The personal care product industry, which spans everything from deodorant to cotton balls to eyeliner, is rife with myth and marketing madness. It can be completely confusing to figure which product (if any) is best for a particular use. Not only are there thousands of conventional products to filter through at the typical drugstore, but Whole Foods and other natural stores have increasingly large personal care departments catering to the health-conscious, and specialty retailers like Birchbox and Sephora are gaining traction with more posh supplies.
There are SO many options that it’s a bit of a crapshoot to determine which product or brand is best–both in terms of effectiveness and overall health, or quality of ingredients. Most products come with a slew of claims on their packaging–yet these claims are not highly regulated, so it’s hard to decipher which are truth and which are marketing ploy. And, to boot, most of the ingredients used in personal care products are completely unrecognizable to the average eye, so it’s hard to read labels and make your own assessment.
Fortunately, Environmental Working Group has an extensive database, Skin Deep, rating the health and safety of personal care product formulations based on known irritants, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, etc. If you use a product you know and love, check it out on Skin Deep to see how it ranks. Otherwise, read on for a list of products that rank well both in terms of safety and performance.
This is the first installment of a five-part series on healthy personal care products. Up first: products we use in the shower. Future posts (in an undetermined order): dental care, skincare, hair care, and cosmetics.
Shampoo & conditioner
Drugstore shampoo commonly contains sodium lauryl sulfate (or its cousin, sodium laureth sulfate), foaming agents that give shampoo its nice lather. However, SLS and SLES (respectively) are skin and eye irritants, endocrine disruptors, and potential carcinogens. Not cool.
The synthetic fragrance added to shampoo is also highly sketchy. As noted in this post, we don’t even know exactly what’s in it because it’s considered proprietary information, but we do know that most contain petroleum-based synthetic compounds–known toxins linked to allergies, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and even cancer.
As an alternative, Aveda has a wide variety of high-performing and lovely-smelling SLS/SLES-free shampoos and conditioners for all hair types. None of their products contain parabens or phthalates (learn more about those in this previous post), and their fragrances are plant-derived.
While the company is a pioneer in natural-derived products and corporate sustainability practices, there is some worry that they don’t fully disclose their ingredient lists, leading to concerns that their marketing may be greener than their products. But, given the company’s foundation in formulating plant-derived products, they’re probably pretty okay. And, particularly for long hair, it’s hard to find a “natural” shampoo that is as cleansing, easy to work with (some SLS-free options don’t lather at all), and pleasant-smelling, as Aveda products.
Aveda products are only available online, or in Aveda stores or hair salons, but there are also many affordable natural shampoos (brands like Avalon Organics, Nature’s Gate, Aubrey Organics, and Jason) that rank well with EWG and can be found in a range of grocery and retail stores. However, most don’t have as high customer satisfaction as Aveda.
Soap & body wash
Most soaps and body wash products are chemical detergents, which are not ideal for cleansing with because they actually strip skin of the natural oils that keep it healthy (this is also the rationale for using oil cleansing or not washing your hair every day).
Skin has a natural layer of fatty acids that are (surprise!) there for a purpose–to protect against inflammation and infection, and to keep skin moisturized and flexible. This fatty acid layer gives skin a slightly acidic pH of 5.5. Sudsy soap (a sign of high alkalinity) strips away these fatty acids, thus drying out skin–a process further exacerbated by hot shower water. This major drying effect is why soap companies add in moisturizing agents (chemicals, if conventional) to their products.
Choosing a soap or body wash with a pH close to skin’s will help to cleanse away grime and debris while leaving the natural fatty acid layer intact to continue protecting and moisturizing your skin. Shaklee Meadow Blend is a gentle, pH-balanced cleansing bar derived from natural ingredients. Its soap-free formulation is cleansing but not drying.
Meadow Blend has a pleasant smell but is fragrance-free. A big issue with conventional soaps and body washes is the synthetic fragrance used to make them smell the way they do. As mentioned above, the chemicals used in fragrance are not fully disclosed, but the most common ingredients are linked to allergies, irritation, and immune, endocrine, and nervous system disruption. Regardless of the specific product you choose, watch out for synthetic fragrances.
