Living Naturally in a Synthetic World

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.

More like this

Scary video. I've been trying to move toward fewer toxins in my products, but the antipersperant one is rough for me. How do you put the cornstarch on so it actually soaks up sweat? Does the cornstarch show when you're wearing a tank top?

Thanks for this highly useful post! A few comments:

Baking soda: I haven't tried it on my hair yet, but about a month ago I started using it (plus a steam and cold rinse routine) as a face wash instead of using "acne-fighting" products with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. (I don't think either of these chemicals are supposed to be particularly bad for you - but they always end up drying out my skin.) At the same time, I stopped using foundation. And wow. My skin is way better now.

My ideal plan for the sun (which I often fail to carry out) is to use sunscreen on exposed bits like my hands (my silly beauty fear: getting wrinkly granny hands), but mostly cover up with a hat etc. when I'm going to be out in the sun for a long time. Reduced-chemical compromise!

I have considered switching to baking soda and apple cider vinegar for a while now...just trying to get rid of ALL of my current products so that I can move on without being wasteful. It's amazing how much I've accumulated over the years (if amazing = sad). Such a consumer *sigh*

@Bethany: just a little bit rubbed on over the deodorant usually does the trick. It's not "all day strong" by any means, but it does help. It often does show in tanktops (and sometimes gets all over the place, especially if I'm wearing dark clothes) so I've actually been avoiding it this summer with remarkably not terrible results.

@Leslie: ooh i'm going to have to try that! Is there any special trick to the steam/cold thing?

It's pretty easy. Make your paste of baking soda before you start. Fill the sink with hot water and stand over it with a towel draped over your head to make a tent (so your head is inside the tent and it gets all steamy). I've read that you should stand like that for ten minutes, but I usually get tired of waiting after about three. Pat your face dry, scrub gently for a minute or two with the baking soda paste, rinse it off, and then do a rinse with regular cold tap water.

For the toothpaste substitute try any of the kosher coarse salts available, I have been using this as a toothpaste sub for the past 2 years and have no mouth sores or breath problems. Both my dentist and MD say OK, keep it up! For deoderant I have been using one of the salt blocks from the local health food store, my wife has a nose like a bloodhound and no complaints from her and no one edges away in the grocery line so guess it works OK.

Toothpaste: I have been using Uncle Harry's toothpowder for 15 years now. It has chalk, mustard seed powder, sea salt, and a few plant essences in it. Immediately you will feel how much cleaner your mouth is than from toothpaste.

Then I gargle once with H2O2. That's it. The mouth is clean and disinfected. What people call tooth pain almost always is a result of an infection. The powder and the H2O2 will clean and disinfect. You should still, of course, go to your oral surgeon for the removal of bad teeth and cavity-filling, but you will not be in pain from an infection for days before your appointment.

The H2O2 can leave a little taste in your mouth. You may want to use a breath freshener for that. That's up to you.

Many people forego the H2O2, and just use the toothpowder by itself.

A thin, light, long-sleeved shirt and wide-brimmed hat go a long way toward limiting the need for sunscreens and insect repellents. Hiking I stuff a head net into the headband of my floppy hat. In the Florida heat and humidity the head net, worn over the hat so it doesn't contact the skin, feels better than skin smeared with oil dosed with DEET. The end result is that I've cut the amount of sunscreen and bug repellent by better than 75%.

For deodorant, nobody wants to smell like a goat, any of the so called 'crystal' deodorants, essentially a stick of solid alum, work pretty well and are, by all accounts, pretty safe.

Baking soda and hydrogen peroxide mixed up on the spot make a very effective toothpaste.

In the Florida heat and humidity chronic athlete's foot between the fourth and fifth toe is very common. You can keep it in check with anti-fungal agents. Or you can dry the area after each bath and drop the pH by adding a few drops of ordinary vinegar. $5 for a half ounce tube of anti-fungal or a gallon of vinegar. Both work if used regularly.

