Social and Emotional Learning

Jessica Assaf: Makeup Militant

A teen activist takes on the cosmetics industry and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
October 3, 2007
Credit: Indigo Flores

Waiting outside Governor ArnoldSchwarzenegger's office in Sacramento,California, for three hours one day inlate 2005, Jessica Assaf, a student at Branson High School, in Ross, California, was gloomily suspecting, as she recalls "that teens simply couldn'tchange laws."

Earlier that year, Assaf and fellow members ofher organization, Teens for Safe Cosmetics, had becomeconvinced they could have a legislative impact. They were, infact, on a roll. Working with other public health and cancer-awarenessorganizations, the group had helped moveSenate Bill 484 through both houses of the state legislature. The billwas designed to require manufacturers of body-care productsand cosmetics to label those products that contain cancer-causingand reproductive-toxicity ingredients. To pass, it hadto overcome a bruising lobbying effort by an industry that, asAssaf had come to feel, was quite content to market productswith a minimum of supervision and a maximum of toxins.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

For Assaf and her organization cohorts, the effort to passSB 484 was a revelation. During summer 2005, sheand others in the group had commuted to the state capital tolobby and testify. They were savvy enough to realize they hada certain advantage, despite the professional firepower arrayedagainst them. "We were even more effective because we wereso young," she says. "Lawmakers see adult lobbyists all thetime, but a group of teen girls arguing passionately for a lawwas something different."

She was right. After standing around outside the governor'soffice for hours, Assaf and her group finally received a hearingfrom his staff. The governor ultimately signed SB 484. Thepassage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 was notonly a legislative triumph, since copied by states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York, but also a personal turning point for Assaf.

Her passion for safe cosmetics and body-careproducts grew out of an involvement with the Marin CancerProject (now called Search for the Cause), a group of localwomen determined to track down risk factors behind unusuallyhigh incidents of breast cancer in one of the nation's mostaffluent counties. As part of her school-required communityservice, she had distributed questionnaires door-to-door inMarin County. One of the questions, about the use of personal-careproducts, stopped her cold. "I had been using cosmetics sinceI was thirteen," she says, "and it never crossed my mind to lookat the ingredients."

When she did, Assaf was stunned. "I found out that one of theingredients in my mascara was also used to clean airplane wheels,"she recalls. Working with Marin Cancer Project founder Judi Shils,she met with high school classmates for a "label reading." This activityled to the compilation of a Dirty Dozen-Plus list of cosmetics thatcontain known carcinogens and a Green Alternative list of thosethat do not. The group discovered that though the European Unionhas banned more than 1,000 chemical substances for cosmetics, onlynine are forbidden in the United States.

Teens for Safe Cosmetics began a series of attention-gettingevents including Project: Prom, an informational fair inSan Francisco's Union Square last spring. There, high schoolgirls could try safe cosmetics and prove, according to Assaf,"that you can use green products and still look great." Earlierthat day, she had led a group of young women to demonstrateoutside downtown department stores, where they presentedletters to managers asking stores to provide safe makeup andbody-care alternatives.

Upcoming TSC events include Turning Green, a meetingin San Francisco of business owners, politicians, and teencampaign members to discuss the problem of unsafe cosmeticsand the concept of what Assaf calls "greening it." In March2008, the group will hold a Green, Glitz, and Glam fashionshow in New York City sponsored by Whole Foods.

For JessicaAssaf, that day in 2005 waiting outside the governor's officewas pivotal. Where she once intended to pursue a career inmedicine, she now has a new plan: Apply to Brown University,earn a law degree, and undertake a career in public health.

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

Green Heroes > Gary Swick