GOOD has an interesting series of articles called No More Dirty Looks about the cosmetics that we use every day and what options are available for safer, more environmentally sound beauty products, without any toxic carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, or petrochemicals. Yesterday they linked to a terrifying video from The Story of Stuff Project describing the limits of regulation on toxic chemicals used in everyday products from lipstick to baby shampoo:
The best line of the video I think comes in about halfway through, when talking about hair relaxers and skin whiteners advertised to young girls that are “super toxic both in their ingredients and in the message they send about what beauty is.” Even if we could make cosmetics without carcinogens, how many “natural” products do we need to be “naturally” beautiful? What can we cut out of our routines entirely and still live happily and healthily in polite society? For the things that we can’t or don’t want to live without, what can we use that would be truly natural and sustainable, for our environment, our health and safety, and for our self-esteem?
For the past few years I have been gradually breaking away from the mountains of products that Seventeen magazine once told me I needed to take care of all my beauty needs. I’m not all the way to crazy-hippie-living-in-a-cave territory, but I’m pretty close. Here’s how you can join me!
- Antiperspirant: It’s hard to stop using deodorants entirely if you don’t want to be smelly (although many of my not-smelly friends swear that frequent bathing is enough for them), but even back when I was reading Seventeen, antiperspirant was getting bad press, linked to breast cancer and now potentially Alzheimer’s as well. I’ve tried a few versions of deodorant-only underarm care, from the “teen” deodorant that smells like the 7th grade girls locker room to the Tom’s of Maine brand that smells like B.O. I’ve settled on the handmade deodorants from Lush, which is a little more expensive than the teen brand, but a $15 slab can last me for almost a year. According to the website my favorite flavor is “the original patchouli one for hippy pits” but they have several types scented with different essential oils, which topped with a little bit of cornstarch from the kitchen will take care of smells and extra moisture. Sold as bricks wrapped with paper, you also save on the crazy amounts of plastic that go into packaging.
Edit: I’ve learned a lot about the safety and environmental impact of deodorants and antiperspirants in the past few days. The data on health risks are at best contradictory, but the environmental benefits of using handmade products with few ingredients and minimal packaging are more clear. For a much better researched blog post about antiperspirants with lots of links check out this post on The Green Lantern.
- Shampoo: Shampoo is addictive. The soaps strip away the oils that your hair produces to protect it, causing your freaked-out hair to make more oils, making you have to shampoo more often. Even after I had been using my hippie deodorant and The Keeper (if you are a lady and care about the environment and your lady business click here for more info) for years, I never really thought about the shampoo I was using every day, the conditioner I had to pile on to replace the oils I was willy-nilly stripping away, and the insane amounts of goopy products to manage the resulting frizziness. It was a post on one of my favorite sewing blogs that got me to think about shampoo and to make the leap and go “no poo.”
It’s easy, healthy, good for your hair, and much much cheaper. Instead of shampoo, clean your hair with about a tablespoon of baking soda mixed with about a cup of water. Don’t forget to massage your scalp! Rinse with water, then rinse with diluted apple cider vinegar (about a tablespoon per cup again). Rinse thoroughly with water and voila! Repeat about twice a week as needed for naturally clean and soft hair. It can take a few weeks for your hair to get used to it, but don’t give up! The baking soda cleans up the dirt and the excess oils without the harsh stripping of regular shampoo and the mild acid of the vinegar smooths down rough parts along the length of the hair fiber, acting like conditioner. It’s actually a pretty neat feeling–the baking soda will make my hair feel sort of squeaky clean, but once the vinegar rinses through it’s silky and untangled (which for me is a weird feeling by itself). I tolerate a little more frizz now than when I was in high school, so I don’t use any of the goopy stuff anymore when I get out of the shower, just a little bit of jojoba oil to smooth down the craziest parts.
- Soap: I’m not quite all the way to cave-man no-soap living, but I’ve been on the lookout for better soaps and using a lot less. Any recommendations? Oh and while we’re on recommendations, how about for toothpaste? That’s a goopy thing I get at the drug store that I haven’t really thought about yet.
- Lotion: I have very sensitive and dry skin, and I used to have a lot of ointments and lotions to help. As I’ve cut more and more other goopy things out of my life, I’ve needed less of the petroleum-based lotions to keep up, and jojoba oil is pretty good at picking up the slack when I need a little extra skin moisturizing (any oil will do, it’s just that somehow the fancy shmancy oil labelled for skin use feels less like I’m cooking myself than if I use the olive oil from my kitchen but it’s basically the same thing). It absorbs quickly into the skin (you just need a teeeny bit), it smells nice, and is great for moisturizing your hair and skin. I get mine from Trader Joe’s I think for about $8 for a bottle that would last me a year if I didn’t keep knocking it off the sink.
- Fabric softener/detergent: I found out I was allergic to fabric softener the hard way and you really don’t need it. The high-efficiency, natural, fragrance-free detergents that you used to only be able to get at Whole Foods are now popping up at Stop and Shop have been great for all my laundry needs.
- Sunscreen: This is a tough one, because sunscreen can do a lot of good protecting our skin, but sunscreens can contain a lot of potentially harmful ingredients too and a lot of them give me a rash (I told you I have sensitive skin). Now that I spend a lot more time indoors in the summer (thanks internet!!!) it’s easier for me to avoid having to wear sunscreen and my skin thanks me for it. Here’s another place I’m looking for recommendations–is there a brand or type of sunscreen that doesn’t have the bad stuff but works well for you?
- Makeup: I like playing with makeup and nail polish, but my hippie ways have taken hold and now I save it just for special occasions. Makeup is one place where living naturally doesn’t have to be about replacing harmful products–like lipstick with lead in it–with better products without harmful chemicals. Nobody needs makeup, and most of the time makeup just makes people look older and weirder (have you seen CNN in HD lately???). This is where that toxic message about beauty can come in too, although certainly not in as problematic a way as the skin whiteners mentioned in the video. Honey, you were born with it, you don’t need Maybelline!
I want to close by saying that of course, not all chemicals are bad, but understanding what your skin, your hair, and your armpits need and finding non-hazardous options for cosmetics that are cheap and better for you and the environment is very possible. We don’t need to live in a hippie cave to try and live better!
From emails with some of my sassy lady friends I’ve realized some things that I forgot to mention and learned some new things.
1. The vinegar smell goes away once your hair is dry, so don’t worry about smelling like salad all day if you go no poo!
2. I perhaps was too harsh on the Tom’s of Maine deodorant, and have heard from many people who swear by it. Everyone’s armpits are unique, so you might have to try a couple different things before you find something that works for you!
3. You can learn about the ingredients in the products that you use now and look for safer alternatives on the website Skin Deep.
4. You can get involved in making cosmetics safer. Ask your congressperson to support the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010!
5. I put this in the comments but I think it’s worth emphasizing and repeating here in the real post: I know that a lot of the rhetoric about supposedly harmful chemicals is overblown and can be misleading, but I still prefer baking soda and vinegar, as my switching to “natural” cosmetics has more to do with how my hair and skin feel, how much money I spend at the drug store, and how much energy is wasted to make the products that I use. Sometimes not falling for “woo” can lead you to fall for buying things that you don’t need that don’t make your life better and hurt the environment.