As I started testing products for the 2010 Beauty and Body Awards, I repeatedly asked, “What makes a beauty product green?” Long ago, I made what I thought to be a brilliant discovery: What’s good for the environment is also good for our bodies. That was about food, good, fresh food that doesn’t make you cringe or feel ashamed when you eat it because it doesn’t contain pesticides, synthetic preservatives, or unpronounceable ingredients. Take a broad look at our food system. Pesticides sprayed on produce can kill wildlife and harm ecosystems, contaminate drinking water, and affect our health. I have realized that certain foods make me feel better, too. Pure food, free of harmful residues and filled with nutrients, benefits your body, while being gentle on the earth. But that’s food.
Then something happened. Puberty? Vanity? I started wearing makeup, doing my hair, and applying lotion. I began to care about personal care and built a foolproof regimen on tried and true products. They were products that worked, yes … but did I know how they were getting the job done? Years after raiding my parents’ pantry for nutritional villains that also had harsh environmental impacts, I concluded I should be equally critical of what I was applying to my body. Just like with pesticides, preservatives, and other chemicals in food, many of the irritants, allergens, and chemicals in our beauty products can negatively affect both our health and our earth.
This latter discovery comes with its challenges like reading “methylparaben” on the label of one of your favorite products and trying to find a suitable replacement, one that your skin or hair like as much as your conscience. But as I have tried more and more green products, I have realized that it doesn’t take harsh, abrasive chemicals to make a product effective. “Green” personal care actually does work.
But what is green? Because it’s not a certified term, it can mean something different to each consumer. The first question I ask myself is would I eat these ingredients (and not just if threatened, blackmailed, or on a reality TV competition series)? I think the purest ingredients are those that could just as well come straight out of your kitchen. Superfruits, chocolate, wine, and coffee are loaded with antioxidants and nutrients that help fight free radical damage to keep your skin strong and healthy. Natural oils are rich in omega-3s to sooth and condition hair and skin. I also think about where these ingredients came from, like African shea butter, which is ecologically sustainable and helps support poverty-stricken communities.
Then there is the not so fun part: looking for personal care no nos. Some ingredients have been on my radar for quite some time now because of their potential health risks (everything from allergies to cancer) and possible environmental contamination. These ingredients include formaldehyde (in nail polish and nail polish removers), 1,4-dioxane (in shampoos, body washes, lotions, detergents), parabens (in lotions, creams, facial cleansers, hand soaps, hair conditioners, toothpastes, deodorants), phthalates (in shampoos, lotions, nail polishes), and sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate (in shampoos, soaps, and bubble baths). Others are still fairly new to me, such as quaternary ammonium surfactants, also called “quats,” found in conditioners that can cause skin and eye irritation and can also accumulate in the environment.
There are dozens of other “good” and “bad” ingredients. I recommend going to the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database, where we headed for Delicious Living’s 2010 Beauty and Body Awards, to get information on any questionable ingredient; typically if you can’t pronounce it, it’s worth investigating. Certainly not all of your personal care products are going to be completely green, just like not all of your day-to-day activities are entirely eco-friendly (you can measure your carbon footprint by going to our Carbon Footprint Calculator). But for me, it started with one simple statement: What’s good for the environment is also good for our bodies. And it didn’t take long to realize that going green feels and looks pretty darn good.