Excerpt for Odyssey magazine, from Chapter 2, “Dirty Little Lies”
You’d probably expect this book to jump straight into the mucky business of pollution, polar caps melting and destruction of rainforests, but it doesn’t. We’ll get to all that good dirty stuff in good time. But, to be fair, our environmental predicament did not begin with people wanting to do us harm.
How about those old ads that told us smoking was good for us? Or that we had to take dietary supplements or risk our children being born with all kinds of mental problems? Or that if we ate a little capsule filled with basically sawdust, we’d get thin? At first these seemed like little lies, but once lying begins, there is no returning to good old times.
In a bigger picture, it’s about how lies influence the greater body politic, which in turn knocks on to the natural environment. The ecological dictum, that everything is connected, is the underlying theme of this book. It’s also about how (some) industries, (some) public relations companies and (some) advertising agencies collaborate to concoct and dispense these lies.
We may know some of the people telling these lies. Their children may go to school with our children, and they may spend their working days finding increasingly devious ways to bombard us with false and misleading information. The big question here is, why? Spoiler alert: follow the money.
One of the most widely advertised beauty products on TV is shampoo. But back in the 70s, in the days of no-TV South Africa, we were told on radio the thing our hair needed most was Body on Tap with real beer. Apparently, what your hair needed most was a stiff drink. (They were right.) But beer was far too easy, and cheap, for the material 80s that followed.
Along with liquor, food and insurance, cosmetics has been described – by Emily Weiss, the founder of the US$1 billion beauty brand Glossier – as “recession proof”. This is a US$500 billion industry, and they need to be inventing new stuff to keep the market captured; that’s because we are nosey primates who are obsessed with the new and the shiny.
Nowadays you can buy shampoo with green tea, mushrooms, black truffles, honey, red ginseng and even animal placenta. Because, what your tired hair seemingly needs most these days is a bowl of molecular gastronomy. There are others with emu oil and even spermaceti, otherwise known as whale snot. In the past it was used for making candles and margarine.
In reality, shampoo is nothing more than good old-fashioned soap with some smellies added. But why buy simple, standard soap when you can buy extra-weak soap with all kinds of scents and fungi and embryos added? Shampoos are meant to remove three things from our hair: oil (sebum), skin flakes (desquamation) that come from our scalps, and dirt from the environment.
Shampoos consist mainly of liquid detergent and thickening agents, because watery shampoos do not sell well. People also like foam and think it makes for a better wash, even though it does not. What about those products that “add volume”? What they really do is coat your hair with some kind of goo.
Some added ingredients, like fish eggs, are just plain silly and aimed to part fools from their money. Others, though, can be downright harmful to both humans and the animals on which they are tested. This includes many fragrances, which come with a long list of side effects. To preserve the beer, the fish eggs and the mushrooms, shampoos are often stabilised with sodium, sulphites or parabens such as 4-hydrobenzoic acid: just from the names you can tell they will not be kind to your skin.
Foaming and fast-drying agents are also bad for you – look out for DEA, TEA and the especially noxious foam booster cocamidopropyl betaine. If you see formaldehyde, remember it’s primarily used for preserving dead things. Along with quaternium-15, it is a known carcinogen. Triclosan (banned in soaps but not shampoos) can cause hormonal disruptions.
The lists go on, but you get the drift. And you thought your shampoo manufacturer wanted to pamper you? That’s not the case. Thankfully, nowadays there is an increasing array of genuine healthy soaps and shampoos available. When and wherever you find them, use them – because it’s worth it.