I've found that simple A&D ointment, essentially fish oil in petrolatum, is about as effective as the antibiotic ointments for use on cuts and scrapes. It is also a very good, and less toxic, moisturizer.

Antiperspirant has nothing to do with breast cancer or Alzheimer's disease. Seriously. I could go all Orac on you to explain why if you wish.

Thanks for the info! 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 while hurting the environment.

I've been going on the same move towards no cosmetics for a couple of years now, ever since discovering that my chronic "acne" was actually an allergic reaction to sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) in the soaps, body washes, and even acne treatments (way to self-perpetuate) that I'd been using. And then last year I started working with a woman who's extremely sensitive to the reproductive toxins in many products due to overexposure when she was younger -- now she gets headaches and skin reactions just from being near someone who's sprayed with strong perfumes. So I've been learning a lot from her, and have since given up a lot of products that I never thought I could live without.

Soap was my first big change, and shampoo quickly followed. I now buy all my soap, shampoo (in solid, bar-form), and shaving soap (so much better than shaving cream) from people who hand-make it in small batches -- some locally, some through online sources like (do read the ingredients carefully before buying; some sellers are better than others). Instead of hair gel or wax, I use a little bit of olive oil to give my hair that "spiky" look I like and smooth out any frizzies. For stronger hold, I've found a product at Lush that seems pretty much all-natural (at least, there's no unpronounceable chemicals on the label).

I rarely wear makeup (my training is in theatre, so I understand the psychology of "putting on a mask" just a little bit too well). But when I do want to doll myself up for a night out, I've switched to using mineral makeup (also handmade by an Etsy seller who does it in small batches). This way I can avoid the SLS and other chemicals that make my skin scream at me.

Most of the cleaning products in my house have also disappeared over the past couple of years, to be replaced by vinegar and baking soda. I still do keep bleach around for certain things (I just don't feel as though vinegar has the deadly power required to clean the toilet), but mostly I prefer to use food-grade stuff. When I can't find a way of using things from my kitchen effectively (laundry, for example, never seems to get clean enough with baking soda alone), I've found a company that seems pretty conscientious: NatureClean. Their products aren't, unfortunately, widely available, but from what I've found, they work well and don't contain much (if any) toxicity.

I haven't yet found a really effective deodorant that doesn't show on black clothing (my wardrobe staple). Most of the natural ones seem to be based on baking soda or cornstarch, both of which will leave white marks. The alum crystals are only semi-effective, but for now it's what I'm left with on most days. Still, ducking into the bathroom to spiffy up my pits halfway through a hot day is a small price to pay for not developing Alzheimers or cancer because of my desire to not smell.

Sunscreen is another place where I've been stumped. As a pasty-white goth kid, I used to coat myself in SPF 30 or above every day during the summer. But since discovering that even the "hypo-allergenic, scent free" baby sunscreen is loaded with carcinogens, I've been mostly resorting to just covering my body up and carrying an umbrella on really sunny days. I can't always avoid sunscreen (a day of hiking or camping is a bit of an impossible scenario unless I put some on), but I'm limiting my use until I can find one that's not deadly.

It's upsetting that it's so hard for even a conscientious and careful person to find products that aren't going to harm you and your family. Companies like Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson need to be forced into caring about human health, since they obviously aren't going to sit up and take responsibility all on their own.

From the video:
"Would you fly on an airline that only inspects 20% of its planes?"

Although I can understand the point there does seem to be a *bit* of a misunderstanding of some statistical concepts. Naturally I'd like some level of inspection on every craft, but if the defects in planes are systematic, then a more detailed inspection of only about 20% of the craft could be a big deal. Depending on the distribution of the defects on the smaller sample of planes, some significant

Another thing that bothers me is that the video doesn't really discuss the dosages of these chemicals, and with these multitude toxins of modern living that many like to decry, nowhere is it determined what levels are "safe" or not. I mean, it's at least *possible* to overdose on water but it's entirely essential for survivial!

So when they're saying we're "loaded" and "pre-polluted" I have to take a bit of umbrage at the statement because some of these things are essential trace minerals that the body needs, and, again, she doesn't say anything about how much of these things she has in her.

And then she mentions that a lot of these chemicals have been in use since the 1950s. One would imagine then, given how widespread they are, that we would see the effects a lot more strongly that we do.

And this isn't even mentioning the sort of "link" that have been found between these chemicals and cancer! From what it sounds like it's based primarily around certain types of statistical studies. Though they can suggest places to look in order to identify causes of cancer, having certain incidence rates of cancer in people who use the product still doesn't actually prove that the chemical CAUSES cancer, which I imagine would be the wording that would be used if a more conclusive clinical trial had actually been performed. Most people with Alzheimer's have gray hair, but that doesn't mean that gray hair causes it!

(Similarly, I do believe that the link between aluminum in antiperspirant and Alzheimers was similarly tenuous and debunked.)

It's one thing to say that you prefer baking soda and vinegar. Use what works best for you! Being a critical consumer that doesn't buy unnecessary products due to advertising is great. Spreading that message widely and encouraging people to buy less environmentally damaging and cheaper products is great. (Though I don't know how the environmental byproducts of mass baking soda production compares to the byproducts of shampoo production)

It's another to post a video without comment that calls anything with a chemical name a "toxin" without any additional information. It says baby shampoo is toxic without even bothering to list the ingredient that makes it toxic so that people can do their own research. I'm humbly suggest that removing the video would still leave a nice post that gets to the heart of your thoughts on this issue.

Found you from Orac's blog.

I have chronic seb. dermatitis/eczema/psoriasis on my scalp (the diagnosis changes from doctor to doctor depending on how it looks that day) and I've gone through months of baking soda + apple cider vinegar regimens on my hair to keep it flake free. Like every other product I've tried (nizoral, tar shampoo, selsun blue, head & shoulders, various 'natural' remedies), it worked for a while and then my scalp became resistant to it. When I first started using the ACV it almost burned because my scalp was so damaged! When I was having flare ups it would definitely tingle. Consumer beware.

Currently, I'm using milk of magnesia on my scalp before showering and I leave that on for 10 minutes and then rinse it in the shower and use a 'natural' shampoo. I then get out of the shower and half-dry my hair and then apply a leave-in avocado butter conditioner. I have stayed away from SLS simply because of the drying effect it has.. not for fear of any toxin woo.

I came to MoM after doing a pubmed search to see if it had any benefits because I used it for a sunburn and thought it might work on my scalp. I've had 1 flare up in the 9 weeks or so I've been using it and my scalp has steadily improved. Instead of an angry pinkish hue, my scalp is finally a nice neutral pale flesh color. The 1 flare up went away within a day when it usually lasts a week or two!

Something to try for anyone who's run the gamut of products and is still experiencing issues!

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.

Uhhhh... What makes you think that dumping acids down the drain is any better?

When I first started using the ACV it almost burned because my scalp was so damaged! When I was having flare ups it would definitely tingle. Consumer beware.

Yeah getting acid into open wounds does tend to do that.

I find it shocking that you would endorse washing your hair with a chemical that I use to clean automotive battery terminals!

I used to use acetic acid to burn away mineral deposits in irrigation systems on my farm. It would burn your throat to breathe in the vapors and make your eyes water, and this was when I used it outside!!! I can't imagine recommending that as shampoo! How irresponsible!

Maybe it's a concentration thing (I was using a 20% solution). Nah, dosage/concentration couldn't have any bearing on toxicity.

On a less snarky note, I totally applaud your post. From a utilitarian and quality of life perspective, I pretty much agree with you 100% I just find the video fear-mongery and overly simplistic. I should also note that I used that acetic acid on my organic farm, where I regularly stomped around barefoot while picking vegetables. I can play hippie street-cred with the best of them.

