Jessica Assaf has been on a crusade to change the beauty industry for 10 years. When she first fell in love with cosmetics at the age of 15, she was horrified to find out that the FDA doesn't require any pre-market testing or approval before beauty products hit the shelves. She was equally terrified to find out that many of the ingredients in U.S. products have been banned in Europe and other countries, as scientific studies suggest that they could be linked to cancer, reproductive harm and neurotoxicity.
While Assaf spent the first half of her life protesting the use of harmful chemicals in beauty products, she later enrolled at Harvard Business School and she realized she could be the change she wanted to see in the industry. The now-25-year-old entrepreneur teamed up with two female classmates, Enke Bashllari and Katie Power, to launch a curated collection of bioactive skincare called Raw Is Everything. Each of their four skin care solutions contain only a single natural oil that is organic, cold-pressed and unrefined.
We chatted with Assaf to find out what led to the creation of Raw Is Everything, and to talk about the biggest issues facing the beauty industry right now:
On the state of the current cosmetic regulations:
"So at this point in time, regulations have not changed since 1938. In 1938, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was put into action and does not guarantee the safety of our products. [The act] does not require that cosmetic companies disclose their ingredients to the FDA, or any governmental entity, before they hit the shelves. Right now, we're the human guinea pigs. Products are on the market, we use them, and if there are any issues that arise, whether that's immediate allergic reactions or long-term health affects, then they are taken off the shelves. Last week, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $72 million dollars in damages for the death of a woman from ovarian cancer that was caused by the talc in their baby powder. That's where we're at. All these products and all these chemicals are innocent until proven guilty."
On how our regulations differ from the EU:
"The European Union has banned over 1,300 chemicals found in cosmetics. The FDA has only banned 8 and restricted 3. [In the U.S.] it's a free market and you don't have to do anything -- no safety testing required -- until there is a problem. And the issue is, a lot of these health impacts are long-term. It's not like if I develop breast cancer in 20 years, I can link that to the aluminum zirconium in my deodorant. We don't know how these ingredients are interacting when they come into play. The average woman puts 515 synthetic chemicals on her body every single day without even knowing. And 60 percent of what we put onto our skin is absorbed into our bodies."
On the biggest barriers to safer cosmetics:
"Awareness is the biggest barrier, because even people I talk to at Harvard Business School have no idea to question the ingredients in their products. I don't believe that consumers don't care. People are really concerned with what they are eating and we're taking all of these precautionary measures in that realm, but we just don't make the connection between what we put on our skin and our health. So it's awareness and it's the lobbying efforts. I mean, we're talking about a $60 billion dollar personal care product industry and they are so powerful. The mainstream industry does not want any other regulations, they want this freedom."
On her thoughts on the Personal Care Products Safety Act:
"The Personal Care Products Safety Act act is what I've been waiting for almost 10 years. It's so important, it would strengthen the regulations that haven't changed since 1938. The most important part, is that [the act] would require the FDA to review five potentially harmful chemicals every year, and then the FDA would have the power to ban or restrict the use of these ingredients based on their findings. So it would empower the FDA to know what is in our products, and take action if there is an issue. As a beauty activist, I wish that it was more than five potentially harmful ingredients that were reviewed each year -- with the money and the tools that they have, I think they are capable of studying a few more -- but this is such an important start and it's really critical that this passes."
On why safer formulations of the products we love, which are available abroad, aren't available in the U.S.:
"A few years ago, I was part of this action to try and get Johnson & Johnson to remove two formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, known human carcinogens, from their baby shampoo. A report that was done by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics helped get the shampoo pulled from the shelves of many different countries [but] the shampoo was not found to have carcinogens in China, but it did in the U.S.. So every country has its own regulations and that's a big part of the problem. Cosmetic companies have safer formulations for each country, depending on their laws. A product made here could have a safer formulation in Europe, so it's possible to make some of these products without these chemicals but it's an issue of cost. It's much more expensive to buy organic ingredients, extracted from nature, than it is to buy barrels of synthetic compounds."
On the two chemicals she would never touch:
"Anything that ends with paraben -- propylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben -- [many of them] have actually been banned in Europe and linked to cancer. And any petroleum derivative -- so mineral oil, petrolatum, petroleum -- this is actually crude oil. We're putting crude oil on our faces and it's drying out our skin and doing what it's intending to cure."
On the one easy thing everyone can do right now to improve the healthfulness of their bathroom cabinet:
"The most empowering thing you can do to start this process is use [an oil] from your kitchen cabinet to take off your makeup. Try using coconut oil or olive oil. You can also use it as an oil cleanser or as a moisturizer. Just try something you consider a food as a skin care product."
On the best resources to consult if you're trying to avoid toxic chemicals:
"On my blog Beauty, Lies, Truth, I have the clean list and the dirty list, and the dirty list has 10 chemicals that I would avoid from all products. The Environmental Working Group has this Skin Deep database where they've studied thousands of products and you can type in a product that you use and it will rate it and break down the ingredients. And the Think Dirty app is also pretty good. But there is such a lack of information. So often you'll do research and you'll type in the product you use and it will say lack of safety data. The best thing that you can do is expose yourself to ingredients that you can pronounce -- ingredients that are food-grade, organic, that you would feel comfortable eating."