Greening Your Beauty Routine: The Basics

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There are more beauty products out there than I can count. Every time I open a magazine, there’s a new advertisement for a lip-gloss, a moisturizer or mascara that can change how I look and feel. And oftentimes, the marketing works and I end up with one more product that I likely don’t need, probably won’t use, but certainly has an impact on the planet.

While it’s easy to ignore, beauty products take an environmental toll – their production, chemicals and packaging add up, especially with some people using as many as twenty unique products each day! For instance, we like to buy cosmetics and beauty products with “natural” ingredients and fortifying minerals, but these ingredients require mining and farming to produce, most of which is done on a large scale with questionable environmental and labor practices. And despite advertising, these “natural” components aren’t the only ingredients in your product – too often they are mixed with a number of toxic chemicals, some harmful to your health and others to the water that it eventually washes into. And then there is the packaging, which can be excessive and ends up in landfills.

But greening your beauty routine doesn’t have to be super complicated. By asking yourself a few questions – both in the store and at home, you can start to reduce your impact on the planet, while still getting the beautiful results that you desire.

How can I reduce waste?

There are lots of products that create more waste than necessary. For a start, ditch the face wipes and disposable razors in favor of a regular cleansing wash and metal razor – and consider what other products you throw away after using just a few times. Think about packing too. Bar soap generally comes wrapped in paper, which is much less wasteful than a plastic bottle for body wash. Getting every ounce out of your products also helps reduce waste – so squeeze your toothpaste tube against the bathroom counter, or use little baby spoons to get the last drop out of a makeup tub.

Finally, always recycle packaging, and try to buy products that allow you to do so.

Can I use less?

What’s the added benefit of one more product? In reality, most products are pretty similar. For instance, most eye creams are almost identical in formulation to facial moisturizers and many lipstick or eyeshadow colors can be made by mixing other colors that you already own.

Can you consume less of the products that you do use? Using less shampoo, for example, may actually be good for your hair, since soap residue remains even after rinsing.

Can I reduce my chemical use?

There are a lot of toxic chemical processes used in cosmetic production that are bad for the planet and for you. Skip the spray tan and chemical hair treatments to avoid some of the most noxious chemicals. Keratin and Brazilian Hair treatments, for example, use formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Not only is that harmful  when absorbed through your scalp, but also when you breathe it in at the salon. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a “hazard alert” to salons using these products in order to protect the safety of the salon workers applying them.

Use tools like the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to learn more about the chemicals in your products. Look out for ones that are particularly bad for the environment, like microbeads, BHA, dioxane, dibutyl phthalate and tricloclan, which all cause mutations in amphibians and fish and can impede their reproduction. And stay away from those that use petroleum-derived chemicals. Made from a non-renewable and environmentally unfriendly resource (oil), some of these chemicals (coal tar in particular) are also known carcinogens. These chemicals are found in face cream, dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and lotions, and are labeled as petrolatum, mineral oil, coal tar and paraffin.

To learn more about avoiding chemicals that are bad for your health, check out our recent post regarding chemicals in your makeup.

Can I buy green?

Unfortunately, the words “natural” and “all-natural” are not regulated, and any beauty product can use them in their advertising. As a consumer, you should beware and do your research before buying. However, there are increasingly great brands out there that are true to their word. Whole Foods does a good job weeding out the fakers, and you can keep an eye out for brands like Dr. Hauschka, Stella McCartney’s Care, Real Pure, Burt’s Bees, and Dr. Bronners, to name a few. The USDA National Organic Program also certifies personal-care products and an increasing number of organic skincare products now bear the organic seal.

RAW IS EVERYTHINGRAW IS EVERYTHING, a team that got their start out of Harvard’s Innovation Lab alongside DoneGood, keeps things even simpler by providing products containing only one ingredient. Their single-ingredient facial oils are extracted from biodynamic plants and sourced sustainably from communities around the world.

If you have the time, there are also a lot of natural products that you can use to make your own body products. Coconut oil, castile soap, shea butter and even vinegar can make great substitute products with the right recipes.

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