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Ancilla Flemens

Professor Christina Holmes

WGSS 362A: Feminist Approaches to Environmentalism

Friday, November 15, 2017

Finding Environmental Justice in Our Skin Care Routines

“Environmental justice, environmental health, climate change, plastic pollution, and other movements stress that the human is “trans-corporeal,” inseparable from substances and materials that cross through bodies and environments. Thinking of oneself as utterly exposed to toxins and climates makes environmentalism something that is always as close as one's own skin…” — Stacy Alaimo

Every time you put lotion on, shower, put on makeup, and wash the product off your face you participate in a boundless system of global environmental pollution. Many of our skincare products are filled with synthetic chemicals, that when wiped and washed off our skin makes their way into the ocean. Ecologically toxic chemicals found in our daily-used products are contributing to the overall problem of species extinction and environmental destruction. The skincare and beauty care's manufacturing of synthetic-based products not only has a negative impact on the user themselves but on the ecosystem as well. More must be done to raise awareness of how dangerous our habitual skincare routine is to the ecosystem and one's personal well-being. The harm in skin products is something that many environmentally conscious women do not know but should know and advocate against. It is something that must be spoken about in the environmental justice movement when thinking about how certain communities, particularly in the United States, have become the dumping grounds for our nation's hazardous waste disposal and various toxins that pollute the land.

Products made from conventionally produced ingredients typically consisting of harsh chemicals have a negative environmental impact. Exactly what toxic chemicals do our skincare products contain? One of the most common has been microbeads which are tiny plastic particles that are made up from polyethylene. Once they have been used while face-washing or any washing of the body, microplastics travel through a city's wastewater system. They are advertised as an important factor for gentle skin exfoliation. Despite the rise of green advertising and the major influences green branding has had on climate change awareness in the advertising market, many of it is ambiguous—corporate interests are placed above the lives of those affected. The average person who uses artificial products from their bodywash down to their hand soap, “directly releases microplastics of a size suitable for ingestion by marine organisms without degradation.” As seen in various situations, the market behind the microbeads fail to mention the appalling damage they cause to the environment, “many organizations are making statements that are quite misleading in their efforts to portray themselves as environmentally concerned.” Eco-friendly, organic, green are all common labels used that are misleading and allows the consumer to be blind to what the product really consists of and does to their bodies and the environment. This is why studying natural ingredients and experimenting by creating your own products are important, one can find which structures are harmful to our bodies and our earth.

With “less than 15% of the world's biodiversity having been explored for biologically active molecules” reading resources like the Journal of Natural Products is helpful for knowing what is being used on your body. Finding journals and articles that explore various structures, the past of each chemical, and what they do and consist of not only helps in knowing which ingredients are best for your skin but which chemicals are harsh to the environment and in what way. If our body absorbs up to 60% of everything we put on our skin, the other 40% is going down the shower drain and contaminating the environment.  The manufacturing of chemical-heavy health and beauty products puts those chemicals, and many more, into the air and water, and even more go down your drain in your own home. A prime example is the chemical structure erythromycin, a pharmaceutically active substance; it is detected in water systems within the United States and in daily-used and well known products such as Clinique's acne solutions cleansing gel.  Parabens are used in conventionally produced health and beauty products as a preservative to extend the shelf life of products. Synthetic and mimicking your body's natural hormones, parabens can be harmful in that they have been found in breast cancers.  Artificial ingredients like parabens may help a product do one thing well, but there could be possible side effects that are being uncovered.

The personal is political, the connections between our personal experience and oppressive environmental structures are existent and must be acknowledged. A lot of times when discussing ideas that pertain to environmental feminism, many people have misconceptions of what it is. Each community has their own issues but “all social inequities are linked.” In Sistah Vegan, many of the writers explore the idea of being a part of a community that faces systematic oppression yet takes part in it as well by their diet choices and the way they live their lives. “Comprehensive systemic change will happen only if we are aware of these connections and work to bring an end to all inequalities—not just our favorites or the ones that most directly affect our part of the universe. No one is on the sidelines; by our actions or inactions, by our caring for our indifference, we are either part of the problem or part of the solution.” Every issue in the environment connects to another issue. Environmental damage involves water deficiencies and seasonal rain patterns; our quality of life directly impact on women and marginalized communities. As a person who advocates to fight injustices, it would not be fair to learn about the hazardous chemicals that affect one's body and our environment and to continue to utilize the products that consists of harmful ingredients and not inform others as well. While the issues that occur in our ecosystem have a lot to do with the white patriarchy and access to a clean environment is “created and institutionalized at the expense of people of color” and marginalized communities, it does not negate the fact that everyone plays a part in the hazardous waste landfills. Environmentally sustainable health and practices must be part of our anti racist and anti poverty praxis in our fight against the continued colonization of our ecosystem. Bioregionalism is based on “local control and decentralization; nonviolence; sustainable lifestyles; and on a revaluing and redefinition of come.” When exploring the value of women's work at home, the bioregional view turns towards ecology, deriving from the Greek word oikos for home. It is challenging to rethink and change routines, like what we use on our skin but it can happen. The first step in using skin care as a form of resistance is reexamining our skin care formalities and the products we use.

