Toxic Hygiene: How Safe Is Your Bathroom?

Danielle Gray, Whatcom Community College

Summary

Students will learn to identify common chemicals in their household and personal hygiene products and reflect upon the potential safety and health concerns. By examining the visual images and written text used on product labels and in advertisements of household and personal hygiene products, students will engage in rhetorical and cultural analysis (of these advertisements) will engage in reflection, writing, and discussion on their own product use and on product safety standards.

Learning Goals

Sustainability Outcomes: Students will learn to identify common chemicals in their household and personal hygiene products and reflect upon the potential safety and health concerns. They will also gain an understanding of the relationship between the Federal Drug Administration, businesses and product descriptions on packaging and in advertisements.

Writing Outcomes:By examining the visual images and written text used on product labels and in advertisements of household and personal hygiene products, students will engage in rhetorical and cultural analysis (of these advertisements) and how to identify the target audience. Based upon the look of the package and the text they will also be able to identify cultural narratives related to or that support the language of the packaging. Students will enter a discussion forum and write essays reflecting on their own product use and on product safety standards.

Context for Use

The following is a one to two week sequence of in-class activities and homework assignments to prepare students for a 4-6 page essay assignment which will ask students to reflect on the safety of their personal care products.

Description and Teaching Materials

The following is an outline of the entire sequence of learning activities; in-class activities and homework assignments, student do in preparation for a 4-6 page essay assignment. Many of my classroom assignments are conducted within a classroom management portal such as Blackboard, Moodle, or Web CT. The language of these assignments and their activities, however, could easily be adapted to a traditional classroom.

Recommended background topics/texts:

  • Consumerism and Product Creation/impact
    • Ryan, John C. and Alan Thein Durning. Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things.
    • Northwest Environmental Watch: Seattle, WA, 1997
  • Globalization, Branding and Consumerism
    • Naomi Klein's No Logo
  • Gender, Advertising
    • Jacobson, Michael, and Laurie Mazur. "The Iron Maiden: How Advertising Portrays Women." Reading Culture 6th ed. Diana George and John Trimbur, eds. New York: Longman, 2006. 211-217.
    • Bordo, Susan. "The Empire of Images in Our World of Bodies" They Say/ I Say. New York: Norton, 2005. 149-161.
Introduction: Making Observations
  • In-class viewing and chat room discussion of YouTube video "Project Prom," created by Teens for Safe Cosmetics.
  • Reading "Toxic Toys" by Mark Shaprio
Observation and Analysis
In the next step in the sequence, students research the chemicals in their own personal care products to help them see the relevance of the issue to their own lives. The assignment is an in-class computer lab activity but could easily be revised into two parts-with the research happening as homework and the sharing of their findings during class discussion.
  • Reflection/ Research of Toxics in your Bathroom (worksheet) Resources:
    • "Dirty Dozen"
    • Skin Deep Database
    • FDA website
  • Online Discussion Forum: Toxic Chemicals
Apply in Writing
For the final step of this sequence, students will develop the thinking they've begun with the earlier assignments (chat-room, research, discussion forums). The discussion forum, for example, is often a place where many students will begin drafting ideas for this 4-6 page reflective essay and so should be encouraged to make use of this thinking/writing as they would any brainstorming or pre-writing activity. Built into this assignment is time for drafting, peer-workshop activities and teacher feedback. Students will be assessed on their ability to integrate both the research they did of their own use/experience with chemicals in personal hygiene products with the texts we've been reading in class.
  • Draft and Peer-Workshop and revision for 4-6 page reflective essay.
Campus or Community-Based Options:
  • Collaboration with student sustainability club;
  • Research of/collaboration with local businesses;
  • Research campus bathroom products' safety;
  • Collaborate with Chemistry Faculty to guest lecture/team teach properties of chemicals commonly found in hygiene products;
  • Collaborate with Biology, Nursing, Med-School Faculty to guest lecture/ team teach effects of chemicals in hygiene products on the body; and,
  • Work with product safety lobbyists or grassroots organizations.

I've broken these assignments down sequentially, following the outline given in the overview of activities (above). The examples on these worksheets are worded with students as the audience. My notes, which follow some of the sample assignments, offer ideas for adapting these assignments, offer explanation, and commentary on my rationale and success with these activities.


All of these attachments are Word documents.


Introduction: Making Observations- In Class Viewing and Chat Room Discussion of "Project Prom" (Microsoft Word 31kB Nov2 11)
Observations and Analysis- Reflection/ Research of Toxins in your Bathroom (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov2 11)
Online Discussion Forum: Toxic Chemicals (Microsoft Word 27kB Nov2 11)
Reflective Essay Assignment: How Safe are your Products? (Microsoft Word 35kB Nov2 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Hygiene can be a sensitive, private, and often gendered topic. I find that giving the students latitude in the types of products they will research accommodates varying levels of comfort. To avoid alienating members of my class who don't identify with the gendered phrase "beauty products" I make a point of saying "personal care/hygiene products." Many men, for example don't identify with "beauty" as a term that applies to their products. Some of the men in my classes have responded playfully with comments like, "Soap? What's that?" Allowing for this playfulness works to my advantage because such a personal topic (and one that raises concern for one's own health) sometimes incites a playful response to alleviate discomfort or to perform "ambivalence." This sequence, moreover, can begin to build discussions of how we perform gender and how ads sell gender roles in ways that might not be "good" for our physical health.

Assessment

Instructors should be able to gauge student learning from their first impressions of the "Teens for Safe Cosmetics" video, students' contributions to small group and classroom discussion, from the depth of their discussion forum posts, and their 4-6 page essay. Student's who are engaged in learning during these activities will offer some or all of the following:
  • Making detailed observations;
  • Asking questions;
  • Making connections between their own experiences, ideas in the texts;
  • Forming their own response/ positions (though perhaps tentative). These responses should become more grounded in observations (both of own experience and textual evidence) rather than reactions throughout the sequence; and,
  • Demonstrating an awareness of key terms.
By engaging with peers, students will be able to gauge their own learning. They will be able to determine their rhetorical timing by the response to their questions and observations in the chat room and discussion forum (where often unanswered questions are often off target). During all stages of the learning process, students will also be engaged in peer-response, dialogue, and feedback, thereby helping them reflect on their own thinking in relationship to the wider class. Finally, students will be able to gauge their learning from teacher comments on homework and their final essay assignments. Because the essay for this unit is a reflective one, the essay assignment itself will be an act of student self-assessment.

References and Resources

Evergreen State College