My road to clean beauty started with bronzer. I had shattered my old compact and needed to replace it. Naturally, I turned to my younger, Sephora-fluent coworkers for recommendations. Two of them gave resounding endorsements for one brand, noting that it was talc-free, cruelty-free, and vegan.
Talc-free and vegan? These were things that had never factored into any of my beauty decisions before. For two decades, I had concerned myself solely with what I could buy on the aisle endcaps for under $5 at CVS.
As I researched this brand more, I discovered a new language around “clean” beauty products — products with more naturally derived ingredients that are free from common chemicals and additives that have been linked to health risks. I decided to invest in makeup, skin, and hair products that would do less harm to my body, as well as to the environment.
What follows is the emotional rollercoaster of thoughts that I found myself on while attempting to come clean.
1. “Bow down, for I am a green goddess who treats my body like a temple. My riches will grow because I will use natural ingredients that are already in my kitchen.”
Right off the bat as I begin this quest, I find myself on a high, self-righteous horse. I’m energized that my investment in a clean beauty regimen will not only treat my skin better, but also benefit the environment. I’m equally excited for the sheer gobs of money I predict I’ll save by switching to coconut oil and other things that are already in my pantry. Within a week, I know the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website like the back of my hand and I’m commenting on clean beauty influencers’ Instagram posts like we’re BFFs.
2. “How do I pronounce ‘parabens’?”
On my first shopping run, I’m immediately duped by a product branded as “natural” that contains several ingredients flagged by EWG. It turns out that terms like “clean” or “natural” or “non-toxic” are not officially regulated by the FDA (and federal regulations around cosmetics have not been updated for nearly 80 years!) Brands can put “natural” on a product without any formal consensus of what that means or legal need to back up their claims. Knowing the ingredients on the back of the package is more important than the words on the front of it. I learn that parabens, sulfates, phthalates, talc, formaldehyde, and even fragrance are among the ingredients that research suggests pose moderate to severe risks for cancer, allergic reactions, endocrine and hormonal disruption, and other adverse side effects. More than 1,000 ingredients are banned in Europe, but the U.S. has yet to test or regulate most of them in cosmetics.
3. “Now what do I do with all of this garbage in my bathroom?”
I cannot in good conscience dump all of my existing products down the drain to wreak havoc on our water system. And the spendthrift in me can’t bear to waste a drop of anything; I’m that girl who adds water to shampoo to extend the life of it for another week. The Internet tells me that the best option is to see if there is a local waste facility that can dispose of products properly, especially nail polish, or to see if the brand itself or will dispose of the leftover product. Companies like TerraCycle help brands recycle their containers, and my municipal recycling service accepts some plastic, glass, and carboard packaging — provided I wipe out the remaining product and put it in the trash, not the drain.
4. “Woo hoo! An excuse to experiment with new products? Sign me up.”
After I complete my purge, I become pretty excited about changing up my routine. I find a new sunscreen that works equally as well as previous brands. I lament that I would have smelled like powder fresh for all eternity if I had not been introduced to aluminum-free, baking soda-based deodorant. The possibilities seem endless!
5. “Sheesh, this is time-consuming.”
That vegan bronzer? It’s only sold online, where I have to pay for shipping and wait 3-5 days for it to arrive on my doorstep. And that’s only when my shade is in stock. A few weeks in and this entire experiment has become mind-numbingly inconvenient. I forget my toiletries bag while traveling to a rural wedding and cling to a pipe dream that I’ll find clean products near a rustic mountain barn. I put the experiment on hiatus when I realize that there’s no way this stuff exists in travel sizes at CVS for an upcoming business trip.
6. “I swear I just got paid.”
Returning from the business trip, I’m back in and recommitted. I proceed to fork over $12 for deodorant, $17 for body wash and $15 for a 6 oz. bottle of sunscreen. I’m in shock. Where is all the cheap coconut oil I was promised? I disassociate from my bank account and decide that I can afford $35 for setting powder. I lose all sense of reality when I debate paying $89 for eyeshadow palettes on Beautycounter. I start having dreams about how much I miss $1 eyeliner. While the upfront cost proves difficult, I become more conscious about what I spend. I cancel my makeup subscriptions, scour for coupons, and wait for sales. I’m jazzed to see more affordable products pop up at Target, expanding access beyond just the wealthy and privileged.
7. “Note to self: Don’t leave coconut oil in the drain.”
Ha! Vindication! I can use coconut oil and pantry items from Trader Joe’s for things like hair masks and moisturizer. But then my drain clogs — coconut oil hardens, it turns out — and I worry that my $5 oil has now become an expensive plumber’s bill. Fortunately, my best friend informs me that hot water and soap will flush it out.
8. “Is this stuff actually working?”
I’ll be honest — I don’t witness any miraculous transformations after making swaps. I do notice that for the first summer in years, my typically cracked and scaly feet stay moisturized, though I can’t conclusively link it to any one product. Generally, these new products work just as well if not better than my standard beauty arsenal. However, after paying more than I normally would for a beeswax lip balm that bleeds and gives me “fruit punch mouth,” I feel a new, deeper kind of inner rage.
9. “I am still a green goddess — albeit an imperfect one.”
I entered this lifestyle change with ambitious aspirations. While at times it has been a hassle and a rude awakening financially, I have learned to make smarter choices at the register. I feel better knowing that I’m minimizing my potential health risks, which could save me money in healthcare costs in the long run. I feel more informed and ultimately empowered to take control of my health and to use my dollars to compel the cosmetics industry to make changes.
Colleen Flynn is an experienced communications professional with 10+ years of experience in content creation, copywriting, digital and social media, and public relations. She has agency and in-house experience across a variety of industries, including nonprofit, public media, and tech. In her personal time, she is an avid outdoor enthusiast who invests in travel and adrenaline rushes at every opportunity she gets/makes.
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