It’s The Pits

My last real hold-out on personal products containing chemicals has been deodorant.  I’ve found great toxic-free alternatives for everything from shampoo to nail polish.  But fresh-smelling underarms was the one thing  that I was unwilling to sacrifice in my quest to use products without toxic chemicals.  (I don’t want to scare off my friends by stinking!)  Consequently, I was hesitant to toss out the conventional sticks and venture towards natural alternatives.

Aluminum fact

First, let me specify that when I say “deodorant” what I’m referring to is deodorant/antiperspirant.  Most conventional sticks do both.  Deodorant covers body odor and anti-perspirant prevents sweating so the two work together for fresh-smelling underarms.  It’s the main ingredient in antiperspirants that raised a red flag for me.  The NIH’s National Cancer Institute cites, “Aluminum-based compounds are used as the active ingredient in antiperspirants. These compounds form a temporary plug within the sweat duct that stops the flow of sweat to the skin’s surface. Some research suggests that aluminum-based compounds, which are applied frequently and left on the skin near the breast, may be absorbed by the skin and cause estrogen-like (hormonal) effects. Because estrogen has the ability to promote the growth of breast cancer cells, some scientists have suggested that the aluminum-based compounds in antiperspirants may contribute to the development of breast cancer.”  NIH does state that there is no conclusive evidence showing that underarm antiperspirants cause cancer.  However, I don’t particularly want to roll aluminum into my armpits every day for the next 30 years waiting for them to find something “conclusive.”  As I feel about most products, if there is a more natural alternative, sign me up.

During my teen and college years, I used Dove Go Fresh “cool” scented sticks.  Dove had just become very trendy at that time and they continue to do a great job with their marketing campaign aimed at women.  They even make their products seem natural.  But if you read the ingredients, the main one is aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex GLY.  It also lists fragrance “parfum” as an ingredient.  Interesting…no extract of cucumber which is the picture on the front?  I guess nobody would buy it if the cool cucumber slice graphic was replaced with chemistry pipettes.

For several years I used Secret Clinical Strength “light & fresh” scented stick.  For the first time, I felt like the antiperspirant was really doing its job.  I liked the fragrance and I wasn’t sweating as much. Likely because this stick contains 20% of that same aluminum product to Dove’s 15%.  But when I began to take a closer look at the chemicals in my personal products, I knew I wanted to find something without aluminum, petroleum products, and vaguely-labeled fragrance.

Finding an effective natural deodorant was a two-step forward, one-step back process.  I tried many and was often disappointed, so I kept my conventional sticks in circulation for a while.   I first tried Crystal Essence stick which lacks aluminum so it was like, why bother.  It did nothing to stop sweating.  Now I understood why all the conventional products used aluminum.  So I tried a Tom’s of Maine product: Naturally Dry “natural powder” scented stick.  This does contain aluminum so it works as an anti-perspirant just as other mainstream sticks do.  The small difference is that it doesn’t contain other toxic chemicals like synthetic fragrance or petroleum-based products.  I figured this was at least marginally better than the other mainstream products I had been using for years.  

My deodorant evolution…

...felt almost as gradual as this

…felt almost as gradual as this

Then, one day while I was browsing the selection at Union Market’s lovely Follain shop, I came across Meow Meow Tweet Baking Soda Free Deodorant Cream which comes in a jar.  You scoop out a little bit and massage it into your armpits with your fingers.  This sounds really weird, but I used it after showering as an overnight deodorant and the grapefruit scent was fresh and lasted all night.  Arrowroot powder and magnesium are the natural antiperspirants in that product.   A friend also gave me a jar of Soapwalla Deodorant Cream that she had tried but that had irritated her sensitive skin.  I used it and never experienced a rash or noticeable irritation, but with its baking soda formulation, it is significantly grainy so it does scrape the skin a bit more than the smoother Meow Meow Tweet.  I also didn’t love the scent as much.  The same awesome friend (who shares my love of natural products) gave me a stick of Lavanila deodorant which I had been wanting to try.  Finally, this Goldi-pits has found a deodorant that is just right!  I love how Lavanila (original vanilla scent) smells and it does work as an antiperspirant, miraculously without aluminum.  It contains ingredients derived from things like artichoke, tea tree, and valerian.  Also, cornstarch is a main ingredient.

So if you’re looking to make the switch to a more natural deodorant, I would recommend Lavanila and/or Meow Meow Tweet (both are $14).  And have no fear about stinky armpits.  Both products get the job done and won’t make you nervous about rolling toxic chemicals onto your body’s largest organ.

Smell Ya Later: Perfume & Toxic Chemicals

“I love to stink!” said nobody, ever.  Let’s face it, we live in a relatively vain and materialistic society where we are drawn to products that make us smell good — perfume, lotion, body wash.  And not just women.  Men use cologne, body spray, etc.  The thing is, that floral perfume or fruity body wash that you’re using probably doesn’t even contain the flower pictured on the front of the bottle.  A fantastic article by Courtney Humphries of Wired reads,  “By volume, perfumes today are mostly synthetic chemicals that tend to be cheaper and more manipulable than natural materials…To mimic an aromatic substance like an essential oil using a man-made molecule, chemists first analyze it through gas chromatography and mass spectrometry in an attempt to figure out its chemical components. Using this information, they can sometimes identify which molecules are responsible for the odor and then re-create them synthetically…It’s common for companies to use these analytics to reproduce a well-loved smell in nature, like pear or lilac flower.”  Perfume ads usually show a beautiful woman in a flowing dress running through a field of wildflowers.  Probably because you wouldn’t sell as much perfume if you showed 10 chemists in white coats pipetting in a lab.  model-chemist comparison

Another issue of concern with fragrances is that, like make-up and other personal products, fragrance manufacturers are not required to label the ingredients on the packaging and so most perfumes and other ‘smelly’ products include several chemicals that the consumer is just not privy to.  The Environmental Working Group cites, “In the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues. These include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans (Silva 2004) and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies (Swan 2008), and musk ketone, a synthetic fragrance ingredient that concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk (Hutter 2009; Reiner 2007).”

You may be thinking, ‘Psssh, it’s fine.  It’s only a tiny bit of chemicals.’  Just remember that your skin in your body’s largest organ.  And  think back to every perfume, scented lotion, deodorant and body wash you’ve used every day of your life.  That tiny bit is actually regular exposure to lots of chemicals that can stay in your system for a long time.

fragrance ingredients

Wait…daisies aren’t actually in this perfume?!

Do a little experiment tonight and look at the ingredient list on the back of your shampoo, lotion, or perfume.  Almost always, one of the ingredients is “fragrance/parfum” with no more explanation than that because it isn’t legally mandated.  So it could be anything from all-natural lemon essential oil to butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane.  Companies like Burt’s Bees often list fragrance as an ingredient but note that it is a natural fragrance instead of chemical.

I said goodbye to my Chanel Chance and Versace Bright Crystals bottles months ago, but I quickly found that there are great non-toxic alternatives for smelling yummy.  Natural food stores like Whole Foods and Roots sell natural perfumes and you can buy them online once you find a brand and scent you like.  My favorite scent is from a little shop called Bath Time in Cape May, New Jersey.  They have an apothecary-style set up in a the back of the store where they will mix any combination of essential oils for you and put it into a rollerball stick.  My coconut and açaí berry essential oil stick makes me feel happy every time I put it on — happy because I smell like tropical vacation and I’m not spritzing myself with toxic chemicals.


If you are interested in taking action to eliminate toxic chemicals from the products you use, you can:

1: Educate Yourself:  The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Working Group are great sources for additional information on this topic.

2: Stop buying those products and supporting those companies’ bottom lines!

3: Lobby for change: You can write to your Congressional representatives asking them to pass legislation to regulate labeling OR write to companies asking them to remove toxic ingredients from beauty products.   No need to re-create the wheel; you can sign onto petitions already written with just a few clicks: EWG – Tell Congress to Reform Our Broken Cosmetics Regulations and CSC – Tell L’Oreal: Cosmetics With Cancer Chemicals are Not So Glamorous!

Friday Favorite: Non-Toxic Beauty Products

A few friends have asked me lately which toxic-free products I use and like, so I thought it might be helpful to share my list here.  When I first took an interest in avoiding chemicals, I sat down one night with a legal pad and wrote down every category of product I regularly used, from hand soap to face lotion, to laundry detergent, to toilet cleaner.

For a few weeks, I researched other blogs, online stores like and, and organic grocery retailers to see what alternative products were available, and what other users thought of their price and effectiveness.  Then I filled in a few products to try for each category on my list and over the past year, have put them to the test for myself.  Doing that research turned out to be a good plan of action because I didn’t have to start from scratch and go through 5+ products that were more hype than help.  So I’m hoping to use my research to pay it forward to you.  Here’s my exhaustive list of toiletries — I’ll share my favorite household cleaners later:

Product Category Favorite Non-Toxic Product Why I Love It Other Non-Toxic Products Tried Would still like to try
Astringent Dickinson’s Witch Hazel Witch hazel is nature’s astringent and I haven’t found any better man-made alternatives. Dab some on a cotton ball and swipe over clean skin.  Witch hazel all the way, baby!
Bar Soap Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps All-One Hemp Pure-Castile Soap Almond I went straight for this bar after smelling all the bar soaps in a natural food store and haven’t looked back since. It’s terrific. Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Bar Soap
Body Lotion Burt’s Bees Cocoa & Cupuacu Butters Body Lotion I was looking for a big bang for my buck and at $10 for 12 oz. this seemed a better deal than most tiny lotion bottles.  The lotion itself is great, but I’m open to finding other favorites EO Essential Oil Products Everyone Lotion Coconut and Lemon Alba Botanica Very Emollient Body Lotion
Body Wash 100% Pure Body Scrub Coconut I LOVE this body scrub. Exfoliates skin, but very moisturizing and smells DELICIOUS! Honest Shampoo & Body Wash Absolutely nothing.  I LOVE the 100% Pure Scrub
Bug Spray  Honest Bug Spray  This spray seems to work as well as mainstream bug spray and smells just like citronella candles. Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent
Conditioner Dermorganic Intensive Hair Repair Masque with Argan Oil The Dermoganic masque smells great and really moisturizes hair, even when it’s been destroyed by hairspray and curling irons Shea Moisture Organic Raw Shea Butter Deep Treatment Hair Masque Allafia Shea Butter Moisturizing Conditioner
Deodorant Lavanila “The Healthy Deodorant” AND Meow Meow Tweet Deodorant Cream Deodorant is challenging when it comes to finding a non-toxic alternative. Read here why aluminum-free is the thing to look for Tom’s of Maine Naturally Dry Antiperspirant Nothing — I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!
Facial Cleanser Burt’s Bees Deep Cleansing Cream Soap Bark & Chamomile It’s the natural equivalent of Noxzema cream cleanser.  Makes my face feel cool and clean. Burt’s Bees Peach & Willow Bark Scrub Acure Organics Facial Cleanser Superfruit plus Chlorella
Facial Moisturizer Herbal Choice Mari Day Cream Herbal Choice Mari is not a mainstream brand yet. But this lotion is so moisturizing even on dry winter skin, and the hint of orange essential oil adds a great scent. Love that it contains SPF too. First Aid Beauty Daily Face Cream; Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solutions Lotion; Burt’s Bees Renewal Day Lotion SPF 30 Everyday Coconut Daily Face Lotion, SPF 15
Hairspray Andalou Naturals Medium Hold Hair Spray Sunflower and Citrus Honestly, non-aerosol hairspray doesn’t spray evenly. It just doesn’t. But regular pump spray bottles are more eco-friendly and I like the refreshing citrus scent of this spray. It does firmly hold flyaways. Alterna Bamboo Smooth Anti-Humidity Hair Spray
Hand Sanitizer Honest Hand Sanitizer Gel The Honest gel feels slimy until you rub it in. Then you realize it’s actually just very moisturizing. EO Hand Sanitizer Spray, Lavender
Make-Up Remover Pure coconut oil Yup I’ve tried a few things and the very best for removing eye makeup is a dab of straight coconut oil on a cotton ball. You can buy it at any health food store, and now at most grocery stores. Sensitive Facial Cleansing Towelettes  Pure coconut oil is the best thing out there!
Mouthwash Tom’s Wicked Fresh I initially tried making my own mouthwash but I didn’t feel the minty burn. So I tried Tom’s and it definitely freshens breath without fake dyes or chemicals Tom’s Cleansing Jason Sea Fresh Sea Spearmint Mouthwash
Nail Polish Mineral Fusion I thought that nail polish was inherently full of toxic chemicals but was thrilled to find more natural alternatives. This brand works as well as the standard OPI. 2 coats plus a top coat lasts a week. 100% Pure Nail Polish; Scotch Naturals; Piggy Paint; Zoya
Shampoo 100% Pure Mint & Kelp Volumizing Shampoo The shampoo is sort of thin and runny but don’t let that deter you. A little goes a long way, and it really lathers unlike some other chemical-free shampoos. The mint scent is really refreshing and my hair feels really clean after using this shampoo. Honest Shampoo & Body Wash; Acure Clarifying Shampoo 100% Pure Yuzu & Pomelo Glossing Shampoo
Sunscreen Alba Very Emollient Sunscreen Sport SPF 45 Yes SPF 45.  I am REALLY pale and SPF 15 is like, why bother?  I previously tried Aveeno Naturals, but it had a cottage cheese, greasy consistency. Aveeno Natural Protection Lotion SPF 50  MyChelle SunShield-Coconut SPF 28
Toothpaste Tom’s Sensitive I have always used Sensodine toothpaste and when I switched to a more natural alternative, I was glad to see that Tom’s has a variation for sensitive teeth. It’s the same taste and consistency as regular toothpaste, so I’m sticking to it.  Haven’t seen other natural toothpastes that are sensitive-teeth-specific.
Wrinkle Cream Acure Argan Oil & Starflower Line Eraser I was worried an oil-based wrinkle treatment would make me break out but Acure is great. I can’t say my wrinkles have been erased, but I think using it regularly going forward will help prevent them from deepening. Burt’s Bees Radiance Eye Cream Alaffia Everyday Coconut Eye Cream

