Having spent most of my adult life being very aware of what’s healthy and what’s not food-wise, I’d never given my cosmetics much of a thought. Happily trolling the luxurious and inviting beauty halls for a new fix or to stock up on a treasured hero product, I’d be in an unconcerned state of mind. The one manufacturers want consumers to be in – there’s actually a name for it, it’s been studied and when it happens, you are in a dreamy, semi-conscious state, unquestioning and ready to spend. This is why shopping is so addictive. And I was no different as I mingled with other shoppers, all of us excited about the shiny new things we were about to get our manicured mitts on. The lovely bottles and chunky compacts were my friends, after all, weren’t they? They made me look good and smell even better. And such beautiful packaging! I was sold.
Skin-wise, I’m someone who’s been moisturising practically since birth; Scando genes meant pale skin that preferred to stay out of the sun but otherwise fairly happy-go-lucky as long as I ate well and drank plenty of water. Occasionally I’d read an article where people would warn about parabens this and laurel sulphate that but to me they were weak voices, easily ignored. Filed under “I know I should – but probably won’t.” Which made no sense at all – I’d always read the ingredients on new products in the supermarket before deciding to buy, would always try to get organic as much as I could afford it and if buying meat, try to get a fix on its provenance. That sketch on the satirical sketch TV series Portlandia where they decide to source the chicken back to its farm could have been about me! I’d no more buy a nitrate-laden sausage than I’d drop litter in the street. Yet I was buying the cosmetics equivalent, carefully spreading it all over my skin every day.
While marvelling at the fact that we can now get a plethora of medicines and vitamins as topical application (so modern!) I was mindlessly applying products on a daily basis that were full of sulfates, plastics, parabens, silicone, mineral oil, petrolatum, petrochemical-derivatives and synthetics. One commonly spotted foe, the paraben (there are a bunch, actually, such as methylparaben, ethylparaben etc, they all end in paraben) is made from a petrochemical and have been linked to breast cancer. Parabens have been shown to disrupt hormones and the current concern is that we are absorbing a cocktail of various hormone-disrupting chemicals because most of us use a number of different health and beauty products. More than 90% of non-organic cosmetic products contain some form of paraben. Why not grab a couple of your favourite non-organic products and muse over the enormous amount of strange-sounding ingredients that for some reason are necessary to make something as basic as bodylotion or shampoo.
Polyethylene glycols are another group of trolls. These petroleum-based compounds are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners and moisture-carriers. Hilariously also found in oven cleaners – that noxious, fume-laden poison gloop you’d only use in acute needing-to-clean-oven-before-landlord-inspects type emergency. PEGs are commonly used as cosmetic cream bases. Lovely. Would you like some oven cleaner with that foundation, madam? May be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, respectively classified as a known human carcinogen and a possible human carcinogen.
These are just two examples. Once you delve into this subject, more and more reasons to try to make a change crop up. I don’t want to put these things on my skin any longer but I still want to look and feel good and this is such a new ballgame. Will products from the health shop perform as well? Never mind products such as soap or body lotion – when it comes to beauty, will the natural mascara be as good as my usual one even if it doesn’t contain formaldehyde? Yes, another scary fact! Formaldehyde is included in mascara to control bacteria growth. Personally I’d prefer to bin it after a month rather than basically embalm my eyes every day – even if it does give me longer, thicker lashes… Won’t it cost a fortune to swap everything over? Looking at my old products, I feel such a tug of love – you were my friends for so long! Look, there’s still loads left in that bottle… which cost a toe-tingling £49 to buy and I remember how it felt so special, the stiff carrier bag, the rustling tissue, the impeccably made up sales lady and I colluding in my little splurge. I realize how thick the web surrounding this is, both my ‘grooming’ by years of glossy ads and equally glossy products, and my own complicity in deliberately not listening to the warnings about skin cancer from additives in cosmetics. My one and only nod to those warnings were to change to a PitRok crystal deodorant years ago and this only because a friend convinced me it was actually better than conventional deodorants. Which it were.
So why am I so skeptical about ‘natural skincare’? In my head I come up with exactly the same lame excuses that seasoned junk food eaters use when exposed to healthy food. Thinking back on how I changed to preferring healthy food, I realize a slow, gradual approach is best. Lots of research is essential. For anyone who wants to explore the principles of organic and what it entails, we’ve included a list of websites at the end of this article, such as the Soil Association, that explain everything in a matter-of-fact way.
Many of them also de-bunk the myths that might make you struggle with the decision to go organic. Once you know the basics, experiment with changing one or two staples. Such as toothpaste, body lotion or soap. Organic alternatives for those are not too expensive and a good way to start. Still feeling bewildered? Linda Öhrström will be posting lists of what to try are here to help you. She’s long embraced a healthy lifestyle and her enquiring mind has been researching which products really deliver. Any product on her list is one she’s tried personally. Her sage advice is to go for as few ingredients as possible; if you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not that great; ask yourself whether you’d eat it and most importantly, look out for certifications such as Soil Association, Eco Cert or USDA. Also be accepting of the potential limitations – fully organic make up is hard to find just yet, so do the best you can. Skincare is more organic, if you stick to the oils you can actually get 100% organic, but otherwise there are enough organic good brands out there for us not to have to compromise.
To aim for a state where everything we put in or on our bodies is nutritious and safe seem a tall order yet also a beautiful quest. Surely the bare minimum is to not knowingly cover oneself in pollutants. You’re not always in control of your environment but you can make the choice not to buy products that are full of ingredients that are known to be harmful. Those products are not my friends any longer, when they pretend to me they will make me feel better, yet turn out to be made from ingredients that are proven to be toxic and even causing cancer. Scorning them will make the manufacturers take note and hopefully make them implement changes.
Lao Tzu famously said, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begin with a single step’. Take that first step – you’ll be surprised where it leads you.
Words by Anna Bang
Tagsanna bang, Fiona Gourlay, linda ohrstrom, Organic Beauty, SHOWstudio,