The quick-and-dirty guide on how to clean yourself up

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a post on how to shop for things, but it’s long overdue that I create a “How-to” shopping guide. There’s a chance I’ll cover this later in greater detail, but I figured it would be good to get at least a bullet point list out there.

As I’ve mentioned in my How to Grocery Shop series, shopping responsibly for any product is a gauntlet in itself. There are a gazillion different personal care products out there, and they span an enormous array of categories.

For now, we’ll be focusing on consumable products that you’d likely store in your bathroom — things like soap and body wash; shampoo and conditioner; body lotions and creams; and, of course, face cleansers, masks, oils, etc.

If you’re desperate for a simple TL;DR without reading the post, here’s your macro takeaway: don’t instantly buy into a brand or product just because it’s marketed as natural or cruelty-free — always do research and check the ingredients before buying anything. If you want to learn more about the how, specifically, though carry on reading 🙂

1. Check to see if the product you’re considering is cruelty-free.

The fact of the matter is that there’s very little reason for our personal care products to be tested on animals. Most labs will use animals like bunnies and beagles to test chemicals for human safety, but if you stop to think about it, that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. After all, we’re significantly larger than most animals that are used in testing, and we aren’t even genetically similar to them.

In fact, in many cases, there is no legal necessity for brands to conduct animal testing.** In the United States, for example, it’s a sad fact that the FDA provides minimal oversight of personal care products, so, more often than not, brand manufacturers get to conduct whatever tests they believe are appropriate to establish that their cosmetics or household products are safe. (This is obviously scary for reasons beyond that of just animal welfare, but let’s save that conversation for a different day.) The use of animals in labs is therefore perpetuated primarily by outdated industry convention, but certainly not because governments universally demand them due to their efficacy.

Although caring about animal testing and cruelty does admittedly nix out a lot of the more high-end and drugstore brands (for now), it’s arguably one of the most important steps you can make towards being a better consumer. Some tips for identifying whether something is cruelty-free:

  • look for a cruelty-free logo on the packaging*
  • look up the brand on a cruelty-free site tracker like Cruelty Free Kitty Logical Harmony, or Ethical Elephant. You can also refer to the main cruelty-free 3rd-party reviewers: Leaping Bunny guide, Beauty without Bunnies, and Choose Cruelty Free.
  • look at the ingredient list.
    I was recently evaluating whether or not I wanted to try out a cosmetic item from a brand called Rituel de Fille. Their about page states that they “never test on animals, and only source [their] raw materials from companies that are also 100% cruelty free.” If you looked only at their statement, you’d assume their products are cruelty-free. When I looked at their formulations, however, I realized that couldn’t possibly be true: most of their items use lanolin (an oil sheep skin creates), which is harvested from the process of shearing sheep. Shearing is usually an intensely distressing process for the animal, and very often involves physical abuse or disfigurement, primarily because workers are paid for their output, not their time. The moral of the story? Make sure that the ingredients are cruelty-free, not just the final product.
  • learn about the brand’s parent company and its practices.
    It’s important to know whether or not the cruelty-free brand you’re looking at is owned by a parent company that isn’t cruelty-free. A great example is Schmidt’s deodorant, which recently got acquired by Unilever, a company that tests on animals. This is a personal decision, and arguments for both cases can be considered valid:
    • some people argue that buying only the cruelty-free brands from an animal cruelty parent company encourages the company to reduce its use of animal testing;
    • others argue that they don’t want any of their money going towards a parent company that engages in animal cruelty across brands.

2. Compare ingredients at an environmental impact level.

Unfortunately, a lot of the self-care products we take for granted in our day-to-day life aren’t exactly the greatest for the environment. In fact, if you take a look at the EWG Skin Deep database, you’ll notice that a lot of the ingredients in your common drugstore brands don’t just pose health risks to people, but they also pose documented risks to the environment (like acute aquatic toxicity).

It’s one thing to elect to use ingredients that may or may not cause hormone disruption, cancer, organ failure, or whatever else — your body is your own, after all — but it’s another thing entirely to subject aquatic life to those chemicals after your suds go down the drain. It’s important, therefore to make sure that you look at the chemicals in your products and evaluate their safety not just for yourself, but for the planet.

If you’re using all-natural products already, that’s great! You’re not automatically in the clear, though. Even when using all-natural products, it’s important to consider the environmental impact they may pose.

For example, you may be using an all-natural, organic, artisan soap bar from a family-run small business you found online. That’s great! However, if it uses palm oil, even the “sustainably farmed” variety, it’s now one of hundreds of thousands of products that are causing mass deforestation in Asia, Latin America, and Africa to be bulldozed down every day. Palm oil may be a completely natural ingredient, but it’s awful for the environment in a myriad of ways.

As a general rule, it’s important to weigh not just whether or not something is all-natural, but also whether or not it’s responsible. Depending on the ingredient in question, it may be connected to bad farming practices or over-farming. Going back to the example of palm oil, it’s important to note that there are several new endangered species as a result of the ongoing deforestation that palm oil harvesting has caused.

The takeaway: a product that features nothing but natural ingredients isn’t good by default — at least not where the environment is concerned. Pay attention to the chemicals and the natural ingredients and make educated, informed, and conscious decisions about the items you buy and put on your face and body.

3. Make sure your brands are actually green, not just greenwashed.

Greenwashing is an unfortunate phenomenon that’s emerged in recent years as a response to an increase in consumer consciousness. The desire to find more natural and environmentally-responsible products is growing, and companies have taken notice. The trouble is, of course, that not all companies are genuinely interested in going greener. Instead, they take shortcuts: instead of creating more environmentally-responsible products, they position their brand through marketing and product packaging to look greener than they really are.

Greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers into thinking that a product is safe, non-toxic, eco-friendly, and/or natural when it isn’t actually significantly better than the standard.

To do this, companies will often package their products with natural images (think trees, leaves, flowers, blades of grass), colors (how many types of green can you put on one box or bottle?), and some key words (“botanical,” “plant-based,” “paraben-free”/”sulfate-free,” “gentle”) in the hopes that the consumer won’t be smart enough to take the time to evaluate the ingredients (which you can do easily by referring to the EWG database or the ThinkDirty app).

In keeping with the lesson from point 1, it’s important to recognize that a brand’s primary job is to make money, not necessarily do the absolute best by you. There are several brands that appear in wellness and green beauty stores or in the “green” section of your grocery store that have no real business being there (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Meyers and Tide).

Some things I look for so that I can avoid buying greenwashed garbage:

  • look at the brand’s full product line(s). Does the brand make a name for itself as exclusively providing eco-friendly options, or does it offer “conventional” products, too? Although it’s in no way conclusively going to prove that the brand is good if it’s only “eco-friendly,” you can safely bet that any company offering green options alongside regular options isn’t actually worth spending money on.
  • look up the product on ThinkDirty or EWG’s Skin Deep. It’s important to note that these databases are also not entirely conclusive, and you should absolutely not take them as infallible sources of truth. The EWG, for example, has a whole line of EWG certified products now which, if you spend any time researching, often contain a number of ingredients that haven’t been extensively researched. Moreover, the EWG and ThinkDirty are guilty for giving products that contain the paraben-alternative preservative phenoxyethanol safety ratings of 0 and 1, despite this chemical having a hazard rating of 4 after only limited research has been done on it. That said, if it has a bad rating, odds are you shouldn’t pick it up. 
  • look at the ingredients, and do a quick google search on anything you don’t recognize (or just pass and move on to an ingredient list you can understand). Admittedly, this can be a pain in the butt, especially if you’re new to the whole experience and process of going green. The good news is that the more time you spend buying natural products and you regularly read the ingredients list of products you buy, you can’t help but gradually learn and recognize the names of things you’ll learn are safe. That in turn makes it a lot easier to spot things that don’t seem natural or environmentally-responsible!

The bottom line: don’t assume something is natural or eco-friendly because the packaging wants you to think it is. There are a ton of personal care brands out there who care about making money but also just genuinely care about making a positive difference. It’s worth it to give your money to those brands, not the ones who are pretending to be something they aren’t.

4. Compare options at a packaging level.

It’s no secret that our world is suffering from single-use plastic. In some cases, plastic is unavoidable, and in other cases, they’re arguably even good (think things like sterile needles). In most cases, though, single-use plastics are avoidable and icky for the environment.

When buying self-care products, try to ask yourself if there’s a better way to buy the thing you’re already using. Odds are, you can find a natural product that performs just as well as what you’re already using, but offers a more responsible packaging solution. Sometimes, all it takes is a little bit of extra work to research.

When comparing packaging, I try to look for the following:

  • glass first. Glass packaging is amazing: it’s reusable, it’s recyclable, and it’s made from liquefied sand, which is theoretically about as natural as you can get without cutting down plant matter. There are a gazillion ways to repurpose glass in your own home for DIY projects, and you can sterilize it between uses.
  • biodegradable paper. We don’t normally give much thought to these small things, but plastic lip balm tubes are just as bad as plastic utensils, because both end up as single-use plastics. Instead of going for plastic containers, try to find some of your care items in biodegradable (ideally post-consumer-recycled) paper.
  • go for metal tins and bottles. Tins offer generally the same functionality as glass, but come with the bonus of being less fragile. The few drawbacks relate to the fact that the processing of harvesting metals can be less than eco-friendly, and that not all metals are suitable for use in humid environments. That said, they are readily recyclable and are pretty worry-free for the duration of their life. This is a great option when paper isn’t.
  • pick up plastics that you know you can recycle. It’s estimated that something close to 91% of all the world’s plastic isn’t recycled, of which it isn’t established how much can actually be recycled to begin with through conventional methods (a lot of plastics can’t be recycled to begin with). If you think you need something housed in plastic, make sure you can at least recycle the packaging: make sure it has a number on the bottle or label somewhere that indicates it’s recyclable. Otherwise, it’s just going to end up as more of the billions of plastic trash going into landfills.

Closing thought: remember that you as a consumer have a say in what happens next.

Ultimately, we as individual consumers can be made to feel pretty small in terms of what our choices mean for the “big picture,” but it’s important to think about scale: everything eventually adds up. If everyone on the planet were to abstain from one piece of plastic packaging on a single day, that would translate into the abstinence from 8 billion pieces of plastic.

No matter how cynical you may be, the reality is that, collectively, what we do matters. Big change happens from small pockets of people who are brave enough to believe that what they do matters.

Put your money where your heart and mouth are. You making informed, conscientious decisions can affect others around you, and influence them into making better choices, too. Eventually, companies will notice.

* Please note that, even if a company is certified by Leaping Bunny, PETA, or CCF, you still may not see a cruelty-free logo, as not all companies can afford to pay the licensing fees associated with putting those logos on their packaging.
** A notable exception is with China and its laws regarding imported self-care products, as China requires all imported self-care products to be tested on animals before they can be distributed.

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