We are virtually trapped in a cloud of chemicals at all times. We use chemicals to clean our homes, chemicals hang in the air outside and our food is processed using chemicals. While it is possible to make conscious choices to steer clear of unnecessary chemicals — by eating organic and buying natural cleaning products, for example — a good place to start is with your beauty routine.
WATCH BELOW: Natural beauty and skincare products
“Everything we put on our skin absorbs in the more visceral parts of our body and bloodstream, and sometimes they can affect our internal organs,” says Kristen Ma, an Ayurvedic practitioner, co-owner of Pure + Simple spas and author of Beauty: Pure + Simple. “We think of topical products as separate from internal ones, but that’s not the case. Some hormonal medications can be applied topically, even birth control can be transmitted through a patch.”
The shampoo you use to wash your hair and the lotion you use to moisturize your skin may seem innocuous, but many of them contain chemicals that are deemed harmful by environmental awareness groups. In fact, the European Union has a list of more than 1,300 chemicals that are banned from personal care products, whereas Health Canada’s ingredient hotlist counts just over 500 compounds and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. lists fewer than 20.
“In Europe, their certification process for natural and organic products is more stringent, too,” Ma says.
Although this doesn’t mean that buying only European beauty products will put you in the clear — they still use chemicals.
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The good news is that the media has done an effective job of highlighting some of the more dangerous ingredients — parabens have been widely vilified and are excluded from more and more products, and that’s largely attributed to the pressure beauty companies have faced from the media, Ma says. (Another bit of good news: Canada recently announced a ban on plastic microbeads, which are toxic to the environment.)
But a lot of products on the market still contain dangerous ingredients like phthalates and triclosan, preservatives that are linked to cancer; plasticizers that act as endocrine disruptors by mimicking estrogen, thus causing a host of issues including infertility; and detergents like sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulphate (SLS), which is a suspected carcinogen and causes irritation.
“There’s definitely more awareness now about the dangers of these chemicals, especially thanks to David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen list, but people are unsure how to find skincare and other products that adhere to the natural standards, and they’re worried about how to incorporate them,” Ma says.
Making the switch to a chemical-free beauty routine may seem daunting, but with a little bit of patience and some trial and error, it can result not only in a lighter chemical load, but also better skin and hair.
Switching to natural deodorant
Staving off body odour and visible perspiration are probably among the greatest hygienic concerns for most people, which makes this switch especially fraught. There’s no way to sugar-coat this: it’s going to take some time and patience.
“Most people have an issue coming off antiperspirant because they’re used to not sweating and blocking that natural detoxification mechanism, and a natural alternative feels like you’re opening the floodgates,” Ma says. “The truth is, you’re going to have to go through a period that lasts from a couple of weeks to a month before a natural one starts to work. But once you push through, you body will get to a point where it can sweat properly and rid itself of the backlog.”
And yes, you might be a bit stinkier as a result. You might also feel that you need to apply it more often because natural alternatives aren’t as fragranced as chemical ones, but you’ll find that they’re also gentler on your delicate underarm area.
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“Some use a shea butter base with essential oils added in, especially ones that have antiseptic properties, like peppermint, tea tree and lavender. Others use a clay base that will keep the area drier,” Ma says. “It’s about finding the right product that works for you, and it will take a period of trial and error.”
Added tip: Those who regularly practice hair removal might find it easier to keep the smell at bay by keeping their underarms shaved or trimmed.
Switching to natural haircare
The commercials on TV are on to something when it comes to shampoo — it’s definitely an experience for most people. Which is why switching to a natural formulation may take some getting used to.
“Chemical shampoos contain SLS, which is a foaming agent that gives them those lovely, frothy bubbles,” she says. “SLS is harsh on your scalp and if you find that your hair is greasy, that’s because the SLS is stripping your scalp of its natural oils and your scalp is overcompensating by producing more.”
A shampoo that uses natural cleansers will feel different in that it won’t froth nearly as much and you won’t get that squeaky-clean feel. But what you will get is healthier hair that isn’t stripped of its natural oils.
Styling agents are just as chemical-packed with plastics and synthetics. Natural alternatives on the market are plentiful, but Ma says she understands how this transition would be difficult. If people are accustomed to using gel to create spikes in their hair, they won’t be able to achieve the same result with a shea butter-based pomade. But in terms of volumizing, Mother Nature has it covered.
“There are a lot of natural sea salt sprays on the market that work great as a volumizer,” Ma says, allowing you to recreate those beach waves that are so sought-after on the city streets.
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She advises easing into the transition, however, especially since hair is such an emotional issue for so many people. If you have scalp or texture issues, start by using a natural shampoo once a week or every third wash, and slowly phase out your chemical one as your scalp regulates to the new routine.
Switching to natural skincare
A switch in skincare is possibly the most tenuous of them all, as some people can be very reactive. For this reason, Ma never does a complete overhaul of every skincare product at once; she starts with one at a time (cleanser or serum or moisturizer) and tells clients to use it every other day.
The market is teeming with chemical-free skincare, so finding the right combination shouldn’t be too difficult. However, there could be an adjustment period.
“If you’ve been using a product for a long time that has petroleum or retinol, you want to ease into a non-chemical moisturizer gradually because you might breakout as a response to not having your skin suppressed [especially since petroleum clogs pores].”
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As always, those with sensitive skin should be careful with what they use — however they may also reap the most benefit.
“Most of the time, sensitive skin sufferers see the most dramatic difference in the health of their skin because these products don’t have as many irritants, preservatives, dyes or fragrances. Often, they’ll find they get immediate relief.”
However, that’s not to say there aren’t naturally-occurring irritants that could be present in skincare, which is why Ma says to avoid anything with tea tree oil or other strong antiseptics. Instead, opt for something that has more calming oils like rose hip and sesame, which are stimulating and support microcirculation. Or go for something that’s devoid of essential oils altogether.
“Generally, these people find that the immunity of their skin greatly improves when they start to nurse it properly versus using something that clogs pores.”
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