This year, I was diagnosed with endometriosis.
No, endometriosis is not just “painful periods;” it’s a hormone-related disease in which the uterus lining grows outside of the uterus onto other organs, causing scar tissue and lesions, and, often, severe, chronic pain.
Although not much is known about endometriosis and its causes, research has linked it to endocrine disruptors in the environment—in layman’s terms, exposure to toxic chemicals.
Hormones are extremely important in many of the body’s processes, but they work in very small amounts at precise moments. When we are exposed to endocrine disruptors (a.k.a. hormone disruptors), these chemicals can mimic hormones and wreak havoc on our bodies.
However, the chemical industry isn’t eager to share this information with the public. There is a clear echo of the tobacco industry’s infamous concealment of the toxicity of cigarettes, which is particularly concerning considering that these toxic chemicals can be found virtually everywhere in our modern world.
Recently, major medical organizations have been releasing more independent statements warning of the harmfulness of chemicals found in everyday products—especially beauty products—that are somehow still deemed “safe,” despite being linked to ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, birth defects, infertility, and hormone-related diseases, such as endometriosis.
When I received my diagnosis, after months of chronic pain spent married to a hot water bottle, I went full Sherlock and started an investigation that would lead me to realize that the culprits of my pain had been living a quiet, steady life all around my home. I didn’t have to reach any further than my bathroom sink to make contact with an endocrine disruptor—or five. My beauty routine was especially saturated in toxic chemicals, as they can be found in virtually all non-natural shampoos, body washes, moisturizers, nail polishes, and cosmetics.
These perpetrators often wear clever disguises, masking themselves with nonthreatening names like “fragrance” or “parfum” (usually a mixture of dozens of undisclosed chemicals) and “phthalates” (which are banned in cosmetics sold in the European Union after being linked to cancer and developmental and reproductive toxicity).
Pregnant women and babies are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of toxins, as young organs aren’t yet strong enough to fight them as well as fully-developed ones.
It would be virtually impossible in today’s world to completely avoid harmful chemicals. We can replace cleaning products with vinegar, buy beeswax candles instead of scented ones, stop touching receipts (which bleed BPA), buy glass tupperware, and avoid pesticides and herbicides, but to avoid toxins altogether would entail wrapping ourselves in bubble wrap (just kidding, chemicals in plastics contain phthalates, too) or committing to a lifestyle of hermitage I’m personally not prepared to attempt.
However, as with any action toward a healthier self, a few steps is better than none, and even a few changes can make a huge difference. I found it was easiest to detox one harmful slice of my life at a time, starting with the piece containing the most toxins per volume: my beauty routine. I started by familiarizing myself with this list of chemicals to avoid in beauty products. (I bet you’ll be surprised how many you can find in your bathroom right now.)
Then, over time, I’ve collected and tweaked the following recipes to replace some of the culprits in my own bathroom. (Hint: Get out the coconut oil.) You can use them for inspiration, tweak them however you like, or try to switch out some of your favorite products for one of the natural ones below a few times a week.
Dry, cracked skin? How about a dollop of coal tar? Many moisturizers have been found to contain this known carcinogen, which produces skin tumors and causes neurological damage. The FDA states that any drug product containing 0.5% to 5% of coal tar needs to have a warning label, so always be sure to check your moisturizers (and hair dyes, food, clothing…). And don’t even get me started on anti-aging creams.
For a long time I ignored the fact that the products I apply to the outside of my body are absorbed and affect my insides just as much as anything I consume. But, it’s true. Your skin is just an organ, and your biggest one, at that. So, why bathe it in a known carcinogen?
Luxurious three-ingredient Moisturizer:
Personally, I like to keep my beauty routine simple. Most mornings, I just use plain old organic, extra-virgin coconut oil to moisturize after my shower. However, this more luxurious recipe only takes two more ingredients and about that many minutes to whip up:
½ cup coconut oil
½ tbs. shea butter
1 tsp liquid vitamin E oil
10 – 20 drops lavender essential oil
Directions: Melt the coconut oil and shea butter together in a pan; remove from heat immediately and add vitamin E oil and lavender drops. Pour into a wide-mouthed jar, whip with a fork for three minutes, and then let solidify. Use anywhere, any time. This makes a great conditioning hair mask, too!
