A few months ago, I decided to green my closet.
As I shared here, that process was surprisingly easy and painless. Inspired and feeling pretty proud by the progress I had made, it seemed only logical that the next step would be to green my personal care routine. I was expecting this to be just as easy, if not more so, than changing my clothing habits.
After all, aren’t the shelves of Whole Foods and even CVS nowadays filled with organic beauty products just brimming with all-natural and therefore better and safer ingredients? Wouldn’t it follow that all I would have to do is read the labels?
As it turns out, I was wrong—very wrong.
Much to my surprise, anyone can use the term “natural” or “organic” when it comes to cosmetics.
Buying organic herbs from the produce section of a grocery store guarantees that they were grown under certain circumstances. However, if you step into the cosmetics aisle of the same store and see a product claiming to be organic and containing organic herbal extracts, there is no guarantee at all that it is true.
While some products do carry the USDA organic seal, which has pretty strict guidelines, when it comes to using the term “organic,” nearly anyone can claim that their product or the stuff that it is in it is organic without having to provide any proof whatsoever.
However, even if you find a product bearing the USDA’s seal, it is no guarantee that is better for you or your skin than a conventional product made with non-organic or synthetic ingredients. As it currently stands, there is no research showing that organic extracts are better than their non-organic or synthetic counterparts. Indeed, some very natural ingredients can lead to some very real problem reactions.
As the writer/consumer advocate/”cosmetics cop” Paula Begoun states on her very informative website, many natural ingredients such as a peppermint and lavender oil are well-known skin irritants. (The latter can also increase sensitivity to the sun.) Likewise, poison ivy, mercury, and arsenic are all natural, but no one would advocate using them in personal care products.
All ingredients including those grown in the most natural and purest of circumstances must be processed before they can be used in cosmetics. Often, the finished product which is left as a result of processing is very different than what one started out with. It also means that the ingredients are sterilized, which takes away any pesticide residue.
Still, many may be ask wondering what about scary things like parabens, phthalates, and lead in popular brands of lipstick? Isn’t that enough to make anyone embrace the world of natural cosmetics?
Interestingly enough, the jury is still out on many of these things and their potential harm to human beings. Even if it is the case that many of these products are as bad as some suggest, cosmetics still contain pretty small amounts of these things. As someone who briefly worked for a toxicology company and had the oh-so-interesting job of editing and logging literally hundreds of toxicology reports, it amazes me how much tolerance the human body has in general toward toxins and how most bodies—even ones that are overweight and exist mainly on a typical Western diet—do a fine job of detoxing nasty stuff on their own.
While I generally buy and consume organic food because I think the methods employed in organic farming are better for the environment and possibly better for my health, I cannot say that my own experience with “natural” body and beauty care left me with anything other than a lighter wallet.
A highly recommended shampoo by a well-known green beauty company left me with a greasy, itchy scalp, while an expensive facial moisturizer that boasted a plethora of plant oils made my acne-prone skin breakout. (This, despite the claims that these oils were noncomedogenic—another term which I learned was unregulated and could be legally applied to just about anything).
Then there was my experience with the sunscreens I tried. Despite keeping my beauty routine at a minimum and often skipping make-up altogether, I always make it a point to apply sunscreen every day no matter the weather. (I have a history of cancer on both sides of my family.)
Despite the claims that physical sunblocks like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are far more safer and natural because they are mined from the earth—never mind that both undergo a significant refining process before they go into sunscreen—both left me with a whitish cast that made me look like I was auditioning for the lead of Madame Butterfly. Even worse, the zinc oxide based one had a tendency to peel on my skin and flake off. (I don’t consider myself vain, but even I have my limits and looking like an extra from a zombie movie is one of them.)
The experience had me heading back to my beloved big-brand, chemical-based sunblock and making a mental note to buy up all existing tubes if the company ever discontinues it.
Still, I am not a total cynic. Much like my commitment to a greener, ethnically-made wardrobe, I am committed to cutting down on the number of products that I use and only buying stuff that actually works for me. I have also vowed not to buy any products from companies that test on animals.
In the meantime, like many women I know, I have a huge amount of unused cosmetics—mainly haircare products that are cluttering my bathroom. Many of these bottles and jars are nearly full. In most cases, I was lured by the promise of smoother, fuller hair or clearer, healthier looking skin. They fell short of their promises.
The truth is, organic or not, no cosmetic is capable of permanently changing one’s appearance permanently. Still, it is fun to pamper oneself and get ‘glammed up.’ Educate yourself on what you are using. If something works for you, and it is not harming you or the environment, then I suggest you go for it whether the labels says natural or not. You’re worth it.
Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor based in Charlottesville, VA. When not she is not on the mat, she can be found at her other job which is teaching children how to do needlework. In her spare time she enjoys photography.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel