Review: "No More Dirty Looks" - learning about natural beauty
Updated: May 31, 2019
It has taken me 30 years and a few wrinkles but I finally decided it was time to look after my skin and invest in some products. The question is, which products are best and what is in them? And while I was asking questions, I wanted to know what to look out for when it comes to my children's products. I've always instinctively opted for all natural products for them, but it's always good to know why and what to avoid.
A lot of beauty bloggers try all sorts of different products and report on the positive effects of them, as well as the smell and feel and cost, but very few look at the ingredients and how they may affect us in the long run. I have always had more hippy inclinations towards natural products for a number of reasons;
1. The beauty industry is all about making money and thrives on making us feel like we need to do so much to our skin, but often half the products are to replace what we have stripped away with other products.
2. I am skeptical about what is in the products we slather on ourselves and if they could be harmful. I wasn't very aware of this until I had babies with soft, beautiful sensitive skin and I was loathe to load it with chemical nasties.
3. And lastly, I want to use products that aren't tested on animals and most natural products are also cruelty free.
There are many books available but No More Dirty Looks by Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spent was recommended to me by a trusted source.
Let's start by clarifying that the book is not written by a mountain dwelling hippy with 12 children, stringy hair and a greasy face. The authors are two smart, well educated, attractive New Yorkers who love a bit of pampering and beauty as much as anyone. They try and resist the urge to be "total conspiracy theory wackjobs" but rather uncover the facts and talk to experts.
Their premise is that the products we are using are bad for our bodies and for our skin and are often just good marketing. The beauty industry depends on keeping us coming back for more and this constant bombarding of our bodies by chemicals and nasties actually makes us look and feel worse in the long run. They have spent years using conventional cosmetics, done the research, and tried and tested the alternatives that they recommend.
Regulation for what?
The book starts by outlining the scary facts about the lack of regulation, what they refer to as the "Wild West of the Beauty Industry". Basically, companies should declare if the product is harmful, but no one will enforce the testing. The scary part about the testing is that it doesn't take into account long term use. For example, a certain chemical caused tumors and death in rats if exposure is at a certain level. So the guideline is published that the level must be less in each bottle of beauty product. But no one is testing to see what happens if you use that product daily for many years, or if you use it in combination with all sorts of other chemicals on a daily basis. If the exposure can cause any kind of cancer in rats, we shouldn't be going near it at all! Perfume is particularly tricky because companies don't need to declare their ingredients but this means that they can get away with all sorts of harmful substances in them, and perfume is found in everything from household goods to makeup, soap, creams, shampoos, deodorants and more.
Even the labels that do appear on cometics can be super confusing, and so even when you can check the ingredients, it's hard to know what you are looking out for. Products often use terms like "gentle", "natural", "botanical" or "herbal", but don't be fooled until you have read the ingredients list.
The book begins by explaining what main baddies and why they are harmful. It breaks each of the harmful ingredient down into a few questions:
1. What is it used in?
2. How is it listed?
3. What is the "Ugly Factor"
4. What is the risk factor
5. What do the experts say?
There are some you may have heard of, and some are a little more obscure but essentially, when choosing a product, the fewer ingredients listed, the better. If you aren't interested in the gory details, skip past this next section, otherwise, here are a few to look out for:
1,4-doixane: Found in children's bath products, hair relaxers, dyes, shampoo, and creams, this is a known carcinogen which causes multiple tumours in rats and mice. It may occur in products that list PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, and possibly in sodium laureate sulphate (the infamous SLS).
Aluminum Salts: Used in antiperspirant, it is a medium to high risk neurotoxin and may be linked to a rise in breast cancer.
Chemical suncreams: suncreams are a tricky one, it's important to learn the difference between a physical sun blocker, and a chemical one. A number of the chemicals can mess with our hormones, not to mention the damage to the ocean reefs. I think I need to do a whole blog post on this one.
The "Ethanolamines" (DEA, TEA, MEA or ETA): these foaming agents are used in so many products from face and body washes, to hair products and shampoos. DEA is the main baddy, a known carcinogen and link to deformed brain development in baby mice while applied topically to their pregnant mothers.
Formaldehyde: this high risk carcinogen, linked to various kinds of cancer, is found in nail polish, antiperspirant, make up, bubble bath, shampoo, baby lotions, and hair products. The variations on how this is listed are long but some to look out for are formalin, formic aldehyde, methanal, methyl aldehyde or oxymethane.
Fragrance: the scary thing is that this can mean that anything could be in your product, neurotoxins, allergens, skin irritants and others that can exacerbate asthma, amongst other dangers.
Lead and mercury: in 2009, every lipstick tested by the FDA contained lead! It's also found in mascara and eye makeup and usually not listed. These elements are highly toxic to humans and can be absorbed through the skin - we are talking depression, aggression, miscarriages, and learning disabilities in children.
Parabens: found in almost all products, and listed as methyl/ethyl/butyl/isobutyl/propyl paragon, exposure to paragons which migrate into the body tissue has been linked to hormone disruption and has cancer.
Phthalates: these chemical compounds are found in most fragrances in most products, as well as hair and nail products and are known hormone disruptors, suspected carcinogens, possibly toxic to foetuses, and can cause birth defects in male babies.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): this is very widely used in almost everything, including toothpaste and baby products and gets absorbed into our tissue. Amongst other concerns, is the concern of contamination with 1,4-dioxane.
Others include coal tar, hydroquinone, nanoparticles, petroleum distillates, p-Phenylenediamine, phenoxyethanol, propylene glycol, talc powder, toluene, and triclosan. You'll have to read the book or do some more research to find out all the horrible details on all of these.
Ultimately, the fewer ingredients in a product, the better and your best option is to find a few beauty companies that you trust, and stick to their products... or else get really good at googling ingredients.
A Full Body Analysis
The next sections make up the bulk of the book and look at each part of the body, how they interact with substances applied topically, and the effects of conventional products commonly used, as well as recommended alternatives, from hippy home made options to drug store options.
There are seven sections; hair, face, make up, body, and nails, as well as diet and lifestyle. The book exposes the harmful substances in these commonly used products and how these are absorbed. These sections are interspersed with interesting and funny personal stories and beauty experiments by the authors themselves. Although the authors do not beat around the bush about how harmful most products are, as a reader one gets the feeling that they are on your side in the search of healthy, holistic beauty.
Did you know that the scalp is one of the most absorbent parts of the body with thousands of open hair follicles? So that detangling spray full of silicone I was happily using on Lexi's curls, thinking it wouldn't be absorbed, is probably not the best idea.
That squeaky, shiny clean feel on your face after a good wash and exfoliation, that's not really how our skin is meant to feel.
Mascara is just on our eyelashes, not on our skin, how bad can it be. Well, this is how they put it: "Do you really want formaldehyde releasers, mercury, SLS, coal tar, petroleum distillates, vinyl, parabens, phthalates and triethanolamine dripping into your eyeballs? Us neither, and mascaras often contain all of them at a time. Ask any clean girl and she'll tell you nothing tested her spirit like the hunt for a mascara that is as good as the dirties".
Do you think about the fact that your skin is your biggest organ when you lather up the body wash or slather on the moisturiser full of nasties?
And nails was another area I thought couldn't really absorb much, but I was wrong, and man there are lots of nasties in nail products.
There is obviously room for moderation. If you are going for an occasional manicure or use an occasional amazing mainstream mascara, it's not the end of the world, but it is important to make the changes in the products we use every day.
I loved that these sections don't just offer scary facts, but recommend all sorts of interesting alternative methods and products. Unfortunately these are all US brands and not available in South Africa. It would be great to compile a South African list of healthier cosmetic options for adults and children.
Another thing I loved about this book was the emphasis on sensible lifestyle choices that are way more beneficial than products like healthy food, lots of water, and sleep, exercise, meditation and sex (hooray). There is plenty of in depth information about these aspects of beauty which I agree are so important.
It ends with a very helpful Ingredients Blacklist to look out for and avoid, as well as pointing readers to a more resources like books, films, websites, stores, and ways you can make a stand.
So what did I take away from all of this? I have always used minimal products on my kids, and when I do, they are brands I trust like Pure Beginnings, Oh Leif and a lovely small business called Living That Oil Life. I was super grateful that I had invested in my kids wellbeing in this way after reading this. And personally it really helped to inform my decisions and encouraged me to stick with a more natural route. It also reminded me not to fall for a lot of the marketing ploys of cosmetics companies. Yes, I can look after my skin, but I also hope to age gracefully and I kind of like my laughter lines.
I threw a whole lot of bottles out and have been using the more natural options like Victorian Garden, Oh Lief and Earth Sap, but I have to say that I haven't found any brand that I love yet for my face and am still hesitant to spend obscene amounts of money on products. The one area I struggle is with natural shampoo and conditioner because my hair is very thick, I have tried a few but nothing seems to compare to the nasties. I'm still trying to find a good option there, but less washing is really helping. Other areas I need to find better options are a BB cream, and a good mascara. If you have any natural beauty suggestions, I would love to hear them and if you have any questions, please let me know. Here's to a healthier happier skin!