2. 2-in-1 shampoo/body wash
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are just two toxins you may be lathering on your hair and body and your baby’s hair and body (they’re known to be in several baby shampoos). Luckily, believe it or not, our hair doesn’t require formaldehyde to shine like a Pantene Pro-V commercial. Here’s my favorite recipes for natural shampoo and conditioner.
All natural 2-in-1 shampoo:
½ cup Dr. Bronner’s castile soap
40 drops essential oil (try citrus for a tingly, invigorated feeling on your scalp, or tea tree for dandruff)
½ tsp olive oil or almond oil (only for non-oily hair)
Pour all ingredients into an emptied shampoo bottle and shake.
1 tbs organic apple cider vinegar (with the mother)
1 cup water
Pour ingredients into empty shampoo bottle and shake. No, it doesn’t make your hair smell like vinegar. I sometimes like to replace the water with strongly-brewed chamomile tea (best for blondes, use black tea if you’re a brunette), but note that the mixture won’t keep as long.
When I lived in France, I fell in love with perfume. Nothing feels more feminine than wrists spritzed with intoxicating potions of flowers and spices. Unfortunately, virtually all perfumes are intoxicating because they contain way more than just flower essences. “Fragrance” and “parfum” are words you can find in the ingredients list of pretty much any perfume. These words stand in for a mixture of any number of more than three thousand trade-protected chemicals. Some of these undisclosed chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and sensitivities, not to mention their negative affects on asthma.
Even the roll-on perfume oils sold at health food stores often contain “fragrance” and can’t always be trusted. You can always use coconut oil, melted beeswax, and essential oils to make a solid perfume, and mix and match the essential oils to create your own unique blends. But I prefer a subtle, dry perfume, like the body dusting powder recipe below.
Dry perfume dusting powder:
1 cup arrowroot powder (or cornstarch)
¼ cup baking soda
3 tbs powdered herb, spice, or plant of your choice (try cinnamon, nutmeg and pine needles in winter, or rose petals, jasmine and lavender in the summer)
60 drops essential oil of your choice (ylang ylang, patchouli, vanilla, or sweet orange, for example)
Use a coffee grinder to grind the herbs or plant into the finest powder possible. Then, whisk together all ingredients in a bowl. Use your fingers to break apart any clumps that form from the essential oils. Pour into a closed tin or glass container. To use, dip a large makeup brush into the powder and apply to arms, legs, neck, and hair. (It makes a great dry shampoo!)
Mascara is the only makeup I wear on a regular basis. But, as you’ve probably guessed, my favorite cosmetic contains several endocrine disruptors. Luckily, even makeup doesn’t need to be as complicated as its labels make it seem. This recipe I borrowed from Wellness Mama.
All natural black mascara:
Empty mascara container (wash an old one, or you can buy one online)
¼ tps black mineral powder, activated charcoal, or black clay
¼ tsp. bentonite clay
⅛ tsp vegetable glycerine
¼ tsp aloe vera gel
5 drops lavender essential oil
Mix all ingredients in a very small bowl until completely smooth.
Add more aloe vera gel if needed to get a smooth consistency.
Carefully scoop into the medicine dropper with a spatula and slowly squirt into the mascara container (or jar). Alternately, you can add the ingredients directly to the mascara tube and mix with the mascara brush, though it takes a while of mixing to get the ingredients smooth inside the tube.
Use as you would regular mascara.
To remove: Use a washcloth with warm water or use olive oil as a natural eye makeup remover.
We’ve all probably heard of the alleged dangers of fluoride, but what about heavy metals like lead, arsenic and chromium, found in lip products, foundations, eye drops, and toothpaste? Some metals, like iron, are actually good for the body, but when they accumulate they can have negative effects on our organs. To avoid potential toxic build-ups while still keeping clean, white chompers, get out the coconut oil again for the following recipe.
6 tbs coconut oil
6 tbs baking soda
1 tsp turmeric powder
25 drops peppermint oil
You guessed it—use a fork to mix together all ingredients in a bowl, and voila!