I hope this helps give you some ideas!

If you want recommendations on other products that I haven’t listed here, comment below and I’ll be sure to respond.  There is some information I didn’t include above due to space limitations.

Cleaning House

A dear friend of mine gave me a really thoughtful gift the other week — a book called The Naturally Clean Home.  It’sHomemade non-toxic cleaning text-pic a neat little book containing basic homemade recipes for easy concoctions to clean anything in your home from wood furniture to bathtub tile to carpet.

I already liked the idea of homemade, natural cleaners because conventional cleaning products often contain harsh and toxic chemicals.  The smell of bleach makes me dry-heave.  But so far I had only tried a vinegar and baking soda mix to clean pans with burnt-on food (which works well!).  This little book has many variations of cleaners, but it seems that castile soap, vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice are the main stars.  Surprised that so many cooking ingredients can be used for cleaning?  Vinegar and lemon juice have antibacterial properties.  And baking soda is a great alternative to toxic chemicals in household cleaning scrubs.  The other benefit of these homemade cleaning formulas is that they are very economical.  You can buy huge containers of white vinegar and baking soda from Costco and use those for several different cleaners rather than separately spending $9 on bathroom cleaner, $8 for counter spray, $7 for wood cleaner, and so on.  Check out this great little book or do some online research about homemade non-toxic cleaners.

In the meantime, here’s a little recipe of my own that works well to clean things around the house that can get grimy, like an electric facial cleanser brush head, razor handle or make-up brushes.

Hilary’s Cleaning Concoction

Fill a glass with two teaspoons of baking soda, ½ cup of white vinegar, and ½ cup warm water.  Sink the item into the glass — it may float, so to keep it immersed in the cleaning fluid you can hold it in place with a clean butter knife or something similar.  Keep it submerged for a few hours or overnight.  For makeup brushes, rinse with cold water and lay out on a clean washcloth to dry.  For plastic or rubber items, you may need to lightly scrub with a clean toothbrush to remove grime or mildew before rinsing and drying.