After all the hooha over the Pepsi blog this a post that should really upset the SB community. This is really unexpected anti-science at Science Blogs. I don't understand. Are you trying to make a point regarding the Pepsi thing by confusing people or you really can not be bothered to investigate the issue?

Honestly, I don't get this post. It belongs on some nutcase website, not SB.

@Mark Recommending alternatives to popular personal hygiene products that hurt people with sensitivities and have negative environmental effects is not "anti-science." Imagining that the only metric for choosing a product is how toxic it is is ridiculous. Don't be an asshole. "Science" doesn't need any more assholes.

I always thought basic chemistry was a prereq for getting into med school. You're actively promoting slathering pH 9 base on your had (making soap from the oils in your hair), and then rinse with pH 4 acid. And that's healthier for your skin than the pH neutral modern shampoos? I assume on bad hair days you go for lye and battery acid?

For a couple years as a student I used a salt stick deodorant, Tom's of Maine toothpaste, and no shampoo in my hair.

I had greasy hair that took 10 minutes of hot-water rinsing to get clean. When I went to see a dentist I needed eight cavities filled and a root canal. The deodorant worked OK for a couple years, but last year I started stinking and switched to a scentless conventional deodorant. Perhaps it was just me, but for me at least, "natural" meant "ineffective".

My wife just informed me that for the years we were dating, my hair didn't smell - but was unpleasant to touch - and sometimes my armpits stank. She's much more pleased with my current state of cleanliness. Come to think of it, she waited until after I made all these changes to marry me...

Yup, better living through chemistry! Though I'm totally on board with wishing there was less packaging for this kind of stuff.

Mark Recommending alternatives to popular personal hygiene products that hurt people with sensitivities and have negative environmental effects is not "anti-science." Imagining that the only metric for choosing a product is how toxic it is is ridiculous. Don't be an asshole. "Science" doesn't need any more assholes.

Science also doesn't need more naive do gooders. The premise of using vinnegar as an environmentally friendly soap is still anti-science bullshit. That is originally why I asked why she thought it was a good idea to dump acids to the drain. You aren't allowed to dump that type of acid (Which is disturbingly acidic in the form you get in vinnegar) down the drain (Even if it is dilluted) in the laboartory setting for environmental reasons. So pray tell me why is this even environmentally sound?

This post made my inner hippy squee! :) I would certainly support the use of alternative products, particularly those that are probably better for your hair/skin etc. I'm not sure I could ever stop using shampoo though (your right, it *is* addictive) and I've had too much dental work (of the braces variety) to dare stop using toothbrush.

My major environmental (and feminist) concession is that I never really use makeup. At most I stick some mascara on friday when I go out but during the week I am makeup free.

Is pouring vinegar down the drains bad for the environment? I do it all the time with salad dressing!

Arsenic is also natural, maybe that would be a good shampoo? Or how about brushing your teeth with a nice, natural anthrax-based gel? Seriously, arguments from nature are a logical fallacy and I expect much more from SB writers.

By Richard Wolford (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Holy crap. My gender is peopled with knee-jerk haters and jackasses. Apologies. My girlfriend is interested in this topic and thanks you for the post (in her usual shy way, through proxy).

BTW, regarding bases, aren't ALL soaps bases? Isn't that how they fucking work? And post-oil-based-gulf-apocalypse, can't we get behind efforts to reduce petroleum consumption?


By CS Shelton (not verified) on 08 Aug 2010 #permalink

Hello all,

That's interesting about the "no poo" and the vinegar conditioner. I already swear by diluted vinegar for everythging else. I'm going to have to try that.

As far as toothpaste, any non-flouride kind is best. Tom's has one and there's also one that Trader Joe's carries.

I use an aluminum free kind of deodorant that I purchased from Trader Joe's -love it.

I know this might sound weird -ut we should really try to use less toilet paper. I find that using water and a towl to dry my front side is much better that using paper.