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You’ve heard this many times: What we put onto our body is as important as what we put into our body. The simple reason is that while our skin does act as a protective shield, it still absorbs its fair share of chemicals from hair and body care products. And with toxins finding their way into everything around us these days, our bodies have become overloaded. As a result, we are becoming increasingly sensitive to everyday products that may not have bothered us in the past.
Folks who suddenly find themselves with skin rashes or other product sensitivities will often look for soaps, shampoos, lotions, and other products labeled as “fragrance-free” without flipping the bottle over to see what else is lurking inside. Avoiding synthetic fragrances is definitely a great start, but there’s more to it than that.
And while there may be only a small number of chemicals in whatever label you may be reading at that moment, that’s not the only product you need to be concerned with. Tomorrow morning, take note of how many hair and body products you use. If you have time, read each ingredient label to count how many chemicals you’ve put on your body before you’ve even left the house.
If the only claim you’re paying attention to is “fragrance-free”, you may be in for a surprise.
What to look for on the label
It’s not always easy to find products whose ingredients match the enticing “healthy” claims and natural looking artwork on the front of the label. These products are often marketed as free from phthalates, parabens, sulfates, sulfites, and (for antibacterial soaps) triclosan, yet still contain unwanted ingredients. Again, always flip over the bottle to check the ingredients.
You’ll want to see plant-based and/or safe mineral ingredients topping the list – and ideally dominating the list. The first few ingredients are the most important, as they are listed in order of most volume to least. But even if I see the minerals or botanicals listed first (a good thing), I always read on.
If more minerals or botanicals follow those healthier ingredients, I’m a happy shopper. If they’re followed by a bunch of ingredients with scary looking names that only my high school science teacher could pronounce, I put it back on the shelf.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Example #1: Aveeno
This well-known brand is often mistaken as a natural alternative. Easy to do, given their package design, along with the claim of “dermatologist recommended” and their deceiving use of the word “natural”.
But let’s take a look at the ingredients.
Water is the top ingredient. Personally, I don’t want my shampoo or lotion watered down, but ok, at least water truly is natural. And frankly, many healthier brands use water as their first ingredient too. Whadda ya gonna do.
Next up is glycerin (usually from animal fat, unless it specifically says it’s vegetable based), followed by cocamidopropyl betaine, which is a chemical known to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
These are followed by sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), a skin irritant that the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database says “may be contaminated with potentially toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane“. These ingredients are finally followed by a few botanicals, and then some more unsavory ingredients.
Oh, Aveeno! Well, at least the product is fragrance-free, right?
Example #2: DHS
This example is not a well-known brand, but I see folks asking about it sometimes on Facebook groups for the chemically sensitive. I assume this is because it’s fragrance-free and says “clear” on the front side of the label. It also says “recommended by dermatologists”.
Ingredients: Purified Water, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate (“possible organ toxicity” and “enhanced skin absorption” according to EWG), Cocamidopropyl Betaine (known irritant), PEG-8 Distearate (also flagged as “possible organ toxicity” per EWG), Benzyl Alcohol (“possible organ toxicity” and “associated with contact allergy” per EWG), Cocamide MEA, Polyquaternium-22, Citric Acid.
Well, at least it doesn’t claim to be “natural”. Kudos, I suppose??
Example #3; Dr. Bronner’s
What does a healthier body care product look like?
Dr. Bronner’s calls their castile soaps “18-in- 1” because they have 18 uses, from face soap and shampoo to washing the dishes – all of which, castile soap is traditionally known to do. Their ingredients are organic, so no worries about pesticides. And they are almost entirely plant-based. One exception is potassium hydroxide, known as potash.
You may be more familiar with lye (sodium hydroxide), which has long been used to make bar soaps. Potash works the same way. The potassium in potash (like the sodium in lye) reacts with the fatty acids of the oil ingredients to create glycerin — in this case vegetable glycerin, though some soap makers use animal lard (gross, I know). During this reaction, the hydroxide splits from the potassium (potash) or sodium (lye) to form water. Ultimately, this “saponifies” the product, while leaving behind no lye or potash.
This process of “saponification” is how traditional soap making is done. Both lye and potash are caustic ingredients linked to organ toxicity. However, since neither lye nor potash ends up in the final product, their toxicity becomes a non-issue.
With that out of the way, let’s look at Dr. Bronner’s other ingredients: Water, organic coconut oil, organic palm oil (see note below), organic olive oil, organic hemp oil, organic jojoba oil, citric acid (a preservative), tocopherol (vitamin E, a preservative).
Overall, healthy ingredients with nothing unrecognizable. Phew!
Palm Oil Ethics
I normally stay away from anything with palm oil for ethical reasons, because its harvesting often leads to the devastation of rainforests and inhumane slaughtering of the orangutan who live there. I make an exception when the ingredient is certified as “sustainably harvested”, especially when the plantation is in South America, where there are no orangutans. I’m also okay with Dr. Bronner’s, because they own their own orangutan-safe palm plantations and harvest their oil sustainably.
Example #4: 100% Pure
Obviously, I’m a Dr. Bronner fan. But they’re not the only non-toxic (and ethical) brand around. Let’s take a look at another example, 100% Pure.
Their ingredients are mostly organic. They start off with aloe leaf juice, rose hydrosol (rose water), saponified coconut oil, and vegetarian glycerin. This is followed by extracts of neem, burdock root, and kelp. Then we have vegan cellulose (from plant cell walls and vegetable fibers), tocopherol (vitamin E), panthenol (vitamin B5), and extracts of green tea, nettle, rosemary leaf, calendula flower, virgin coconut oil, and peppermint leaf. Next up is French sea salt, oregano leaf, thyme flower, honeysuckle flower, eucalyptus leaf essential oil, melaleuca, and tea tree essential oil.
All in all, that’s pretty damn pure.
Keep your skin care clean
It can take time to find products that actually live up to their all-natural claims. But it’s definitely worth the effort. The more chemicals we inadvertently apply to our hair and skin, the more opportunity their toxins have to accumulate in our body and to interact with each other.
Conversely, the more we actively avoid the toxins we can control (by choosing the purest products possible), the better equipped our bodies will be to handle the contaminants in and around our environment that we cannot control. In today’s world, that’s a pretty big deal.