Chemical warfare in the bathroom

Simon Maxwell
14 August 2001

In the old days, a man’s ablutions were straightforward. You got out of bed, worked up a lather of Imperial Leather with your badger bristle shaving brush, honed your cutthroat razor on the strop, did the business on your whiskers, worked some more Brylcreem into your hair, and that pretty well was that. No choices, no decisions.

How far we’ve come. Now you get out of bed, and there are choices at every turn: single-bladed, double-bladed, triple-bladed razor, lime or lemon or sensitised shaving cream, a shelf full of aftershave. And that’s before you have to choose a tie.

Freshness and vitality

My own current bugbear is shampoo. Up in the bathroom there are two containers, from the same manufacturer. The first one promises “freshness and vitality”, the second “shine and strength”. So every morning, I get up, struggle as far as the shower, and have to decide. Do I want to be fresh and vital today? Or shiny and strong? What happens if I want to be fresh and shiny? Or vital and strong? Or even fresh and vital and shiny and strong?

Of course, it’s not just the result that’s different, it’s the ingredients too. Shine and strength are apparently properties imparted by wild herbs, ginseng and lemon tree blossom – a vision of pastoral idyll if ever there was one. I can see myself striding, shinily and strongly, through meadows and groves.

Freshness and vitality, on the other hand, come from cucumber and aloe vera. No meadows here: the image conjured, for some reason, is watery. I’m swimming over the coral, all fresh and vital. A sea cucumber, perhaps? Or a real one, lying on a rough wooden table as a smiling peasant woman cuts off slices and drops them one by one into the simmering pot brewing my shampoo.

The image of freshness wilts

Today, though, I saw beyond the pastoral. I checked the ingredients. Shine and strength is associated with wild herbs to be sure. But they come a long way down the list. First there are enough polysyllables to make your eyes smart: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, if you please, and Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Further on, things get really heavy: hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, teadodecylbenzenesulfonate, dimethiconol/silsesquioxane copolymer, and something sinister called simply PPG-9. Golly. And you know something odd? What is in fresh and vital? You guessed: exactly the same ingredients, give or take a squirt of phosphoric acid, or a smidgeon of CI 60730.

That information sends me scurrying to the internet, And what do I find? Well, first, surprise, surprise, the manufacturer is a subsidiary of a giant multinational, whose list of brands fills the screen and overflows. Not just shampoo, but soap, toothpaste, deodorant… especially deodorant, they’re very, very big on deodorant this lot. My image of freshness and vitality starts to wilt. As I gaze at the website and read about shareholder value, the image shimmers and disappears. Instead, I begin to see stainless steel tubes and steaming pipes, soak pits of multi-coloured effluent, workers in white coats and hairnets, marketing gurus in shiny suits. I feel less shiny, less fresh by the minute.

When it comes to the ingredients, I find myself on an emotional see-saw. At one level, I am reassured. Our friend hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, for example, turns out to be nothing more exciting than a derivative of guar gum – whatever that might be. It sounds pretty harmless, something to do with beans apparently, and a similar product is found in manufactured mayonnaise – isn’t that reassuring? We won’t ask about how they get from the bean to the additive, and perhaps not delve too closely into the description of the way in which the galactomannan of the endosperm is subjected to partial enzymatic hydrolosis. Enzymatic hydrolosis sounds pretty painful, especially of the galactomannan, but it is only partial, after all.

So that’s the good news. To balance things up, I don’t suppose that teadodecylbenzenesulfonate has much to do with china cups and chocolate biscuits, and PPG-9, well, that appears to be untested, to say the least. When you look it up in the International Journal of Toxicology and find that “the available data are insufficient to support the safety of these ingredients in cosmetics”, you may find your hair standing on end – unless you’ve just washed it, as PPG-9 is an anti-static agent, whose job it is, presumably, to stop your hair standing on end. Just as well, eh?

A victim of the logo

There’s obviously a dilemma here, and at the heart of it is the brand. The shampoo is an industrial product, mass-produced, carefully marketed, and of course I knew that all along. The peasant woman slicing cucumber is a romantic myth. I’m a victim of the logo, and I’ve read Naomi Klein, so I know what that means. “No space,” she says, “no choice” and “no jobs”.

My cultural options are diminished by this shampoo and its multinational parent. My range of choice, which seems so wide and so hard to handle, is restricted by the manufacturer’s grip on the marketplace. And the jobs on offer have lost the richness of artisan shampoo production: you don’t find sturdy, independent yeoman churning out PPG-9 in some kind of backyard homebrew. Or maybe you do, for all I know, but in that case they’re bound to be exploited.

And yet, the brand does offer some safeguards, too. When I’m washing my hair in the shower and it all falls out, I’ll know who to sue. Anyway, here’s a funny thing: my hair is clean, and pretty vital, and sometimes shiny.

Here’s another funny thing. CI 60730 is violet dye. But the shampoo is green.

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