Students Explore the Chemistry of Cosmetics

Teenagers use more body care products (cosmetics) than any other demographic. This may not be surprising, but it should be cause for caution. Adolescence is an important window of vulnerability when an exposure--or repeated exposures--can cause lasting harm.  Add this unique time of vulnerability to the fact that the ingredients of body wash, facial scrub, deodorant, lotion, shampoo, and other cosmetics do not have to be proven safe before they reach store shelves. And you have reason for concern.

The Ecology Center, through its LocalMotionGreen program and through its Home Safe Home parties, has educated parents and others about the FDA’s lack of authority to require safety testing. Those attending workshops learn that products in our stores contain ingredients banned in other countries, ingredients known or suspected of causing cancer, and ingredients that can alter the delicate and vital hormone system. They then learn how to shop for safer products: those with fewer ingredients and simpler, recognizable ingredients.

Now this message is going straight to the teens themselves. Ecology Center Education Director, Katy Adams, has expanded this two-hour community program reaching dozens each year to a five-day in-school educational experience reaching 19 classrooms and over 600 students in its inaugural year.

Through hands-on activities, middle school students learn about cosmetics regulation, examples of the most common hazardous ingredients, safer alternatives, and ways to take action. The lesson plans span multiple disciplines, intertwining chemistry with civics. Students learn to identify complex chemical structures and use cutting edge technology to identify infrared wave patterns in chemicals. They become familiar with commonly used toxics like formaldehyde, phthalates, parabens, and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), evaluating the impacts of hazardous chemicals on human health. Students then explore ways to take action, including (1) personal choices about use and purchase, (2) speaking out to influence public policy, (3) educating and encouraging others, and (4) contributing to research and knowledge-building.

Students become educated consumers while learning that chemistry is relevant to their lives and something they can do. “The level of enthusiasm from teachers and students has been overwhelming”, says Katy. “Young men were just as engaged and concerned by what they learned as the female students.”

While studying safer alternatives, the students learn how to make their own products. “The students were very proud of their potions!”, according to Katy. “Some students take them home and use them and think they are great." She has received responses, such as "It made my skin super soft!" or "I gave it to my mom and she used it all week!" Others found the texture changed after sitting for a day and couldn't get their lotion out of the bottle.  Or they realized they had gone a little overboard with certain optional ingredients.  "Apple cider vinegar - we really made a mistake using that for our scent..." One student got her mom interested and now making homemade products is something they do together. Another student reported that she made homemade lotion for all her relatives and friends as her Christmas gift to them, including a little card sharing some of the "shocking stuff" she had learned during the program.

In thinking about how to make this kind of program useful for very diverse classrooms, Katy has had to rethink traditional approaches to curriculum planning. “We are very excited about our plans for recommending a variety of ways teachers can integrate aspects of this program to enhance their science curriculum, address NGSS [Next Generation Science Standards] standards, and get students excited about learning chemistry.” The program content aligns most closely with 7th-grade science curriculum standards and works well as an introductory unit for high school chemistry.

In an effort to meet the increasing demand for the Chemistry of Cosmetics in classrooms, Katy will post the lesson plans, teacher resources, and classroom materials on the Ecology Center website. For a modest donation to the Ecology Center, teachers will be able to download the program and gain access to bin rentals for lab materials this spring.

Additionally, the Ecology Center is planning two more pilots and will video tape those sessions as material for developing training webinars to assist teacher implementation. If you are a teacher looking for more information, please visit our exhibit booth in early March at the 2016 MSTA (Michigan Science Teachers Association) conference or contact Katy Adams.