“Makeup, in short, is a norm, and nothing ruins a first impression like a norm violation,” writes Olga Khazan on the very real and troubling phenomena of the Makeup Tax.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the makeup tax refers to the time and money that women spend on doing their makeup and hair in order to achieve a certain minimum appearance of professionalism. This tax is one that men don’t have to worry about, and is essentially another form of pay inequality. Even many women who do not work feel a social pressure to wear makeup in public. And there’s plenty of research to show that women who wear makeup are considered more likable and competent, and are thus more likely to get paid and promoted more.
There’s another way that women pay the makeup tax, one that’s much harder to quantify. I'm taking about the price women pay with their health in the pursuit of looking “put together.”
Most people only hear about the most serious cases of health problems caused by cosmetics, like botched botox jobs or the link between tanning beds and cancer. But there’s also growing concern about many ingredients commonly found in makeup and personal care products.
For example, phthalates are a class of chemicals that are commonly found in personal care products (as well as other household items) that have been linked to hormone disruption. Another study showed that maternal exposure to higher levels of phthalates during pregnancy was associated with lower IQs for their children.
In other cases, chemicals that are known to be harmful end up in cosmetics at unacceptably high levels. In one study, researchers found that lip glosses and lipsticks had concerning levels of heavy metals including lead and cadmium. Last year, Dr. Gordon Vrdoljak of the California Department of Public Health said his lab found dangerously high amounts of mercury in imported skin lightening creams.
It’s difficult to say how bad for our health many cosmetics really are, because most of the exposure involves very small amounts over long periods of time. And often, powders and creams aren’t the only sources of exposure to these chemicals in our lives. But given that these products are used predominantly by women, it seems probable that women will face more of the health consequences.
A number of health and consumer advocates argue that there’s way too much industry influence in the regulation of cosmetics in the United States, and that agencies like the Food and Drug Administration should be given more power and resources to oversee the safety of makeup and other personal care products. Earlier this year, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was proposed to do just that.
For women who want less toxic options, that all too often means paying even more—as brands that specialize in being non-toxic and organic are generally more expensive. And of course, producing that makeup and it’s oft un-recyclable packaging all use natural resources as well.
The ideal answer might be, “Let’s stop using makeup!” But it’s not so simple.
It would be nice if we could deconstruct and dismantle the standards of appearance for women, so that we don’t feel pressured to wear makeup. TV shows and movies could feature more women bare-faced, magazines could shoot their cover girls without erasing every pimple and freckle. But as Khazan points out in her article, that’s unlikely to change quickly, and women who refuse to play the beauty game may find themselves at a disadvantage.
Even though I wear makeup rarely (and to be fair, I usually work from home), I still feel the need to reach for concealer and mascara when I head to a big conference or when faced with a particularly important in-person interview (and I didn’t wash my hair for a month once). I also believe that makeup could be part of a body-positive, self-affirming form of personal expression, in a world where makeup is more like paint and less like a uniform, but I know that’s not a reality for most people.
For now, the imperfect compromise I offer is to buy fewer products and shop smarter. Use tools like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database and the GoodGuide to check out the health and sustainability profiles of products before your shop. And finally, keep talking about the many different levels gender inequality is played out on.