Freedom of speech and the cosmetic chemist.
I started this blog in 2007 with the aim of thinking through (out loud, in writing) the big issues in cosmetic chemistry
– SLS/ SLES. What are they? Are they harmful? Are they really the same chemicals that we clean garage floors with etc.
– Parabens. What are they and will they give me breast cancer?
– Phenoxyethanol- pure evil or what?
and so on and so forth. I did this because I thought it was about time that people from the industry said something in response to the questions and growing hysteria around the cosmetic ingredient label. I thought that it would be useful to get a different perspective (although I recognise that everyone has a slightly different perspective, perspective being an individual thing and all), a cosmetic chemists perspective. A practicing cosmetic chemist that operates in a very human framework (I’m not just a white coat- is anyone?). I’m also a person, a mum, a mountain bike racer, a national park dweller, tree hugging perspective.
Over the last seven years my enthusiasm for the above has had its highs and lows. The high points come when something is written and spread like wildfire through not just the public but also my peers -to have people who I know of through work say ‘hey, I loved what you wrote about palm oil or the scientific process etc’. But it’s the lows that stick in your mind and that’s OK because it is also that energy that drives you on, keeps you thinking (not that I want bucket loads of it mind).
Lows for me have been when in spite of my efforts (and others who share my space) I still live in a time when the scientific process is neither understood nor trusted. In fact I would go so far as to say that half the time it is either totally dismissed or replaced by some sexed-up armchair-expert-driven investigative style journalism. The reason that I still find this so hard to take is because it shows me just how far removed from nature and process we are slipping. My thoughts and feelings are valid and I am entitled to them just as you and everybody else is entitled to theirs but I can only validate and give my thoughts weight and authority once they have been tested. THIS is the scientific process and in my arena (cosmetic science) it does involve getting ones hands dirty – going into the lab, paying for stuff in time, equipment and ingredients, actually testing what I’ve created (SPF, micro, stability, analytical etc) and then reporting back against my initial hypothesis. It also involves seeking out the opinions of experienced others, seeking different points of view, additional data and references. I can’t get my head around why, in some circles none of the above matters or that it only matters to a point and that point can easily be trumped by an armchair fact-finding mission plus a hunch, instinct or ‘gut feeling’. I find the situation (rather than how that reflects on me as an individual) incredibly sad.
And that is how I’ve come to this blog post about the freedom of speech and the cosmetic chemist.
I was listening to the most beautiful interview on my way out west on Friday, the interview was with Professor Nadine Strossen from the New York Law School and you can find it here. Freedom to speak and say what you want, how you want and when you want is a right that I grew up taking for granted, not really thinking about. I was made to consider freedom of speech when, at the age of 15 I found myself in a Business Studies class being taught about rights and responsibilities. Being 15 I chose to exercise my right to behaving like an arse hole and spent almost the entire term in the hallway, facing the wall….. If nothing else, that reprimand taught me that in a democracy you can’t have one without the other, that rights come with the small print of responsibility and that as freedom of speech was a right, I had the responsibility to use it wisely. I have never forgotten that lesson.
As a blogger in the cosmetic space I am lucky enough to be in a position to be able to exercise my right to express my opinions, share my stories and engage in open discussion. I exercise this right here on my blog and am eternally grateful for the few hundred people who read each article I lovingly publish. However, I also recognise and take very seriously my responsibilities – The need to qualify my thoughts, to test them, examine them, have them organised in such a way that they may be pulled apart and reviewed, critiqued and questioned. To be able to demonstrate my ideas, theories and formulations. To be available and open to questioning and to be honest. To set aside any agenda or baggage that my mother, bike racer, tree hugger or business owner self wants to shove onto the table. To allow the scientific thought process space and time to run its course.
The internet is a fantastic tool, helping us to exercise our right to free speech but it is also cheap, easy (well, for many of us) and gratifying (instant likes and kudos) and because of that us bloggers and commentators can tend towards sloppiness and impulse, regurgitation and ego-fluffing. I am not immune to these things but I do understand and consider them carefully before posting. Blogs can turn anyone with an interest in something and a computer an expert does it matter that they are just an armchair expert, an expert that learned it all in one week, one month, one month or one lifetime? It can also allow us more latitude than we might deserve – We don’t seem to question the expert shopper who is now telling us which ingredients to look out for in our lippy and why, the mum telling us how to make a winning sunscreen, the cosmetic chemist explaining how to give a massage or the shop owner lecturing about a products ingredients. This is sloppiness and this sloppiness tends to lead to a devaluing of the process and disregard for the detail that goes on behind the scenes to test and validate all of these steps.
It feels to me like we are slipping into a world where putting two fingers up to our responsibilities while helping ourselves to lashings of rights is not only normal it is expected. There is one saying out there that sums this attitude up to me and I despise it with a passion: “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness”. Well in my humble opinion that is bollocks. In a free world it is YOU that gives yourself permission to set your own bar, you are your own boss, you can choose to be honest and up-front, questioning and open or not. You can choose to ask questions and challenge or to blindly accept. You can speak up or be silent. Your rights are not a given and neither is a democracy, we have to value them, respect what they stand for, fight for them and defend them at all cost because if we don’t, our rights will be taken away and we will all end up like the 15-year-old me, in the corridor, facing the wall, going nowhere.
I love the investigative research side of what I do and plan to continue on with this blog, letting the things that interest me and that are relevant to my current view of the cosmetic world direct my investigations. However, I am aware that I can only do this thanks to the rights that I have access to, one being the right to freedom of speech and I for one don’t intend on taking that for granted and for me that most definitely means practicing what I preach.
PS: With regards to the business studies thing, I did pass once I realised that the only person I was messing with was myself.