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Beauty Lies Truth

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The Activists Behind #TruthBeauty Are Trying to Shake Up the Cosmetics Industry

They want you to know what's really in the products you use every day.

Harvard Business School student Jessica Assaf made headlines earlier this year when she incisively, politely handed a L’Oreal recruiter their ass over email. The recruiter had, to be fair, barked up the wrongest tree ever. Jessica, and her partner Alexis Krauss—yes, from the band Sleigh Bells—run Beauty Lies Truth, a blog aimed at explaining why the beauty industry is so messed up and promoting safe products. Now, after successfully funding a Kickstarter campaign, they’re launching #TruthBeauty: a plan to make the safest and most effective skincare and beauty products affordable for everyone.

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But it’s not just going to be a website. Alexis and Jess are also activists trying to start a movement. "As consumers we have the power to change the industry," they say, "and we want to see women acting as assertive, educated consumers." Racked caught up with Jessica and Alexis to talk about walking away from huge endorsement deals, what you should probably know (but don't want to hear) about the products many of us use every day, and the idea behind the #TruthBeauty store, opening next month.

How did you guys meet and eventually decide to go into business together?

It was a complete love story: the day after Valentines Day, 2014. We lived a few blocks away from each other, and didn’t even know it. I was working for S.W. Basics. Alexis read an article about microbeads and called her friend who worked for Fair Trade USA to ask for a recommendation of a plastic free exfoliant product. Her friend referred her to S.W. Basics, and we ended up on the phone, and then in a coffee shop and couldn’t stop talking. I invited Alexis back to my apartment and got her to come home with me! I wanted to use business to change the industry and she comes from the artist perspective. We launched the website a few months later.

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That’s really quick. Alexis did you have any inkling at all that you wanted to get into this industry?

It was just the perfect serendipitous meeting. I had really started thinking about these issues and wanted to use my platform to spread awareness. I was frustrated by how frivolous coverage of this issue was. I got so many questions about my beauty routine from magazines and when I started trying to answer questions by talking about parabens and microbeads, they said they didn’t really want to hear about it. So I needed another platform. I thought they were underestimating interest in these issues.

Were they underestimating?

Yes! And people are still underestimating! Recently, at the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, a beauty investor said to us, "I think you guys need to reframe your entire pitch. The question isn’t what’s in your products, the question is ‘do people even care?’" But we’re at 75,000 page reads a month from 35,000 unique viewers. Turns out people actually do.

Jessica, what originally sparked your interest in the beauty industry?

I grew up in Marin County, CA where, despite a culture of health, the breast cancer rate in my community had risen 60% in eight years. So I was involved with a nonprofit, door-to-door surveying people. One of the questions was about skincare routine and beauty products. I didn’t understand why those questions would have anything to do with breast cancer so I went home and looked it up. I couldn’t believe there’s no safety testing and felt betrayed by my favorite brands. I felt like we were dating, that’s how loyal to them I was! I couldn’t believe there was no FDA approval for these products and that nobody knew about this. Now it’s my life passion.

"I used to buy Aveeno’s line of "Actively Natural" products—whatever the fuck that means—I was totally buying into the greenwashing."

And what was the ending to story of your letter to the L’Oreal recruiter?

I got a response directing me to some PDF’s on their website that you can download that justify their use of parabens. They acknowledge the possible health implications but then say it’s too low of a dose to be harmful. They also say, "well, it’s all legal, so we’re not doing anything wrong." And it’s kind of a blanket excuse we hear coming from the industry all the time. But, realistically, we’re talking about women using multiple products every day over a lifetime starting at a very young age. So their argument doesn’t stand up.

Also, a few weeks later we did a case study of Kiehl’s at the Harvard Business School. And every other year, the company attends the class and speaks after. But Kiehl’s refused to come this year because they’re owned by L’Oreal. The head of marketing at the school called and begged and they said no.

Alexis, you recently turned away an endorsement deal from a multi-billion dollar company because you don’t agree with the ingredients in their products. What can you tell us about that?

