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Navigating the cosmetics counter: Vichy, Lancome, Hydra Life, Genifique, or, seaweed?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901): Woman at her toilette, 1889

“I don’t even know half of these ingredients. What is this? What is that? I don’t know,” laughed the Russian beauty advisor towering over me at the Lancôme cosmetic counter.

I was on a mission to uncover the good and the bad of Canada's billion dollar cosmetic industry, so I started from the ground floor: as a consumer in the high-end department store Holt Renfrew.

Motivating my research was the gnawing question of what chemicals were actually in anti-aging products, and how can average consumers make reasonable choices if they are unable to decipher a nonsensical list of chemical compounds. Lastly, I was left to wonder, what's the point of purchasing a $300 skin cream if the local drug store products promise the same results for $15? 

The cosmetics section was brightly lit, with lights lining the beauty stations, in addition to the intense rays beaming down from the dome fixtures on the ceiling. A stark contrast to the men’s clothing section on an alternate floor, with its dim blocks of light spaced apart.

Products of various shapes and sizes were symmetrically lined up on the counters, and elevated row by row. My focus was on moisturizers, and each line had products running the gamut from twenty-something preventative creams to serums for the golden years. Included was the Blanc Expert line that whitens skin, which I was told is targeted towards Asian consumers. 

Images of flawless, beautiful women hovered over me as I walked by the cosmetic stands. Many were celebrities, like Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Audrey Tautou, and an unrecognizable Kate Winslet (she had a narrow face and luminescent eyes that bordered on supernatural).  

In the mid-day, the department store was relatively empty, aside from a few lone shoppers like myself. Two tall, slender women in their late twenties or early thirties, stood out in the crowd, and I tried not to gawk at how uncanny their beauty was. The two women appeared to be twins or sisters, with lustrous blond hair, plump lips, and prominently raised cheekbones, all of which appeared cosmetically enhanced.

At Estée Lauder, I was greeted by a thirty-something woman with bright, blue eyeshadow and heavy pink blush visible from a distance, the latter blotted generously across the width of her cheeks. “Looking at the Ultra Firming Creme, how come I don’t see the ingredients?” I asked.

To answer my question, she grabbed the packaging behind the counter, but to my surprise, the chemicals in the skin cream weren’t listed there either, aside from a few active ingredients. She scanned the accompanying pamphlet, and apologized, “You’ll have to check online for the rest. I bet the list of ingredients will be there." Even when ingredients are included, the print is so fine the ingredients are quasi-illegible. 

I moved on to Sisley and spoke to a beauty advisor with minimal make-up and a youthful glow. It seemed as though she had been waiting for me to linger a moment by the glass casing. 

“What’s the advantage of buying luxury brand products over common drug store products? I asked.    

“What you’re getting when you’re paying for a higher priced item is the quality of the essential oil or the plant extract. The product works faster and lasts longer,” she said.

“But how do I know these ingredients are safe?” I said.

Nowadays, do you know how many regulations they have just to come in Canada?” she responded. I was also told that my question was not uncommon. Over the years, certain preservative ingredients, like parabens, have become increasingly controversial for their potential toxicity. The David Suzuki Foundation lists parabens among the “dirty dozen” of cosmetic chemicals to avoid.

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