Most of us appreciate soft skin, polished nails, and a pleasant body odor. But how many of us actually think about what's in the beauty products we use? And if we knew the effects of these chemicals, would we continue slathering them on our bodies? Here, natural health experts weigh in on which ingredients to avoid—and offer natural alternatives.
1 Nail polish
Why ditch it?
Although colored nails may look pretty, conventional nail polishes contain dibutyl phthalates, strong chemicals that help polishes stay blended and dry evenly. Phthalates may enter your body either through inhalation or the porous surface of the nail. "As endocrine disruptors, they have the ability to upset hormonal balance," says Keri Marshall, MS, ND, a naturopath in Dover, New Hampshire, and author of User's Guide to Protein and Amino Acids (Basic Health, 2005). In particular, pregnant women should avoid products that contain phthalates, according to Marshall, because they can adversely affect the reproductive system of a developing male embryo (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2005, vol. 113, no. 8).
Also, nail polishes may contain other harmful solvents, such as toluene and formaldehyde. Even if you don't look at the ingredient list, you may recognize these notorious two by their smell. "They give polishes that overwhelming scent that can make you feel fuzzy headed," Marshall says. Toluene is possibly toxic to the reproductive system, and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.
Peacekeeper Cause-metics Paint Me Luminous. A sparkly silver polish made without toluene, formaldehyde, or phthalates. Unlike alternative polishes of the past, this brand, which includes eight delicate shades but no deep reds or browns, applies evenly and is surprisingly durable. Even better: All after-tax profits help support women's health and human rights advocacy causes.
Go bare, suggests Debra Lynn Dadd, a Clearwater, Florida-based consumer advocate and author of Home Safe Home (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004). "Buy a polisher or buffer kit," she suggests. "Your nails will look shiny, just like you are wearing a clear coat of polish."
2 Antibacterial soap
Why ditch it?
No doubt antibacterial soap is popular. According to Marshall, people buy $16 billion worth of this product each year. Although getting rid of "bad" bacteria can help prevent illness, these antibacterial products kill the good stuff, too. To strengthen immunity, says Marshall, the body must be exposed to and combat everyday germs. What's more, the widespread use of antibacterial products may well cause more powerful and resistant strains to emerge. "When you take away the natural balance of bacteria, you can leave behind ‘superbugs' that are more potent and antibiotic-resistant," explains Marshall.
Antibacterial soaps also contain triclosan, says Kim Erickson, a Las Vegas–based herbalist and coauthor of Green Living (Plume, 2005). "This chemical is like a pesticide," she says. "That's what kills the bacteria." According to Erickson, the chemical may be toxic to your liver and kidneys. Scientists have also discovered that when exposed to ultraviolet light, triclosan can convert to a mild form of dioxin, which has been linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and immune system damage (Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology A: Chemistry, 2003, vol. 158, no. 1).
Vermont Soapworks Organic Aloe Castile Liquid Soap. This hand soap is infused with tea tree oil, a natural antibacterial oil that doesn't pose the same health concerns as synthetic antibacterial agents. Although it's free of detergents, chemical preservatives, artificial colors, and scents, the soap still produces a good lather. Thanks to coconut, olive, and jojoba oils, hands feel moisturized post-wash. Also available as a bar soap.
Cal Ben Soap Company Liquid Pure Soap. The unscented bar soaps (made with white vegetable tallow and pure cocoa butter oils) are well known. But the company's new Liquid Pure Soap infused with orange oil also is impressive. It's economical—one 16-ounce bottle refills the pump some 32 times. And the dispenser creates rich, thick foam that makes it a pleasure to wash up.
3 Alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy lotion
Why ditch it?
You've seen the commercials: Apply lotions containing alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs, BHAs), and wipe away those dreaded signs of aging. But at what cost? One study suggests that applying such topical creams, which pull off dead tissue and expose new skin, can contribute to increased sunburn susceptibility (Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2002, vol. 184, no. 3). And, according to the American Cancer Society, most of the 1 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer diagnosed annually in the United States are sun related.
According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, research-oriented watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C., AHAs and BHAs are being added to 1 of every 17 beauty products on the market, including 10 percent of all moisturizers and 6 percent of all sunscreens. Although applying a sunblock over the product—or using an alpha-hydroxy product that contains sunblock—can help, the "new" skin is still extremely sensitive and likely to burn faster than the layer you peeled off.
Avalon Organics Vitamin C Vitality Facial Serum. Touted to protect against damaging free radicals and stimulate the production of collagen and elastin, this citrus-scented cream rejuvenates and hydrates the skin. If you have very dry skin, you may need an additional moisturizer.
Avalon Organics Vitamin C Revitalizing Eye Cream. This lotion pampers the delicate skin around the eye area and doesn't sting like some conventional eye creams.
Why ditch it?
Unless you're at the gym, it's become somewhat taboo in our culture to sweat. "People think perspiration is unsightly, but it has a purpose," explains Dadd. "It cools the body and regulates temperature."
Antiperspirant contains pore-clogging aluminum to block sweat. In addition to halting a normal body function, aluminum may also enter the bloodstream and affect brain function, says Marshall. Although some researchers have linked aluminum to the development of Alzheimer's disease, this correlation is still unresolved (Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 1990, vol. 43, no.1).
Deodorants and antiperspirants (and other types of personal care products) often contain parabens. These preservatives are endocrine disruptors and may be linked to the growth of breast cancer tumors (European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 2003, vol. 12, no. 6).
Nature's Gate Organics Deodorant, Persimmon and Rose Geranium. Although you still sweat while wearing this aluminum-free and paraben-free deodorant, the odor is naturally neutralized, thanks to ingredients such as baking soda and fruit and herbal extracts. Other scents in the fruit-blend line include chamomile and lemon verbena, Asian pear and red tea, Mandarin orange and patchouli, and grapefruit and wild ginger—plus, there's even a soy, fragrance-free option. Like other natural deodorants, a single morning application probably won't get you through the day, so plan to reapply it.
Plain baking soda. Simply pat some on your armpits before getting dressed. "It stops the odor but not the wetness," Dadd says. "It can be abrasive, so just add a little cornstarch, if necessary."