How to Do Natural Beauty Your Way
In this information age, savvy consumers are becoming more aware of the beauty-product ingredients that they are putting on their bodies. As a result, many have decided to embrace natural beauty, turning to plant-based ingredients and away from synthetic ones. Yet it can be hard to wade through all of the marketing hype surrounding natural beauty—does "natural" even mean anything?
To help cut through the noise, we asked green beauty expert Sophie Uliano to give us her best natural beauty tips. We figured she was the perfect person to do this; after all, she's the New York Times bestselling author of Gorgeously Green. She's also devoted her time to reading peer-reviewed reports, learning chemical names and side effects, testing products, and inventing at-home recipes.
Below, Sophie tells us how to design a personal-care routine using products that are safe for your body and the environment, and still effective.
What is natural beauty, anyway?
Before you can develop your own routine, you need to know that the word "natural" in the beauty world is a bit meaningless. Even several experts consulted for this article couldn't find a clear consensus on what natural actually means. "If I can't pronounce it ... then I won't buy it" (as one expert said) may work as a rule of thumb, but it's not exactly a precise definition. It might not be helpful, either. For example, the tongue-twisting "butyrospermum parkii" is just shea butter.
Sophie is quick to acknowledge the potential for confusion. "It's all very complicated for the consumer," she says. The fact that the US government doesn't monitor cosmetics production or regulate use of the term "natural" doesn't help. The best thing to do is to look at the label and do some research to see if the listed ingredients are synthetic or found in nature (more on that later). You should also know that the product may be utilizing the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) system, which means some ingredients appear in Latin, such as butyrospermum parkii.
How to curate your own natural beauty routine
Once you have an idea about what is actually natural, Sophie suggests following these four key steps to create a routine that fits with your lifestyle:
Step 1: Decide if You’re a Purist
Sophie doesn't believe in rules so rigid that they make your routine unrealistic. "I'm not a purist," she says. "I'm somewhere in the middle."
That means she's willing to compromise on select ingredients. One example is silicones, which are used in everything from hair serums, to Method dish soap, to foundation. They're considered non-natural by various organizations, but Sophie doesn't boycott them completely. "I think [dimethicone, a kind of silicone] has a place, ... and it's such an effective ingredient that, in many ways, you can't get the same feel from [anything else]."
Step 2: Learn to Read Ingredient Labels
So what ingredients does Sophie consider absolutely taboo? Formaldehyde, fragrance, and phthalates. Sophie also avoids a few other ingredients that may be endocrine disrupters (read: might interfere with your body's hormone system) and/or carcinogenic. Here's what she suggests looking for on a label:
- DEA and TEA: Emulsifiers that keep products from separating. They can create nitrosamines, which are possible carcinogens, during the manufacturing process.
- BHA/BHT: These preservatives are endocrine disrupters and possible carcinogens.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate: It's not known to be carcinogenic, but it's an endocrine disrupter that causes dryness and irritation—at least for Sophie.
- PEGs: Like DEA and TEA, PEGs are substances (such as propylene glycol) that might create carcinogens during manufacturing.
- Triclosan: Often found in antibacterial products, this ingredient is an endocrine disrupter and "very bad for the environment."
Step 3: Check the Expiration Date
Parabens aren't necessarily verboten for Sophie, though she acknowledges that more and more consumers and brands have found reason to phase them out. She warns that if you do cut out the common chemical preservatives, you need to make sure that the product has a clear expiration and after-opening date. Otherwise, you might wind up limiting yourself to products that expire quickly or are already inactive (i.e., ineffective) when they hit the shelf.
For instance, many vitamin-C-based products may actually contain unstable forms of the antioxidant that oxidize rapidly and become inactive. Don't lose hope, though! Sophie suggests following these tips for buying effective antioxidant-based products:
- Choose products in dark bottles (sunlight can expedite the oxidizing process)
- Look for products stamped with an expiration date. This means the company actually took shelf life into consideration. It also tells you when you need to re-up.
- Buy from companies that make small batches and are very clear about how long their products last.
Step 4: Don't Trust Everything You See on the Internet
Where should consumers go for more information? "Not the Internet," Sophie says. "Because there's so much scaremongering." She claims that the carcinogenic label is thrown around way too liberally online, when "there are very few ingredients that are absolute known carcinogens (one of which is formaldehyde)."
She suggests doing your own research and "[making] sure that any books or Internet articles [you read] are fully substantiated with numerous peer-reviewed and cited reports." Sophie personally recommends products that have been certified organic under NSF/ANSI 305.
However, she emphasizes that at the end of the day, if you've done your research, then sometimes it's OK to fall back on good old common sense. "[If you] go to Whole Foods and try a product full of honey and propolis and shea butter, and it smells good, and it nourishes, and it absorbs," then just go for it! In other words, do what comes naturally.
We've done some of the work for you. Check out our favorite natural beauty products.