My Chemical Reaction

My initial interest in toxic-free products and foods was fueled by my realization that there were so many potentially harmful chemicals in the foods and products I was consuming on a daily basis.  Have you noticed recently that some products you pick up have a label that say something like, “formulated without sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, artificial dyes and artificial fragrances”?  If you’re wondering what all of those are and why you should be glad your shampoo doesn’t contain them, you’re not alone.  Prior to learning more about this subject, I completely trusted the fact that we live in a first-world country with credible regulatory agencies like the FDA, so it would be impossible that toxic chemicals would be in my deodorant or toothpaste, right?…   Because there is currently a lack of scientific consensus about whether certain chemicals in cosmetics and bath products cause things like cancer and and developmental concerns, U.S. law allows companies to use these chemicals in these consumer products.  In researching this article, almost every credible resource outlines the health concerns these chemicals are believed to cause but also states that there has not yet been overwhelming data to prove it.  The Washington Post ran an interesting article recently with a line that sums it up well, “Should you worry about the chemicals in your makeup, lotion, shaving cream, soap and shampoo? The answer is a clear maybe.”

Here’s a quick guide to some of these chemicals — what they are in and why they are controversial:

Two very common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).  They make products foamy and sudsy, and I’ve noticed it is included in lots of shampoos, toothpastes and soaps.  It is believed by some to cause skin irritation and nervous system disruption.  The National Institutes of Health gives the full scientific lowdown on SLS here.

Parabens (like Isopropylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben) are chemicals that are controversial because they are thought to cause endocrine disruption, hormone imbalance, breast cancer, and infertility issues, etc.  According to the FDA, parabens are used in cosmetic products at such low levels that there is no risk in exposure.  You can read the FDA’s full summary on parabens here.  What I found most compelling about the statement is this: “The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) does not authorize FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes. In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.”  So cosmetics companies have the freedom to use chemicals like parabens in their products because there is no law to answer to in the United States.  Comparatively, the European Union has placed a limitation on legal limits of some parabens in cosmetic products, and has prohibited others entirely.

Artificial Dyes
Many of us tend to think of artificial dyes as existing mostly in foods like candy, Jello or Kool-Aid.  But what about the salmon at the fish counter labeled “color-added”?  Or why is your dish soap such a neon blue?  “Chances are, if you take vitamins, use cough syrup, brush your teeth, wash your hands, shampoo your hair, launder your clothing and moisturize your lips on a daily basis — you come into contact with artificial dyes quite frequently,” says Forbes magazine.  Read the full article here for an eye-opening look at artificial coloring which some scientists link to cancer and ADHD.

Artificial fragrances
“The word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate.  Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system,” according to the Environmental Working Group.  So there is a good chance that your favorite designer perfume or scented lotion with citrus or floral notes isn’t actually derived from an actual lemon or lavender plant at all, but is instead is scented by chemicals created in a lab.

 I don’t want to run around claiming that the sky is falling; that using these chemicals on our bodies will be the demise of the human race. Perhaps the reason that the scientific community has yet to convincingly prove the extent of these chemical’s toxicity is because they are indeed harmless.  But I always come back to this basic thought.  There are already misfortunes in life over which we have no control, like disease and infertility.  If it ultimately it is proven true that these chemicals are harmful and can accelerate or exacerbate these conditions, and I could have prevented them by using shampoo or mascara that was $2 more expensive and I chose not to, I’m really going to kick myself later.  So taking an extra minute to read a label and spending a few extra bucks on toxic-free products is worth it to me in the long run.

If you are interested in learning more about chemicals in cosmetics products, here are a few helpful places to start: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics & Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

Also, there are several companies that produce high-quality products without toxic chemicals.  Check out some of these as alternatives to your current products: Tarte, 100% Pure, Honest, Burt’s Bees, and Acure.