A lot of celebrities support good causes but then also take endorsement deals from companies that have unethical practices—like using microbeads or animal testing—and that’s hypocritical. It’s important for women who have influence among younger women about environment and social justice and personal health to take a stand and use their platform. Whether it's licensing opportunities or endorsements, it's important to stand behind your principals and not just take the paycheck.

But didn’t you do a campaign for Sephora?

I did do a holiday campaign with Sephora, which was exciting at the time, but I wouldn’t do it again. I used to buy Aveeno’s line of "Actively Natural" products—whatever the fuck that means—I was totally buying into the greenwashing. But I’ve personally made a transition.

But part of the reason I don’t want to disclose the name of the company [I turned down] is because it doesn’t actually do us any good as activists, as female leaders, to point fingers at one company. We want to focus on the whole issue.

"Why do men own the beauty industry? Men don’t know what’s best for us."

What is the "whole issue?" What are your activist goals?

If you’re a healthy, eco-conscious person, why would you eat a Twinkie? We want people to realize that the beauty industry is the same thing. People don’t associate it with health. They see it as something that can’t cause real internal health issues. But it can.

We want to take the beauty industry back from men! It’s not just about knowing the ingredients. It’s about knowing who owns a company and who runs it. Why do men own the beauty industry? Men don’t know what’s best for us. We want to put the power back in the hands of women, from the top to the bottom. We want women who are informed consumers buying products from women who work in a conscious way, who think about how to make products that work, that don’t compromise our health or the earth.

And how is that going to translate into a service? How is #TruthBeauty going to achieve that?

First of all, we’re selling products individually and in bundles, because instead of slowly changing their routines, we want to see people doing comprehensive swap-outs of products. Also, we’re not selling our products at the suggested retail price, because we want to make the products affordable!

On the supplier end, we’re only selling our favorite products from each company but not carrying entire lines. We want to push forward all of the companies that we’re working with and this way we can do that without them competing. We’re able to support all of these—mostly woman-owned—brands together.

What were the criteria for choosing the products you’re going to sell?

We have a strict list of standards for products on our website. But also, we’re literally selling our own beauty bags! We are only selling the products that we use every day. It’s our best recommendation. And obviously, we’re only promoting products that we know are safe and made consciously.

What are the most superfluous products women are using?

Moroccanoils! They've created a whole brand around a completely false identity—because they don’t actually use any argan oil! It’s actually funny because they just created a new product with real argan oil now. Like, "yeah, the last one was a joke but this one is real!"

Also antiperspirant. Sweating is one of the best systems for expelling toxins from our bodies, but we stop ourselves from sweating because we think it’s weird. Plus, the chemicals in antiperspirants have been linked to Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.


If women are going to make an effort to avoid one common ingredient, which should it be?

Mineral oil and petroleum derivatives. They’re known carcinogens and [they're] contributing to our oil dependence. Petrolatum—a common ingredient in chapstick—actually dries out your lips and skin. They do what they’re intended to cure—Vaseline is petroleum jelly. That’s petroleum!

Also anything that says fragrance could mean a proprietary blend of between 50-500 chemicals that don’t have to be disclosed. It’s a trade secret that we have no way of knowing. Most of the time they’re hormone disruptors.

Also, know the industry has fought hard to keep this information secret! The lobby is strong and connected to the companies that make the harmful chemical ingredients.

What’s the future of BeautyLiesTruth?

The future of #TruthBeauty is that it will become the first Yelp for beauty products. We want it to be a database of information about ingredients and all of the companies that make the products. We want it to be a community and we want to have a system where the people in our community endorse our products because they actually use and love them. It doesn’t make sense to have celebrities [who] are getting paid to endorse products that they don’t even wear telling you what you should be using. We want real people and genuine reviews—and real photos. We will even have a system on Instagram where you can see real #TruthBeauty women wearing the products from our store that they love. But in a bigger sense, we want to build a community of women that can be supporters of an entire cultural shift!

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