gleaming with Maybelline Kissing Potion (need I mention it was 1977?). I was all of 13 years old and probably looked ridiculous. But to my own eyes, I was transformed.

And so began my love affair with makeup. Cover Girl foundation hid my vexing freckles, Maybelline Great Lash made my small eyes suddenly wider, and just-the-right-shade of lipstick made those years of braces suddenly worthwhile.

I still enjoy applying makeup. Although I don't wear a lot, what I do wear feels good — I'm me, but brighter. As though I actually had a good night's sleep, which I haven't in close to a decade.

From kohl-rimmed eyes in the first century to lead paint during the Italian Renaissance, cosmetics and skin-care products have long been used to reflect not just style but status. These days it's the rare woman (or man) who doesn't use some form of cosmetic product, whether hair dye, teeth-whitening toothpaste, or a swipe of lipstick.

And while the industry as a whole is often demonized for contributing to esteem issues in girls and women, we consumers have to assume at least part of the responsibility. After all, we buy the stuff. Then, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), we apply an average of nine products to our bodies every day. One in four of us applies fifteen products daily. (Gulp.)

What's the Controversy?

Behind those picture-perfect models and promises of physical perfection is a frightening secret that the personal care industry would just as soon keep buried: 89 percent of cosmetics contain one or more untested ingredients. That's right, 89 percent. What this means is that the safety of the stuff we're smearing on our faces and slathering on our bodies is pretty much a crapshoot. Maybe it's OK, maybe it's not. The FDA simply doesn't assess the safety or regulate the use of chemicals in personal care products — chemicals that we put into our bodies and often wash down the drain into our wastewater.

But we're not eating them, you say, rolling your eyes at me the way my eight-year-old does, only putting them on our bodies. Maybe so, but Stacy Malkan, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (and a cosmetic lover herself!) reminds us that at-the-end-of-their-rope smokers put nicotine patches on their bodies too. "It's a very direct path to distribute chemicals to our bloodstream," she points out.

What chemicals? you query, wondering what, exactly, might be working its way into your bloodstream at this very moment. From mercury (rare but still found in cosmetics) to formaldehyde to petroleum distillate to lead acetate, many cosmetics play hostess to a chemical orgy. And moms-to-be, listen up: Many of these harmful or untested chemicals cross the placenta, says Jane Houlihan, vice president of research at the EWG.

It can't possibly be as bad as all that, you say. After all, this stuff couldn't be on the shelves if it was unsafe, could it? Well, yes, it could. You've just come face-to-face with an ugly truth. Most consumers do believe these products have been safety tested, Houlihan says. Yet plenty of what we smear on our faces and bodies uses chemicals known to cause, or strongly suspected to cause, cancer, mutation, or birth defects. Kinda gives new meaning to "if looks could kill," doesn't it?

But, the cosmetics industry purrs, the chemicals appear in these products in such teensy-weensy amounts. Maybe they do, though Houlihan notes that some of these ingredients often make up 10 to 20 percent of the base ingredients. Furthermore, as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' Stacy Malkan points out, we're using a number of these products — each and every day — in combination with other chemicals and in long, repeated exposures. Yet tests on ingredients don't mimic the way in which they're being used. The EWG explains it this way: "The personal care product industry's self-policing safety panel, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, approaches each safety assessment as if consumers are exposed to just one chemical at a time ..." Ever read a cosmetics label that listed one ingredient? "... and as if personal care products are the only source of exposure for each chemical considered."

What the Hell Were They Thinking?

During the Italian Renaissance, Aqua Toffana was a popular "complexion aid" named for its creator, Signora Toffana. Her rich clients were told to apply the arsenic-based makeup when their husbands were around. Roughly six hundred dead husbands later, Toffana was sent to prison and later executed.

Cosmetic Counter Intelligence

Jane Houlihan says we "can't shop our way out of all exposure, but can certainly reduce exposure," particularly to what research has revealed to be the most harmful and/or ubiquitous ingredients:

Phthalates. Phthalates are a family of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which, for those without a PhD in biochemistry, means they play fast and loose with the glands secreting our hormones and can be toxic to reproduction in both men and women. They've also been implicated in liver, kidney, and lung damage. They're a commonly used solvent in nail polish, deodorant, fragrances, hair products, and lotions — look for them under such chemical code names as diethyl phthalate (DEP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

Parabens. These chemicals are widely used as preservatives in such cosmetics as moisturizers, shampoos and conditioners, foundations, skin creams, deodorants, even baby lotions and other products for infants. They've been found in samples of breast tumors, and they mimic estrogen — bad news, since increased exposure to estrogen over a lifetime is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. What's more, parabens are another of the endocrine-disrupting group of chemicals. I'm closing in on menopause and, believe me, my hormones don't need any more messing with (just ask my husband). Parabens are easy to spot with monikers that sound like some bizarre quadrangle of evil: methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, and propyl-.

