The choices we make about the products we buy and use matter. They matter to the environment, our bodies, our quality of life, our children’s lives, and ultimately, whether we choose to perpetuate health or disease. This includes personal care and beauty products - each one has an impact on both environmental and personal health.
WHERE TO START?
If you’re wanting to make healthier choices for yourself and your loved ones, knowing how to navigate the options can be daunting. Heading towards ‘natural’ is a good direction to start. But we have to be careful making decisions based on descriptive language and appearance alone.
An example: Imagine product ‘X’ in your favorite shop. It’s labeled ‘natural’ and ‘herbal.’ It has seaweed, green tea extract, and hibiscus in it. It smells great, feels great, and looks great with a beautiful botanical image on the bottle. It's the perfect color and style for your bathroom. The packaging and price implies quality, but it feels reasonable and fits your budget. BUT. Hang on.
Ultimately, the one thing that really matters when choosing a product to use on your body? That most important thing to consider? Cue the sparkly spotlight.....
The Full Ingredient List.
...Oh. Boring, right? Tucked away on the back of the box or label. Overshadowed by pretty packaging, colors, names, and claims. But it really is the most important piece. That ‘natural’ product may also contain a long list of less-than-desirable ingredients. Some downright harmful.
As we wade through the messages and persuasion we’re bombarded with every day - from print media, social media, advertisements, commercials, peer pressure, latest trends, sales, value claims - it’s easy to get distracted. The latest, greatest advances are often pretty appealing. Who doesn’t want “incredible staying power, cashmere scent, color that lasts five times longer, softer hair, age defying beauty” and so much more?
Believe me, function and effectiveness are absolutely important. So are enjoying the feel or fragrance of a product, good packaging design, and value for money. But in my opinion, none of these things should ever come at the cost of health.
So I read ingredient lists religiously. And you should too. That key detail is your key to making smarter, healthier choices.
READ LABELS. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.
In the US, “the law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market.” (www.fda.gov) So often the determining factors for mass-produced formulas are cost and giving the consumer a feeling of effectiveness - lots of foaming action, a squeaky clean feel, the latest scientific extract, powerful scent. Not health.
The good news though? US manufacturers are required to fully disclose and list the ingredients used in products, as outlined in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. So to really look behind the curtains of fancy marketing claims and bottom lines, all you need to do is flip the product over and check out that list.
A few basics to keep in mind as you explore the world of ingredients:
A standard of consistent ingredient-naming exists, called International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. It's required on cosmetic labels and allows consumers to identity exactly what’s in a product. Botanical ingredients are listed by both their common and Latin plant names. Example: Neroli (Citrus aurantium) essential oil or Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii) essential oil.
- Some of the worst (and frustratingly oh-so-common) ingredients found in products are parabens, phthalates, triclosan, sodium laurel sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate (SLS, SLES), mineral oil, petroleum, formaldehyde, propylene glycol, and synthetic fragrances. A basic Google search will highlight why these are the bad guys you should always avoid.
- Manufacturers can blanket label ‘fragrances’ and don’t have to disclose the exact components of a scent, in order to protect their unique or 'proprietary' blend. In most cases, 'fragrance' means synthetic chemicals are used to create a particular scent. Why? Because they're cheaper than actual botanical ingredients. Look for ‘synthetic-free’ on packaging or brand literature to determine whether it’s worth your investment.
- My personal philosophy: Less is more. Even though just five or six botanical ingredients in a product seems simple, keep in mind that each individual plant ingredient can be made up of hundreds of complex compounds. And those compounds work synergistically with each other - and with our own bodies - to offer holistic, therapeutic benefits. Nature makes complexity effortless.
LEARN FROM OTHERS
The more you dig in and learn about ingredients, the simpler it becomes to pick and choose products that are right for you. There are so many great online resources sharing green beauty information. Plus amazing shops and makers offering highly-effective and healthy products. The good stuff is out there, and I’m proud to be one of those makers putting ingredients and health at the top of the priority list.
If you’re thinking about changing out your skincare and makeup products for greener options, check out the Authentically Victoria Instagram feed, with great product reviews and feedback, and her new blog. Victoria is a PNW native who’s sharing her own personal story of switching to natural skincare (without sponsorship or affiliation with particular brands). It’s great inspiration!
And one more thought - all those label reading skills and ingredient knowledge you're acquiring? You can apply those to house cleaning products, lawn care products, candles, air fresheners, laundry products... and food ... and choose health.
Cheers and happy label reading!