It's easy to poke fun at people in the past who, like Queen Elizabeth I and her fellow noblewomen whitened their skin with layers of toxic lead paint or used drops of the poisonous deadly nightshade plant to enlarge their pupils. In the 1930s, women used mascara made with a synthetic aniline dye. They didn't know it at the time, but none of these practices were safe, and they led to disfigurement, blindness, or even death.
But are we any safer or more careful? Do we also risk our health with our personal care products?
After spending a little time on the Skin Deep website (in the sidebar), I've concluded that many or even most of the conventional personal products being sold aren't healthy and haven't been adequately tested. In fact, Using the Precautionary Principle, Europe bans some of the ingredients we still use in our products! Here in the US, it seems we prefer the Profit Principle—almost anything goes if a company can make a profit on it.
Unfortunately, we can't count on just finding a brand that doesn't have unhealthy products and sticking with it. Even within a brand, there's quite a lot of variation in safety. Unfortunately, for us it has been a fairly long process of searching, product by product, for safe choices.
We're trying to find the safest products to clean our skin, hair, and teeth. We aren't sure we've found the best options for each of these, but this is what we're using so far.
Dr. Bronner's soap
We've been using Dr. Bronner's both for our hand soap and for showering. We especially like the peppermint.
What we would NOT use are the antibacterial soaps. The American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration, and others have concluded that triclosan, the antibacterial agent used, does NOT work any better than plain soap and water. This unhealthy chemical is found in our bodies (especially in the bodies of higher-income people who can afford these products) and even in breast milk.
For cleaning my face, I use Dr. Bronner's castile baby soap. It's very mild and though it's a little pricey to buy initially, it lasts so long that I suspect that if I calculated the cost per day, it would probably be much cheaper.
I had been using baby shampoo, but only the brands that are rated as safe by Skin Deep, since—shockingly—not even all baby shampoos are safe.
Lately, though, I've started just using Dr. Bronner's Liquid Castile Baby Soap. So far, this has seemed to work well, and I don't have to read all those long lists of ingredients looking for the bad stuff.
We use Tom's of Maine, but again, only those varieties of the many Tom's varieties that are rated as safe.
Actually when people say they're buying "deodorant," what they're usually purchasing is a "deodorant/anti-perspirant." Why block only odor when you can also block the perspiration itself?
But what blocks the perspiration is some form of aluminum, and the human body doesn't need aluminum. Maybe I don't work hard enough or maybe I'm just lucky, but in everyday life, I don't often actually sweat. Switching to just a deodorant without the anti-perspirant qualities has worked fine for me, keeping me "socially acceptable" while avoiding aluminum.
There's enough indication of harm from aluminum (absolute proof is always hard to come by in these matters) that I think it's smart to avoid it when I can.
And, of course, anti-perspirant or not, we always choose unscented. (And who wants to smell like deodorant anyway?)
My homemade moisturizer
I had been using Aubrey Organics moisturizer for a while, but then my local store stopped carrying it.
I then discovered that it was pretty simple to make an effective moisturizer—one that had none of the problematic ingredients commercial products had.
The recipe I'm now using is from the book Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond on p. 142. It's so simple, it's hard to believe it's so effective i.e. it makes my skin feel moist and silky!
Here's the recipe: Combine 1/4 cup aloe vera gel with 1 Tbs. glycerin in a glass jar with a screw top. Shake or stir to blend. Dampen your face, then dab the mixture on your fingers and massage into the skin. The shelf life is listed as 4 months, which is why I halved the amounts given in the book; I use 4 tsp. aloe and 1 tsp. glycerin. Even so, since there are no preservatives, I keep it in the refrigerator just to be safe.
And we've also discovered that coconut oil is really effective preventing dry skin. After taking a shower, we just take bits of coconut oil and it melts as we rub it on our skin. Good-bye moisturizing lotions!
I've been trying to find healthier makeup products, but it's not easy. Basically, I just want foundation, blush, and lipstick. It's hard enough to find safe versions of just those.
This is one of those times when it would have been useful to have a smartphone. I could have checked right there in the store to see its Skin Deep rating.
Second best would have been delaying my purchase until I could go home and check it out, but I just grabbed it, thinking that the "mineral" type of product is generally safer. It probably is to some extent, but not this one.
After using it for a while, I decided to check it out. A 7 on the 10-point scale. It's hard to find products to are rated as 0-2, but I generally don't like to use anything higher than 3 or 4.
Unfortunately, this one went in the wastebasket—a real waste of money, but a lesson learned. I since have bought Jane Iredale blush and lipstick—a bit pricey, but it lasts a long time and is much less toxic.
Some things we can just avoid
Some things are really easy. Why use eye makeup or nail polish anyway? I can't think of any products I'd want to use purely for aesthetic reasons so close to my eyes, and nail polish is just too much trouble. As far as fragrance, I strive for the goal I remember seeing stated in interviewing manuals when I was in college: "the ideal candidate has no odor." That's good enough for me!
I avoid many other beauty products, too.
Is gray the only color hair must not be?
My original dark hair
The biggest change I've made is to stop dyeing my hair.
I stopped dyeing it after listening to a guest scientist on the Diane Rehm show said that while there wasn't yet direct evidence of harm, they didn't think it was a good idea (or something to that effect). But what to do?
My initial decision was to use henna, which is non-toxic. There's a major time and mess commitment with henna, but I used it for quite a while. After all, what choice did I have if the original dark hair dye was too dangerous, and my suspected real hair color was gray (never having actually seen my real hair in a number of years)?
Unfortunately, though, henna is effective (i.e. attractive) only if there are just a few gray hairs. In my case, it turns out there were more than a few, and the result was a brassy red, unattractive color. Still I continued.
Now my hair is gray
The breakthrough came when I finally decided that nothing could be worse than the red color (except the possible harm from the original brown hair dyes). I just let it grow out naturally. It helped that by then I was a grandma. It was obvious that I was of the age that my hair would naturally be gray.
It has been liberating to just accept my hair as it is. Who said that gray is the only color hair must not be? Why are women persuaded that their natural color isn't good enough?
(BONUSES: Not dyeing my hair has also saved a lot of time and money as well as anxiety about my "roots" showing between treatments.)
I've been waiting to see if I started a trend, but it doesn't seem to be happening. (I've never been a fashion leader …) I'm happy, though, knowing that I've eliminated one more set of toxic chemicals from my body, and especially that I've come to feel very comfortable with my own real hair, gray though it may be. Maybe I've also planted a seed of an idea in younger people who may be starting to see their first gray hairs.