Coal tar. Yep, that's right. That gorgeous shade of chestnut hair is the result of coal tar. All together now: Ewwww! The European Union (EU) banned this strongly suspected carcinogen from cosmetics in 2004 but unwitting North Americans can still find it in hair dyes, shampoos, and cosmetics, generally listed as "FD&C" or "D&C" colors.

Petrolatum. It is banned for use in cosmetics in the EU due to its link to cancer and other health problems. On this side of the pond, the stuff is still everywhere — makeup, lotions, hair removers, and more.

Lead. While it's illegal to use lead shot to kill birds, lead acetate — banned in cosmetics in the EU — is commonly included in products used to disguise our gray hair, though it's comforting to know that our ducks and geese are safe from this carcinogen and hormone disruptor. The FDA requires a product containing lead acetate to include a warning (and I paraphrase here) that it isn't to be used near open wounds or to color mustaches. Oh yeah, and wash hands thoroughly after use. Now, how badly did you want to dye your hair again?

And guess what, ladies? That's only the shortlist. To see what I mean, log on to the Skin Deep website ( Not for the faint of heart, this site offers up the largest existing resource for determining what we're putting on our skin, in our hair, and on our teeth. When I first checked it out, I learned that my then-favorite foundation had "areas of health concern that include cancer, penetration enhancers" (I wondered, briefly, if this meant it might boost my sex appeal — apparently not), "unstudied ingredients, harmful impurities, allergies and other concerns." Perhaps your moisturizer lists ingredients "classified as toxic; immune system toxicants; estrogenic chemicals and other endocrine disruptors, ..." as my friend's former favorite does.

What's Up?

What the Environmental Working Group did to create its Skin Deep database is quite remarkable. Over a six-month period, the group examined more than ten thousand products available for sale. From this, it developed an online rating system that ranks the products in terms of safety (based on ingredients that are poorly studied, not studied at all, or known to pose potentially serious health risks). Ratings from zero to 10 were assigned to each product. Consumers can key in their favorite products and get their (color-coded!) rating — and more than one million people log on each month. Then, generally, comes panic and hyperventilating.

Jane Houlihan suggests that at this point you take a deep breath. The analysis is by no means definitive. While few individual ingredients pose excessive risks, most people use many products in the course of a day, so it may be that these risks are adding up. Skin Deep enables people to navigate the known concerns, explains Houlihan, who doesn't want us alarmed but does want us concerned. Concerned enough to stop using products with potentially toxic ingredients and concerned enough to demand action.

Mineral makeup is currently being hyped as the new best thing. While some do contain almost exclusively such minerals as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and mica, others also contain the same harmful chemicals as conventional makeup. And while the minerals don't harm makeup users (and indeed can offer some UV protection), the mining and production of them can wreak environmental havoc. Mineral makeups sound another cautionary note, however. Health concerns have arisen due to the size of particles in some cosmetics, which can be inadvertently inhaled.

What Can You Do?

Start reading ingredients labels. As a general rule, if you'd lose a spelling bee upon being presented with the words you see listed, take a pass. And those claims of "natural," "hypo-allergenic," and "nontoxic"? As meaningless as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Experts urge mineral makeup users to stick to products that have a particle size of 7 microns or more — including such brands as i.d. bareminerals.

Avoid synthetic fragrances as well (often simply listed as "fragrance" on the label). Most contain phthalates. Even "fragrance-free" products pose a problem, as they contain a fragrance to mask the chemical fragrance of the product (see why my head is hurting these days?).

Some people give this piece of advice: If you wouldn't eat it, don't put it on your skin. While I'm not in the habit of eating makeup whatever the ingredients (though, apparently, the average lipstick wearer ingests about two pounds of the stuff in her lifetime, according to the UK's Women's Environmental Network), I now lean toward ingredients that sound as though I could eat them — if I wanted to. Ingredients such as witch hazel, olive oil, nutmeg powder ... you get the idea.