6. Hair dye
P-phenylenediamine, found in hair dyes, can alter the genetic material of cells, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Not really worth it, no matter how nice Clairol’s shiny shade of chestnut brown looks. Chemicals in hair dye have also been linked to cancer and organ system toxicity.
Although I’ve never tried it myself, I’ve heard great things about henna’s use turning hair a beautiful shade of red. However, not everyone who wants to try something new wants to go ginger.
There aren’t many 100% safe permanent hair dyes (at least not that I know of), but I’ve found that tea rinses have lovely affects on darkening or lightening a person’s natural hair color.
Herbal Tea Rinse:
For blonde/golden hair:
Brew four bags of chamomile tea in two cups of boiled water for one hour. Pour tea over hair after showering as often as you like until achieving the desired results. Do not rinse with water afterward. Pat dry.
For brown/black hair:
Brew four bags of black tea (English breakfast tea works fine, but Earl Gray has a lovely, musky scent of bergamot) in two cups of boiled water for one hour. Pour tea over hair after showering. Do not rinse with water afterward. Pat dry.
7. Nail polish
There was a time when I painted my nails once a week, religiously. As a nail-biter, keeping a fresh, un-chipped coat of nail polish was the only method I found that kept my fingers out of my face. Unfortunately for my beautiful backscratchers, nail polish and nail polish removers often contain formaldehyde, coal tar, and toluene (a chemical added to gasoline that’s been linked to reproductive and organ system toxicity), among other toxins, and nail polish remover boasts of a slew of terrifying chemical names that have been linked to cancer. While I still lacquer my nails occasionally, I only do so in a well-ventilated area with no young people around, and I try to only use polish from a company who has removed toluene from their polishes (try OPI, Orly, or Sally Hansen). While this doesn’t guarantee they’re safe, it’s better than the alternative.
Here’s another solution:
Giving up nail polish doesn’t mean you have to forego the mani/pedi altogether. Invest in a nail buffer! That little white block the mall workers wave in your face is actually a great, cheap product you can find at virtually any pharmacy or grocery store carrying beauty products. You can remove ridges, buff, smooth, and shine for feminine hands without the poisonous tips.
Think about that ticklish patch of skin in your armpit. Maybe it’s prickly, maybe it’s not, but no matter how protected it is by hair, it’s an extremely sensitive part of your body, especially considering its proximity to the ultra-sensitive breast tissue. According to the National Cancer Institute, the aluminum-based compounds used as the active ingredient in antiperspirants may cause estrogen-like effects when absorbed by the skin. Estrogen has the ability to promote the growth of breast cancer cells, leading some scientists to suggest a link between anti-perspirant deodorants and breast cancer.
I know plenty of people who have gone cold turkey and no longer swipe anything under their arms in the mornings, and they swear that after the first couple of weeks their body’s chemicals “balance out” and they don’t smell anymore. Whether or not this is just the effect of them being used to their own scent after a while is up for debate; however, for the B.O.-opposed, here is a natural deodorant recipe that’s gentle enough for sensitive underarm skin.
3 tbs extra virgin organic coconut oil
2 tbs shea butter
3 tbs baking soda
2 tbs cornstarch
5 drops essential oil of your choice
Create a double-boiler by bringing a pot of water to a boil and placing a jar in the water. Pour coconut oil and shea butter into the jar and allow to melt. Remove from heat immediately and stir in baking soda, corn starch, and essential oils. Pour into empty deodorant container and let harden.
Taking proactive steps toward a healthier, more natural life has made me feel more in control of my disease and closer to my body, as well as to the earth. (Think about it: all that toxin-filled soap residue and foam that slurps its way down the shower drain isn’t just disappearing. It’s going straight into the land.)
Sometimes, I still wear lipstick, or I buy non-natural shampoo, or I spritz myself with my favorite French perfume. I’m a strong proponent for moderation, and I know that I can never avoid all harmful chemicals completely. Maybe I’m too noncommittal, but swearing your life one hundred percent to any kind of lifestyle can lead to dangerous dogmas, complexes, and phobias.
But, there’s inspiration to be had and steps to be taken, if only you have a jar of coconut oil.
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Author: Felicia Bonanno
Image: Manu Camargo/Unsplash
Editor: Emily Bartran