When I first began experimenting with botanical body care over a decade ago, it was in pursuit of products that not only worked well but that I could adorn knowing that they were healthy. While we normally think of the skin as an intact barrier between us and the world around us, the reality is that this ‘barrier’ is in fact very permeable — much more like a screen than a door. Most of what we apply on our skin gets absorbed, which is why we need to give as much consideration to what we wear topically as to what we consume internally.

Early in my journey, I began realizing that almost all of the products I was using on a regular basis were full of unfamiliar chemicals — everything from my face cream to my lip stain to my shampoo. Why is this the case? Simply so that products can be made cheaply and easily, to ensure that they can last years on store shelves, and to allow for colors, textures and scents that would otherwise not be possible. 

Skincare Industry Issues

I like to compare conventional beauty and skincare to processed foods at a regular grocery store. If you walk by the cereal aisle, you’ll be confronted with a vast array of colorful boxes that boast vitamins and minerals but in reality offer gmo puffed corn, sugar, food dyes and natural flavors. These ‘foods’ would likely survive the apocalypse, so what are they doing inside our digestive system?

Unfortunately, skincare is even less regulated than food in the U.S., and the list of substances that cannot be used in topical products is both short and exceptionally outdated. This leaves the integrity of a formulation in the hands its creators, and at the mercy of their overall mission. For the past several decades, huge corporations have ruled the beauty world and dominated the market with major labels. Often with profit as the bottom line, these companies traditionally have massive markups on cheaply made products that cost a tiny fraction of the retail price to produce (much like the fashion industry). A significant portion of revenue is allocated to enticing consumers with eye-catching packaging and lofty promises. Essentially, their goal is to keep your eyes on everything except for the ingredients list printed in almost illegible tiny font on the back of the bottle.

Decoding the Label

The reason most companies don’t want you to read their ingredients — or understand them, for that matter — is because what’s actually in the bottle is often disappointing. Lengthy chemical names are inarguably daunting, while terms like ‘natural fragrances’ are deliberately deceiving. So how on earth do you navigate these labyrinthine lists? I’ve compiled the following clues and cues over the entirety of my life (since, even as a child, I loved reading ingredient labels on everything I encountered). 

My Personal Ingredient Philosophy 

Please note before you go forward ~ I choose to keep my body care *super* simple, but you can determine your own level of comfort when it comes to ingredients. I personally believe that we can get everything we need for our skin and hair from just a few types of natural materials: nutritive herbs; cold-pressed, saponified & essential oils; raw butters & beeswax; vinegars, honeys and hydrosols. In an industry constantly making new innovations, I have chosen to stick to the time-tested ingredients & processes that our bodies have been accustomed to for thousands of years. 

Fresh infusions

Easy Ways to Spot Dirty Skincare

The following cues are very general, and are intended to help sharpen your discernment skills. I highly encourage you to explore the products you’re already using, which will get you familiar with common labeling terms. If you want to know about a specific ingredient, I suggest typing it into EWG's Skin Deep database for cosmetic ingredients to get a summary of safety information.

As you start out on this ingredient exercise, be compassionate with yourself ~ there is no need to throw out everything in your home. Finish up what you've already got and use this information to make informed decisions moving forward. Over time, finding truly healthy body products will only get easier (especially with the growing number of conscious brands in this space) and you can curate a more mindful routine here on out. 

1. The packaging is plastic.

While not necessarily a dealbreaker, cheap products in large plastic bottles (that typically populate drug store shelves) are often laden with synthetic ingredients. An abundance of single-use or excess plastic packaging also signals that the company is not striving for a low environmental impact. 

Businesses that use sustainable packaging (made out of recyclable, recycled or compostable materials and with minimal waste) generally opt for better ingredients as well as more eco-friendly business practices. 

2. The ingredients are well hidden. 

Companies that are proud of their ingredients list them front and center ~ not in microscopic font on the bottle, under a peel-back tab, or behind a bunch of clicks on a separate page of their website. The ingredients are the most important part of any product, so if they are well hidden it's most likely because the maker is not keen for you to read them. 

3. The ingredients list is loooong.

How many ingredients does it take to make effective skin care? Honestly, not that many. Most of my products have less than a dozen ingredients, and I generally feel that less is more. 

Just like how a meal with less ingredients is easier on the digestive system, a simple formula is generally better tolerated by the skin and less likely to cause a reaction. A smaller amount of active ingredients means that what's in the product actually counts, and ingredients are present in a high enough dosage to actually be potent.

There are definitely brands that love adding a million and one 'healthy' ingredients (a sort of 'ingredient stuffing'), but I'd strive to purchase products with around a dozen or less total ingredients.

4. There are lots of unfamiliar ingredients.

Are you more inclined to eat something once aware that it’s made from a bunch of chemicals you’ve never heard of? The seemingly never-ending array of substances used in modern skincare is honestly too long to even attempt to break down, but just know that new ingredients are being developed every day to make products cheaper to produce, longer lasting, and still being labeled as 'natural.' The only way to actually know whether a product is good for you is to read through each and every ingredient on the list! 

Don’t get confused by botanical names — plants are either listed by their common name (like Rosemary) or their scientific name (Rosmarinus officinalis, in this case). Scientific or botanical names consist of two Latin words, known as a binomial. A web search can help determine if unfamiliar lingo is, in fact, a plant.

Once you start reading labels, you'll notice a lot of patterns that help clue you in. For example, lots of synthetic ingredients used as surfactants, stabilizers, and emulsifiers have chemical names with endings such as '-ate' (sulfate, benzoate), '-yl' (benzyl, propyl), and '-ide' (glucoside, cocamide) ~ just to name a few. 

5. The product contains natural fragrances. 

Despite being called 'natural,' fragrances can actually be made up of just about anything. Over the past few decades, the flavor and fragrance industry has pumped out thousands of fragrances (and flavors for food) while remaining shrouded in mystery. Because they claim these substances are 'trade secrets,' they do not have to (and almost always do not) disclose the constituents of their creations. Natural fragrances are required to have some component that exists in nature, but the rest can be fully synthetic and not thoroughly tested for safety. 

Keep in mind that if a product claims to have a fruity scent other than citrus, it likely uses fragrances. Aromas like passionfruit, cucumber melon, or guava are not able to be captured by natural extraction methods, so the best way to enjoy them is not in your skincare but in the way nature intended ~ as fruit. 

Apothecary ingredients

Find What's Best for Your Body

The above list is by no means a catch all ~ the truth is that virtually any ingredient can cause irritation depending on the individual. Regardless of how healthy or natural something may be, you have to make sure it works for your body. 

Whenever testing out a new product with unfamiliar ingredients, always patch test on a small area of less sensitive skin (like the side of your leg) and wait at least 48 hours to ensure there's no reaction before applying to your face or a larger area of the body. 

Our sensitivity to ingredients can also change over time. Shifts in our hormones or environment or long term use of a particular product or ingredient can result in a skin allergy. Avoid using any products on acutely irritated skin and take a break from anything you suspect to be aggravating. When it comes to what products are right for you, always pay attention to what your body is saying and trust your intuition.

Support Body Care That Cares

In an industry dominated by corporate giants that mass produce cheap products with high margins, your purchasing power makes an impact. By choosing to spend your precious dollars with companies that truly care about the your health and the planet’s, you can support the growing movement of conscious and sustainable wellness.

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