Paula Begoun and her strangely compelling obsession
Mar 1, 2000
Pros: A necessary service for anybody who ever bought so much as a lip balm,
Cons: Subjective, short reviews; Begoun not quite as qualified as she might like to be
The shameless cosmetic industry is desperately in need of a Ralph Nader, and for that reason alone I have to support Paula Begoun: companies that make obscenely false claims need all the grief they can possibly get.
Irritatingly, most people can find ways to discredit Begoun, and, sadly, most of them will be right. She doesn't have the background, education or training needed for the massive task she's been undertaking with repeated editions of Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me, an encyclopaedic write-up of cosmetics from Wet'N'Wild to Orlane.
She does well for a woman who has been dragged through the mud for all manner of things: earlier editions of her books featured a picture of her with unfortunate coral lipstick and other cosmetic errors, and commentary on that has been, like the make-up, less than flattering.
Some history on my personal biases regarding Begoun:
Way back in the day, the Usenet newsgroup "alt.fashion" (Usenet is, simply put, a particular collection of on-line "bulletin board" discussion groups) was a coherent space for the sort of discussion that reading Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me would be expected to engender. The merits of mascaras were seriously discussed; people were warned away from new products that didn't live up to their claims, and so forth.
At some point, Paula Begoun showed up and participated in "alt.fashion" discussion. Her posts were somewhat self-centered, but still welcomed: after all, this was the equivalent of, I don't know, having a Playboy 'bunny' start posting to "alt.magazines.playboy." She has an on-line newsletter that she frequently touted (it involves a subscription fee), but she did answer various questions on the newsgroup. There was some minor irritation at her request that, for something to merit her attention, it would have to include her name in the subject line: she wasn't really a participant per se, but more as a sort of self-styled consultant to the newsgroup as a whole. Her posts were sufficiently useful for this to be tolerable, though.
The fun ended when she came out with her own line of skin care products. All objectivity was lost, we felt, and much criticism was made on the newsgroup. This criticism -- that the only 'beauty' consumer advocate around had gone for the easy dollar by tacking her name onto a line of products and shed a great deal of credibility in the process -- would have gone on on the newsgroup whether or not Begoun had been around, but that was enough for her: after some huffing and puffing, she packed her proverbial bags and left.
While I don't feel that her skin care line completely ruins her integrity as a product reviewer, the whole "alt.fashion" experience seems telling: the author of Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me means that literally: reading the book, you are left with the unsettling impression that Begoun expects you to trust her every word. Persons supporting non-Begoun-supported lines or products may feel a bit of condescension from the book, too.
Once the attitude is aside, the book is invaluable for most beauty product shoppers. While the reviews are too short -- it is encyclopaedic, but perhaps shouldn't be due to space limitations; some might opt for longer product reviews over the efforts to include everything -- many are spot-on...
...in my estimation. Begoun's reviews of the products are as subjective as this review. For example, she sings the praises of Lancome foundations. So do I. She likes their colouring and their application. So do I. She is a white person with somewhat troublesome skin. So am I. An Indian woman with dry skin would probably lose patience with Begoun rather quickly thanks to her somewhat singular views. She does note and praise lines with more inclusive colouring ranges, but I don't see a great deal of evidence of a more qualified person having checked them out.
A lot of things liked by persons besides myself are praised by Begoun, and persons looking to downscale their cosmetics spending would find this book particularly useful. I was a great fan of L'Oreal "Lash Out" mascara and Cover Girl concealer years ago, forgot about them, and found myself returning to them after reading Begoun's praises of same. She's right, and I should have stuck with them through the years: they are the same if not better than their department-store equivalents. She's also right about the aforementioned Lancome, subjective a recommendation as it may be. A few lesser-known products are praised here and you will probably get your money's worth by finding cheaper substitutes for your costlier items. Even if you don't change anything after reading Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me, you might end up a bit more secure in your choices. Women's magazine aficionados will experience a sense of deja vu, since, unsurprisingly, the items that consistently make "top ten" and other best-seller lists in the beauty arena are there for a reason: they work. Clinique "Black Honey" "Almost Lipstick" sells out because it goes on nicely and looks good on everybody, but this -- and a number of other things in this 'bestseller' category -- are things that can be gleaned from magazines, friends, salespeople, take your pick.
Her web site is rather appropriately named www.cosmeticscop.com, and note that emphasis on "make-up" in the title: I wish Begoun would simply stick with the colour cosmetics and leave skin care alone. It leaves her open to far too much criticism and really does undermine her credibility -- and her influence -- given her lack of training in this area and somewhat stubborn refusal to, say, give a dermatologist or six a little space in the book.
There are some unfortunately silly suggestions: mix baking soda with Cetaphil cleanser for a facial scrub (this just irritated my skin and didn't exfoliate), and forego 'blotting papers' because toilet paper will work just as well. Last I looked, toilet paper wasn't coated with a fine layer of talc, and were made from abrasive wood fibers. Oh, well.
Strange statements of "fact" cloud a lot of the skin care reviews: she doesn't like a facial wash I like. This is fine, but her rationale is rather strange: it contains AHAs, which are -- according to her -- useless in a facial wash because AHAs have to remain on the face to be effective.
This logic might be a bit more palatable if AHA "peels" (where a strong AHA solution is applied for a very brief period) weren't both popular and effective. (And the facial wash in question certainly leaves my skin softer and less flaky than non-AHA cleansers, but that's neither here nor there.) Her personal preferences intrude constantly: an otherwise good product will be put down excessively because she doesn't care for the fragrance. There is also the oft-touted complaint that Begoun dispenses rather folksy (use milk of magnesia as a facial mask...) acne advice constantly, but admits to having dealt with her own skin with the prescription drug Accutane.
I am particularly disturbed by her web site, which reveals that she has branched out and now sells "Paula's Choice" colour cosmetics instead of limiting herself to skin care. This is particularly absurd, since this breaks every bit of her advice -- she constantly (and correctly) denounces certain lines for their lack of testers, and advises people against lines that don't let you test products, suggests you venture outside into natural light when looking at a foundation -- but somehow expects you to find your concealer colour off your computer monitor. As with the book, Begoun needs a bit more consistency. (She has also slipped silicone oils into her concealer, along with a few other questionable ingredients.)
Despite all the kvetching, I have to rate this reasonably highly because it's an invaluable service she provides, and, for or for worse, she has no serious competition. It is imperative that Begoun's book be read with a grain of salt and the realization that some of her advice may be less useful than what your sister tells you, since your sister is more likely to have the same colouring and skin type as you -- and her personal biases will be more useful.
The advantage of buying Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me simply to irritate the cosmetics industry can't be overstated, too. If nothing else, it will give you a few good lines to snap out at the more irritating make-up counter salespeople.
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