And finally, at least consider this: You probably don't need much of what you invite into the bathroom. Now, now, wait a minute. I'm not suggesting you throw the baby out with the bathwater — just the bathwater, if it's full of toxic bubbles and phthalate-filled scents. Give serious thought to how much of this stuff you really need. By all means, keep what you love, but find less toxic versions. You might just find that you can pare down your beauty regimen to a level that's better for you and the planet. And think about this from Stacy Malkan: If beauty manufacturers can really create products that make us look ten years younger, why can't they take the carcinogens out? It's a good question to ask cosmetics companies, which, by the way, Jane Houlihan suggests you do. "People read those emails and letters," she says.

What you do decide to purchase, look for in containers that are recycled or recyclable and come with a minimum of packaging in order to reduce what's tossed. One estimate notes that as much as 50 percent of the cost of a bottle of perfume is accounted for in its advertising and packaging. Choose glass containers over plastic, and "better" plastics over the worst offender, polyvinyl chloride or PVC (recognizable by the number 3 in a triangle). You'll find that many organic or natural cosmetics give thought to this anyway, making your choices even easier.

Brands I Love

We are unable to control the chemicals we're exposed to in many areas of our lives. This isn't one of them. Get chemicals out of your personal care regime, and that goes double if you're pregnant or using products on an infant or young child. Find and support companies you can trust. Herewith are some recommended faves:

Aubrey Organics. An old-timer in the world of healthier cosmetics, Aubrey Organics has been around since 1969. Founded by Aubrey Hampton, who still creates the formulations, Aubrey Organics is widely available and widely respected. I rely on Lumessence to keep my crow's feet in check and Aubrey Organics sunscreen to prevent any more.

Avalon. Choose from products under its Avalon Organics and Alba brands for all your beauty wants. I wake up with Alba bath and shower gel and drift off to sleep drenched in Avalon Organics CoQ10 night cream.

Aveda. With a dedication to both eco-friendly ingredients and packaging and an insistence on fair trade principles in procuring such ingredients, Aveda is a feel-good, look-good option. The chamomile shampoo makes me salivate like some sort of Pavlovian dog, it smells so good. And it keeps my highlights (from an Aveda salon) looking fresh and natural.

Burt's Bees. Lots of products, easy to find, and quite affordably priced. Burt's Bees Citrus Facial Scrub keeps my skin from looking dull (though it gets a finger wag from the Environmental Working Group for including fragrance). Frankly, the smell is a bit off-putting to me, but if you like nutmeg, you might not mind it. My girls and I also like the raspberry lip balm.

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap. A friend raved so I gave it a try. Utilitarian, versatile bar and liquid soaps (choose from hemp, tea-tree, and baby, among others) for no-nonsense types. This is one company with a reputation that's squeaky clean — the soaps are certified organic, fair trade, and processed by ecological methods. Bottles are made from 100 percent consumer recycled (PET) plastic and wrappers are 10 percent hempflax/90 percent postconsumer recycled paper. And to top it all off, purchasing their soaps won't clean out your wallet.

Dr. Hauschka. The good doctor has a reputation for products that are not only safe, they work. They're not cheap, though they'd be comparable with some department store brands. I love the mascara — the only nonwaterproof brand I've ever tried that keeps curled lashes curled.

Ecco Bella. Another widely available, affordable option with a wide range of products. I know someone who swears by the Organic Dark Chocolate Mask (it even contains extract of marshmallow), though I suspect I might want to sit with it in front of a roaring fire.

Jason. The granddaddy of natural skin care, this company started in 1959. Lots of skin care, bath stuff, shampoos, and deodorants. The lavender deodorant keeps my armpits smelling garden fresh even after a sweaty workout. No kidding!

Kiss My Face. An easy-to-find and very affordable line of mostly skin-care products, though they do have some makeup and the occasional home-care product. I've discovered the oversized bar of olive oil soap cleans without drying my "maturing" (read: getting old and wrinkled) skin.


Excerpted from The Virtuous Consumer by Leslie Garrett. Copyright © 2007 Leslie Garrett. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist, author, and editor. Her work has appeared in Chatelaine, Today's Parent, and many other national publications. Her syndicated column “The Virtuous Consumer” runs monthly in City Parent, Big Apple Parent, About Families, and a number of other publications. She also writes “The Virtuous Traveler,” a syndicated column that appears on, the online newsletter of NBC travel editor Peter Greenberg. It was also syndicated in The Globe&Mail and SCENE magazine. Together, her columns reach close to two million readers. Leslie is the author of a dozen children's books, including a biography of the renowned environmentalist David Suzuki, and EarthSmart, a book for early readers on protecting the environment. She resides near Toronto, Canada, and her website is,

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