Teens Green

 

Doug Givenby Kristin Bender

For years, Natalie Whalen stuck to one brand of eyeliner to accent her big brown eyes. Until, that is, she found out that it contains formaldehyde, the same chemical she used in high school biology class to dissect frogs.

“I was completely clueless about what was in the products,” says this 18-year-old from Marin County, California.

Formaldehyde is a probable cancer-causing chemical, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But because the federal Food and Drug Administration does not review or approve cosmetic ingredients, it is also found in nail polish, insect repellant, liquid hand soap and sunscreen, notes the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database. A 2004 EWG report further found that one-third of all cosmetics contain one or more ingredients classified as possible carcinogens, with links to birth defects, cancer and reproductive harm.

Cosmetics Savvy

Today, Whalen continues to be a committed cosmetics user, but now she’s a different kind of consumer. Like most teens, she says she used to routinely buy mascara, eye shadows and skin care products from drug store racks and department store cosmetic counters without checking ingredient labels. That has changed since she joined the nonprofit group Teens for Safe Cosmetics, now called Teens Turning Green, three years ago.

Doug GivenWhalen is now one of the group’s 500-plus teens doing their bit to save Mother Earth. Over the past few years, they have launched chapters in Dallas, New York City and Pittsburgh. Plans call for new chapters in Denver, Toronto, Rio de Janeiro and Australia. The California-based organization investigates chemicals in consumer products, advocates for policy changes and educates youth and adults about how to buy products that don’t harm their bodies or the environment.

As a result, Whalen’s overall eco-consciousness now extends to everything from organic tomatoes to chemical-free face wash and recycled paper. “Whenever I buy new stuff, I try to go as green as I can,’’ she says.

“Every part of your life can be green,” agrees Carly Wertheim, 17, of Marin County, who was using chemical-laden deodorant and mascara when she joined the local group three years ago and “knew nothing.” She likes the fact that when teens like her get involved in this campaign, they immediately start doing research and learning how to read ingredient labels. “Now,” she advises, “if I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to be using it.”

Last year, teens in Marin County and New York collaborated with several organic beauty companies to create and launch the first-ever line of organic skin and body care products specifically for teens. Named after the group, the Teens Turning Green brand offers hand sanitizer, face wash, body lotion and other skin care products that contain no toxins or other chemicals believed to cause cancer or reproductive harm, according to Executive Director Judi Shils.

Everything in the teen line is organic and packaged in glass jars, without extra paper or cardboard packaging. Initial sales have been good via the group’s original distribution through Whole Foods Market’s independent stores, reports Shils. Now, the group is gearing up to provide their products through other outlets, as well.

Whole Life Choices

Teens Turning Green recently added a whole new dimension with Project Green Dorm, because, “We have moved into all aspects of a teen’s lifestyle, 24/7,’’ says Shils.

To set up a prototype green dorm, the group rented space in a Marin County shopping mall and convinced more than 100 eco-friendly companies nationwide to sell their products at wholesale prices. They opened their first retail shop this past July.

All items are made from either recycled or organic materials, including glass containers (no plastic) for packing a school lunch; organic cotton bed sheets; banana fiber notebook paper; fair trade sports equipment; and shirts made of silk, harvested using sustainable methods. Under the plan, Teens Turning Green will keep 50 percent of the proceeds, reports Shils.

Many of the items are also for sale online at ProjectGreenDorm.org, along with back-to-school resource guides, tips on going green, illustrated product recommendations and other advice. Shils notes that the group’s basic ($50) and premium ($100) care packages provide what a college student needs to live a green life.

Members of Teens Turning Green say that, along with living a greener life themselves, they want to convince others to do so, as well. “To be able to help people change their lifestyles and have healthier options is really rewarding,” says a smiling Whalen. “When people appreciate what we are doing, that is what drives me to continue the work.”

It is work that is much needed. Americans ranked dead last in a 2009 National Geographic poll evaluating environmentally sustainable consumption among 17,000 people in 17 countries. Thus, Teens Turning Green members are also active advocating for improved legislation. In 2005, these teens lobbied for successful passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act. In 2007, they helped pass the California Toxic Toys Bill to ban phthalates from children’s toys and baby bottle nipples. Members have even spoken at California legislative hearings to support nail salon workers exposed to toxic chemicals on the job, and to ban lead in lipstick.

Kristin Bender is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer. Connect at KristinBender@comcast.net

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