A commitment to natural, healthy living for many of us includes eating cleanly, moving our bodies regularly, devoting time to spiritual practices, and tuning up through bodywork like chiropractic care, acupuncture and massage.
Another foundational building block to living healthfully is the products we use on our bodies every day. Many personal care products—even those labeled “natural” and “organic”—may be hiding chemicals that could be potentially harmful to our health.
“Skin is our largest organ,” says Holly Arrindell, owner of Medicinal Skin in Ridgefield. “It absorbs products, so we want them to be safe.”
What’s the harm in conventional personal care products?
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can regulate cosmetic chemicals. However, it only steps in if it has “reliable information” that a chemical could be toxic or harmful.
“The result is that several chemicals with realistic chances of causing toxic effects can be found in everything from shampoo to toothpaste,” according to Scientific American. Where the European Union has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from personal care products, the U.S. has banned only 11. We haven’t passed a major federal law to regulate the safety of ingredients used in personal care products since 1938. And yet thousands of new chemicals have been developed and used in new products since then without being tested or regulated.
Chemicals banned in the EU but still legal in the U.S. include:
Formaldehyde – Known carcinogen
Used in – Hair-straightening treatments, nail polish and eye-lash glue
Hydroquinone – Very high doses may lead to cancer
Used in – facial skin care
Lead Acetate – Possible carcinogen
Used in – Hair dye
Petroleum products (also known as mineral oil, paraffin and petrolatum) – May contain contaminants that could be harmful to health as well as clog pore, causing breakouts
Used in – Mineral oil used in bath oils, hair care products and cosmetics
Triclosan – Can interfere with a receptor important for cell development, according to research out of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University
Banned from the U.S. in hand soaps, but still allowed in – Other products including toothpastes
When petitions are brought to the FDA, such as a recent one protesting the use of lead acetate in hair dye, it still may take years for the FDA to deliberate and take action. In the meantime, U.S. law does not require those personal care products, including cosmetics, be approved by the FDA or any other governing body. Likewise, the law requires no specific tests before a new product or ingredient is brought to market.
“When I first began researching this topic, it opened my eyes to how profoundly inept our culture is at protecting the consumer in the area of personal care products,” says Siobhan McKinley, founder of Organachs Farm to Skin in Westport.
As consumers of personal care products, we are our own best advocates and some effort is required if we want to reduce our exposure to unwanted chemicals. For some, the prospect of researching safer alternatives for everyday personal care products—such as skincare, sunscreen and makeup—may feel overwhelming.
Here are some tips for making the switch to more natural alternatives that are just as, if not more, effective.
Do Natural Products Really Work?
McKinley hears this question from her customers all the time. Before starting Organachs, she worked in the beauty industry for 14 years. She notes that one problem with conventional skincare is that, “synthetic products sit on top of your skin. In contrast, your skin will synergistically recognize the botanicals and natural oils used in natural products.”
Since making the switch to natural skincare herself, McKinley notes that her skin has never looked better. “I used to use cosmoceutical brands from doctors,” she says. “But since I switched [to natural products], my skin glows. Once you start going organic, you don’t go back! Your skin looks better, brighter, more hydrated, and more supple.”
McKinley also notes that some people have doubts about the performance of natural products, especially cosmetics. “I carry a few makeup lines that were created by celebrity makeup artists,” she says. “The makeup I sell is high-performing, and it looks amazing on camera.”
Connecticut mother Jennifer Zenke developed dry, red patches under her eyes and around her mouth after the birth of her son. “I tried everything to fix it,” she says. She tried hydrating, using more moisturizer, and having her blood levels checked for vitamin deficiencies. She saw a dermatologist, who told her everything was fine. She tried all different products, but nothing worked.
A friend who sold products from Beautycounter—a leading multi-level marketing agency devoted to safer skincare—offered to let her try some samples for a few days. “Before I even returned the products three days later, my eczema was 90 percent gone,” Zenke said. “That was the “aha” moment that the eczema was obviously due to whatever I had been putting on my face before.”
Making the Switch
Skincare is very individualized. When making the shift to natural products, be prepared to do some homework and then test different products to find what works best.
“It can feel kind of daunting when you think of switching over; you don’t even know where to begin,” says Zenke, who has become a consultant for Beautycounter. “Beautycounter does their own research [on their products], and they’re concerned about ingredients and long-term effects. The fact that they’re making it easier to switch is so great.”
McKinley recommends starting the swap with the one or two products you use the most frequently, and that sit the longest on your skin, including moisturizer and sunscreen.
One place to start researching is with the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Healthy Living app. Consumers can download the app, type in the product they’re using and view its safety rating and list of chemicals with possible health effects. Choose one or two that have a poor rating, and start by replacing those products with more natural alternatives.
When choosing new products, remember that the FDA does not regulate the terms “natural” or “organic” in personal care products. “The word ‘natural’ doesn’t mean anything on skincare labels,” says Sherrylee Dickinson, a Fairfield County-based consultant with NYR Organic, a British natural skincare company founded in 1981. “It’s just a buzzword. There’s a lot of greenwashing that happens on these types of products.” Looking closely at ingredient lists and finding trustworthy brands is the safest way to ensure that products are truly safe and natural.
Experts also note that when switching from conventional to natural skincare products, skin may react with breakouts at first. “Your skin is purging chemicals,” says McKinley. Experts say such reactions may last a few weeks before clearing up.
Treating our skin to products that will protect our health in the long-term is one more thing we can do to live a natural, healthy lifestyle.
Product Recommendations from Local Experts
Skincare needs are highly individual from person to person, but here is a sampling of products recommended by the local experts interviewed for this article.
Beautycounter No. 3 Balancing Facial Oil: “I was nervous about this at first because I hear oil and I think breakouts,” says Zenke, “but it’s made from natural botanical oils and your skin absorbs it. This one balances your skin, reducing blotchy red spots; you can use it as a spot treatment for breakouts.”
Dr. Alkaitis Organic Eye Crème: McKinley uses this eye cream, which can be used daily even on sensitive skin.
May Lindstrom Problem Solver Warming Correcting Masque: McKinley loves this mask, which blends raw cacao, activated bamboo charcoal and exotic spices to brighten the complexion, heal inflammation, fade spots and treat breakouts.
NYR Organics Wild Rose Beauty Balm: “It’s antioxidant-rich with organic rosehip oil and organic geranium, rich in vitamins A and E, and super nourishing to the skin,” says Arrindell.
Alchimie Forever Kantic Calming Cream: “This cream is rich in natural antioxidants that help calm the skin from everyday environmental pollution and stress,” says Arrindell. “It’s great for rosacea-affected skin and sensitive skin types. It’s lightweight, but hydrating and repairing to the skin.”
NYR Organic Beauty Sleep Concentrate: “This moisturizer is very light and it’s great for a humid summer. It’s designed to relax you—not necessarily to put you to sleep,” says Dickinson.
For sunscreen, a conventional product many find difficult to replace, McKinley carries products from Suntegrity and Eir at Organachs.