The Price of Beauty: cosmetics, chemicals and ‘risk’

Principal Investigator: Professor Efrat Tseelon

Western women in technologically advanced societies are subject to contrasting pressures of a “beauty culture”, environmental ethics, and health discourses.

Cosmetics occupy a focal point in all three discourses.  Advertisers sell ‘healthy looks’ as part of a ‘desirable’ appearance, while consumer groups focus on the risks of using cosmetics containing certain chemicals (for example, phthalates, parabens). Thus women are targeted with messages that promote conflicting behavioural choices (purchase or boycott a particular cosmetic) in the name of health.

Research on perception of health risks has mainly focused on areas heavily targeted by public health information campaigns (for example, unprotected sex or smoking). In contrast, this project will focus on products largely viewed as beneficial that are only now becoming the subject of public attention about their potential hazards.

This presents a timely opportunity to study how scientific information can be used to question products with an otherwise positive image, and how this can affect behavioural change. The proposed project assumes that these three discourses (beauty, environment, health) are affecting women’s risk perception.

Hence, the research draws on social psychological approaches to examine how women’s attitudes to risk interact with the “scientific” performance claims of products, and the scientifically-based claims made by the media and consumer bodies about the hazards of cosmetics. The project also draws on cognitive frameworks (for example, heuristic systematic persuasion model, elaboration likelihood model) that explain how persuasive messages are analysed.

The project extends research on persuasion and risk communication to enhance understanding how risk messages are consumed and acted upon. This has implications for the ways that scientific information about risks is constructed and communicated, and can be used to empower women and organisations dedicated to raise awareness to environmental and health hazards, and to develop strategies and products designed to reinforce a beauty-through-health message.