If you’re particularly crafty or into the more-natural-is-more-better approach, try making your own soap at home. It’s really easy and also really healthy too–the average person doesn’t even have access to the synthetic ingredients large companies do, so your arsenal of ingredients to work with is naturally more healthy. A House in the Hills has a wonderful little recipe for Grapefruit Lavender or Coconut Mint soap.
Washing with a loofah or scrubbie should definitely be a part of your shower routine–exfoliation sloughs off dead skin cells, keeping your skin glowing and healthy (dead skin cells collect debris and bacteria).
This palm body brush can be used either in the shower, or dry for dry brushing. It’s really sturdy and well-made, and firm enough that it invigorates circulation and activates the lymphatic system, helping your body circulate and remove toxins. So, exfoliating with a firm brush like this not only will make skin softer and smoother, but can also improve overall health as well!
Although there’s a wide variation in the perfect cleanser based on skin type, overall, you want a pH-balanced product that washes away dirt and excess oil (as well as make-up or sunscreen if you wear it), but that does so without stripping your skin of its natural protective oils.
Shaklee Meadow Blend, recommended above as a body cleanser, is gentle enough that it’s also a good option for the face.
If you’re most comfortable with a standard cleansing gel-type product, Evan Healy Blue Lavender Cleansing Milk is a wonderful, simple cleanser. It’s gentle, antioxidant rich, and pH-balanced. Evan Healy is a more expensive brand, but with artisan skincare treatment you get a more holistic product. For example, the company sources from family owned farms and women’s cooperatives.
Another option not discussed much is a completely product-free cleanse–see below.
Although the palm brush is great for exfoliating your body, you’ll probably need something more gentle on the face. The Konjac Activated Charcoal Facial Sponge is exfoliating and deep cleansing, and the activated charcoal (a favorite natural remedy for many purposes!) removes toxins and impurities while also balancing skin’s pH.
The sponge can be used with or without a cleanser. It’s paraben-, sulphate-, and phthalate-free. And it’s also biodegradable!
To use, simply run the sponge under water until soft (takes a few seconds) and massage it in circular motions on your face (with or without a cleanser, depending on your preference). When you’re finished, rinse the sponge, press all of the water out of it, and hang it to dry. (Heads up, the suction hook included with the product doesn’t work that well, so you may have to find another way to hang it.) The sponge should dry between uses and should be replaced about every three months. If desired, you can sanitize it every few weeks by boiling it for one minute.
The specifics of choosing a “healthy” razor aren’t as detailed as a shampoo or cleanser. But, you do want to be sure to replace your razor (or blade) regularly to avoid nicks and bacteria growth, which can lead to irritation or infection.
To improve the longevity of your razor, rinse it with hot water after each use and make sure there’s no hair or shaving cream hanging out between the blades.
Preserve razors are recyclable, which is cool.
Shaving cream, which is a wonderful invention for humans’ newfound habit of shaving our hairs off, is a pretty unnatural product (just look at its consistency!). Like shampoos and soaps, shaving cream gets its nice lather from sodium lauryl/laureth sulfates–chemicals that are best avoided, due to their links to skin irritation and endocrine disruption.
Many shaving creams also come in aerosol cans, which have their own health and environmental concerns. Although aerosols no longer contain the major ozone-depleting chemical of concern, chlorofluorocarbons (banned in the U.S. since the 1970s), they still contain hydrocarbons, which also contribute to global warming. Aerosol products also emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are mildly toxic with small amounts of exposure and are linked to increased rates of cancer with extended exposure.
Conventional shaving creams also contain other harmful ingredients, such as propolene glycol (commonly found in anti-freeze and brake fluid), petroleum byproducts, synthetic colors and fragrances–all compounds known to be linked to the harm of multiple body systems.
Instead of all that, try a non-foaming, chemical-free shaving cream like Beautycounter‘s (by the way, they’re a really great brand of personal care products, with some of the strictest product formulations in the country, so check out their other product lines too if you’re interested). Bulldog Sensitive Shave Gel is a great option for men.