Some unnatural products may seem to work better with the first try yet over the long-term, the harmful chemicals that made one's skin feel smoother or cleared your face of acne may actually caused long term damage. During my research and eco experiment, I concluded that many natural products work better than their conventional counterparts because they do not contain unnecessary fillers or irritants whereas some unnatural products seemingly worked better during the first few times yet there were long-term effects; harmful chemicals that made my skin feel smoother or cleared my face of acne actually caused long term damage to myself and to my community, being that we are the recipients of environmental contaminants. Similar to the African-American women in Memphis, Tennessee, there are patterns of illnesses specific to the neighborhoods with high flood levels in Queens and the Greater New York area. Lack of resources and information, many do not realize they are contributing to their own community's issue.

When reflecting on my natural skincare eco experiment, I concluded that with research of skin being being more prominent than it was in the past, people must “incorporate the knowledge into their care.” With any issue, it is important to develop methods for fixation and solutions; from the information gained from my research I developed three main resolutions that anyone can take on: 1. To improve issues pertaining to environmental advertising call out brands that promote 100% natural” and if there are ingredients in the product that are commonly mistaken as “natural” but aren't point it out too. 2. To bring awareness on how women are hurting their bodies with the skincare and makeup products, host workshops in the institution or space that you are in, as the African proverb goes, each one teach one. Many of the products women use affect them in that they have chemicals that produce breast tumors, a cancer that impacts women massly. Biodiversity comes in the form of the wealth of knowledge on our own environment. Informing others about the intersectionality within environmental justices and how are habitual routine impact communities, particularly marginalized communities. 3. Taking on the initiative to create our own natural products and finding ways to make it economically friendly in our communities. Often we see an attempt to bring stores like Whole Foods in poor and/or black and brown communities yet no one in the community can actually afford it. For a movement, particularly a natural movement like this one where people are changing their daily routine, to be successful and have an impact on our environment it has to be accessible to most people. Alice Walker transcends ecofeminism by bringing aspects of issues related to race in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Metaphorically comparing a black woman's body to nature, Walker puts into perspective the mistreatment of living things and how it directly affects black women. Most people do not have time create their own natural products as much as they would like to because they are constantly working without the time to take care of what may be important to them. Being “the mule of the world,” many black women carry the past with them never given the chance to improve their communities and environment. Therefore, those who have the privilege to create their pure natural products should find ways to market it in their communities. While there are so many issues within our ecosystem and it's a lot to factor in all that is causing environmental problems and injustices, it doesn't negate the idea that each individual has a role in finding ways to contribute in environmental justice — one of those ways happen to be something that is simple yet multifaceted like skin care. It starts in our home, which is our body: what happens in our environment is a results of what we put in and on our bodies.

“Environmental justice is the right of all people to share equally in the benefits bestowed by a healthy environment.” — Joni Adamson


Alaimo, Stacy. "Climate Systems, Carbon-Heavy Masculinity, and Feminist Exposure." University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Kangun, Norman, Les Carlson, and Stephen J. Grove. "Environmental Advertising Claims: A Preliminary Investigation." Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 10, no. 2 (1991): 47-58.

"Issue Publication Information." Journal of Natural Products 80, no. 10 (2017).

Skewes, Susan M. "Skin Care Rituals That Do More Harm than Good." The American Journal of Nursing 96, no. 10 (1996): 33-35.

Fendall, Lisa S., and Mary A. Sewell. "Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: Microplastics in facial cleansers." Marine Pollution Bulletin 58, no. 8 (2009): 1225-228.

Simpson, Andrea. Who Hears Their Cry?: African-American Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in Memphis, Tennessee 82-102

Walker, Alice. "In Search of Our Mothers Gardens." Worlds of Difference: Inequality in the Aging Experience: 48-53.

Plant, Judith. Revaluing Home: Feminism and Bioregionalism: 21-24

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

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