In November of 2015, about sixteen months ago, my morning routine was featured on the (apparently now-defunct) natural beauty blog “No More Dirty Looks.” At the time, I was using a heavily-DIY, all-natural routine, focusing on avoiding chemicals like parabens. Since then, I’ve obviously changed my tune and started using more man-made (and woman-made!) ingredients and products and stopped avoiding ingredients like parabens in favor of science-based ingredients. So I thought I’d use this post to talk a little bit about why I made the switch and why I no longer think it’s necessary to avoid the so-called “toxic” chemicals in our beauty products.
First, a little bit about my own personal story. I found natural/organic beauty through the organic and traditional foods movement. Several years ago, I decided to drastically overhaul how I ate in order to see if it would help my frequent migraine headaches. The good news is that it did! The bad news is that it meant making from scratch pretty much every scrap of food that went into my body. That’s a daunting task, and I did it with the help of food bloggers in the “real food” movement. And while I was busy putting only minimally-processed, organic food into my body, I started reading about how we also get exposed to “toxic chemicals” through the personal care products we use. Around the same time, I had a massive breakout of hives over my entire body for 36 hours. I tracked down the possible culprits and decided that the artificial fragrance had caused my reaction. So I started switching to an all-natural regimen of personal care.
At my crunchiest, I used homemade soap, apple cider vinegar, and organic oils to care for my face, body, and hair. I used crystal deodorant. I ate up articles by bloggers claiming to have found a scientific basis for avoiding parabens, phthalates, sulfates, fragrances, and a whole host of other ingredients. When I couldn’t use something made myself, I found the simplest, least-preserved brand at the organic market that I could. I even washed my hair with mud for a while. And I kept this up for years.
Finally, I realized that highly-alkaline soaps were not doing my skin or hair any favors. I think the first step was admitting that washing my hair with soap left it paradoxically greasy and dry. My hairdresser would refuse to touch my hair until he’d washed it with salon shampoo. And I was breaking out. I went from being a teenager and early-20-something with enviable skin to a spotty 30-something.
In a fit of pique, I became so frustrated with how my skin reacted to everything that I just stopped using anything at all but plain water on my face. That was when I started noticing that my skin was actually dry. I started doing different research, looking up hydrating skin, and eventually found the Skincare Addiction and Asian Beauty subreddits. There, I learned that I had probably dehydrated my skin from years of using alkaline cleansing products and only oils to moisturize. And a light bulb went on.
But in order to fully break away from my crunchy leanings, I had to convince myself that these chemicals I’d been avoiding for years were actually safe. Once I finally did, I felt embarrassed because the preponderance of scientific evidence is in favor of the safety of approved cosmetics ingredients, and I have a scientific background myself. Refusing to trust these researchers is akin to refusing to trust the science that claims vaccines are safe and necessary or that human-driven climate change is a major factor in our environment. If I trusted the science in one place, I needed to learn to trust the science in this place.
Of course, there are bloggers with science backgrounds doing the good work of trying to counter the scare-mongering people who perpetuate this fear of “chemicals.” And that really helped. But I also did my own looking around. And even now, when I find myself falling into old habits of worrying about a skin care ingredient, I do a search and try to limit myself to scientific publications. And since I know a little bit about scientific publication, I try to look up the journals these things are published in, to ensure I’m getting good sources.
But that’s not to say I’ve completely abandoned everything I gained from being an organic beauty aficionado. I still use natural oils on my face. I still DIY my own products, when I can’t find a commercial product that I like. And I still am wary of fragrance in skin care. I’m still aware of my ingredients, but I know that I could have a problem from any ingredient, not just the ones with unfamiliar chemical names.
And that’s the real crux of why I no longer consider myself a natural skin care person. I’ve found some natural ingredients that cause me much worse problems than any scary-sounding chemical ever has. As an example, I’m going to go back to that story about breaking out in hives. I noticed that the initial reaction happened in the exact pattern that I use when putting soap on my body. I looked at the bar of soap I was using and, sure enough, “fragrance” was one of the ingredients. Now, I’m friends with the lady who makes the soap, so I shot her a quick email. She verified that, yes, she used artificial sandalwood fragrance because of cost and environmental concerns with sandalwood oil. Well, I thought to myself, that must be the problem!
There was a jasmine perfume she sold that I loved, so when I was done “detoxing,” I added that back in first, to make sure it didn’t cause a problem. And it didn’t. Oh well, I thought, the jasmine fragrance oil and the sandalwood fragrance oil must have different constituents. But then, I started making my own soaps and she shared her fragrance supplier’s website with me. Well, knowing that the sandalwood fragrance made me react and the jasmine didn’t, I figured I could go to the data sheets for each fragrance and look at what different components they had.
And they had exactly the same fragrant compounds in them. From a chemical standpoint, there wasn’t a difference. So if I had reacted to one, why didn’t I react to another?
Then, I went back to the soap ingredient list and looked again. One of the essential oils was cinnamon essential oil. Now, cinnamon is intensely irritating and has to be used carefully. I had actually had a less-severe skin reaction to a product with cinnamon in it after my hives situation. So after all that, after years of being chemically-avoidant, it was probably a natural essential oil that had caused my reaction.
So the lesson here is that anything can cause a reaction, be it natural or synthesized. Be aware of your personal care products, but know that approved chemicals became approved through a lengthy research process, and distrusting that research may not leave you with the best products to work with.