Q&A: Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt, authors, on the future of cosmetics

Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt took on the dangers of the largely unregulated beauty and personal care industry in their book, No More Dirty Looks.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

It’s hard to be real in an industry based on illusions, yet we all have our moments of awakening. For Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt, the matrix revealed itself during a Brazilian Blowout. Think this is an unlikely moment for a conscious awakening? Think again.

O’Connor and Spunt took on the beauty, personal care and cosmetics industries one body part at a time in No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics (De Capo Press, 2010). The organic beauty and lifestyle site NoMoreDirtyLooks.com has become more popular than either author ever expected. “People rely as much on commentators for advice as they do on us,” O’Connor told SmartPlanet.

What makes NoMoreDirtyLooks.com so popular? Traditionally, beauty has not been something women rally around, at least, not in a positive way. Perhaps it’s the precarious balancing act of its authors. They embrace the industry while condemning its behavior.

I sat down with Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt to talk about the future of beauty products, the shockingly unregulated use of chemicals in the industry, and what it means to get personal online.

Why did you decide to write No More Dirty Looks?

Alexandra Spunt: Siobhan lives in New York and I live in LA. About four years ago, Siobhan was visiting me and we decided to get this hair treatment called the Brazilian Blowout. It was just starting to become popular as a new celebrity healthy hair treatment.

The salon we went to had convinced me on previous visits that I definitely needed to do this -- that it was a carrageenan treatment and it would be really good for my hair. So the two of us are heading to a fancy party and we decided to go for it.

We’re sitting in the salon chairs and the fumes from the treatment are insanely toxic. And we’re staring at each other like, “What did we do?” They gave us goggles because our eyes were watering and burning. Our throats were burning, too.

Afterward we thought, “Wow, that was kind of creepy.” But our hair looked great and we put the thought aside. A couple of months later, as this treatment was starting to come out of our hair, and our hair was looking not so good anymore, I remembered getting headaches from the fumes. That’s when we started looking into what we had actually done.

The treatment used formaldehyde. Now formaldehyde is a recognized carcinogen, and it’s a dangerous thing to inhale especially when heated. Formaldehyde was the active ingredient.

That sent us into a tailspin. We began researching how it was possible that such a chemical could be present in a cosmetic procedure. That’s when we realized the whole industry was more or less unregulated.

Do you mean specifically the beauty product industry is unregulated, in comparison to the food industry for example?

Siobhan O’Connor: The laws that govern personal care products were written close to a century ago and have not been updated since. For instance, when a consumer buys a beauty product it’s assumed that anything listed on the ingredients list has been tested for safety by some publicly-accountable health official or organization. That would be a natural assumption, but it’s an incorrect assumption.

Thousands and thousands of ingredients used in personal care products have little to no scientific data supporting their safety. When the data does exist, it has often not been vetted by government regulators or public health officials. We find that really disturbing.

The other problem is that because consumers don’t typically know what’s in their products, they don’t know how to read an ingredient label. People are getting duped. They’re getting ripped off. They’re buying things thinking they’re getting a luxury product, for example, and they’re just getting a cream that has the same ingredients as the drug store brand.

What about animal testing? I remember being in grade school and seeing pictures of rabbits with shampoo in their eyes. It was not pretty, to put it lightly. Since then I assumed traditional beauty products were tested on animals, and the ones that were not had to undergo other safety tests.

SO: Products are tested for immediate reaction. Obviously no one wants to sell cream that’s going to give everybody a rash or make your eyes burn. But it’s virtually impossible to test for the long-term impact of regular exposure to chemicals. The exposure is in small amounts, but it happens over many years. They do have animal studies on some specific ingredients, but those aren’t usually done within the cosmetics industry.

So if the product doesn’t give you an instantaneous rash, it passes?

SO: Yes.

How has the market changed since the book came out?

SO: It’s night and day. The idea of clean beauty or natural beauty is no longer associated with hippies -- and we are hippies in our hearts, undercover hippies -- but we also have jobs and want to look good everyday and smell nice. We don’t want to smell like the health food store.

The market has changed so dramatically that now some of my favorite products are as expensive as La Mer and other perennial favorites in the luxury market. The difference is, now I know I’m getting something absolutely exquisite. I know the ingredients and I know how much they cost to source. The results are there, too. I think the idea that natural is a compromise is slowly going away. People are starting to realize that natural is an upgrade.

AS: Like Siobhan said, there are no fillers in the natural products. You are actually getting pure active ingredients. In our experience, they work much much better.

What about the skeptics? What about the people who say it doesn’t matter what you’re buying because the idea that we can transform the way we look is an illusion?

AS: There’s no question that part of it is placebo. But placebos have their place. I think that when it comes to beauty products, we love the hope, the ritual. We definitely believe self-care rituals, regardless of the result, are very important.

You’re best results are going to come when you work with what you have. We talk a lot about this in the book and on the site. If you try to ultimately change what you have, like me going for a Brazilian Blowout when I have super curly hair, it’s going to go wrong. Work with what you have. Help nature do what it does best -- moisturize, use natural oils and shampoos that don’t strip your scalp. That does work. It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not going to give you a new nose, but it does have an effect.

The site touches on more things that just beauty products and make up. For example, your New Year’s resolution is to eat more intuitively. Tell me a little more about that.

AS: If you had asked me three years ago if I would share something so profoundly personal on a website I would have said, “Not a chance.” But I’ve learned how amazing it is for women to share these kinds of vulnerabilities with each other.

There’s been a lot of discussion around food and health on the site. We also wrote a chapter about food in the book. I’ve always been very restrictive with my diet and sometimes it’s been in the name of health but that’s not really what it’s been about. So I decided tell people about this book that’s helped me get back in touch with eating through natural rhythms, instead of “I should eat this because it’s healthy or it’s going to make me look X, Y and Z.”

What about for you, Siobhan?

SO: For me, New Year's is really about setting intention more than it’s about setting a list of rules to break in two weeks. Bold and fearless are the themes I’m going with. 2012 kicked my ass and I feel amazing anyway. Go big or go home. That’s the spirit I’m bringing to my life.

For all the 2013 New Year’s resolutions involving personal care, can you give some recommendations? Are there some great basic skin products that have come out since the book?

SO: It’s so hard to pick favorites!

AS: Acure is a good one that’s widely available and affordable. Some Whole Foods stores sell that line. For hair care we like Intelligent Nutrients a lot.

SO: On the more luxurious tip, Tata Harper is really popular. Kahina is my personal go-to. There’s a new line that we’re both just discovering called Marie Veronique Organics. It feels luxurious but the price point isn’t prohibitive.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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