Coming Clean

Why natural beauty doesn't always deliver - and how to make it work for you
By Lindsey Galloway

If you’ve used natural shampoo or organic deodorant, you know that nontoxic personal care products don’t always work like their conventional counterparts. Sure, pure shampoos lack harsh detergents that strip your hair’s natural oils, but they can leave locks limp and lifeless. And when it comes to masking underarm odor, essential oil–derived scents just don’t last as long as synthetic fragrances found in pore-blocking, hormone-disrupting antiperspirants. Yet at the same time, other types of natural beauty products—lip balms, scrubs, lotions, and bar soaps, for instance—work so well you wonder why you didn’t ditch toxins long ago.

So what makes shampoo and deodorant, along with conditioner, hairstyling aids, and mascara so much more difficult to make natural and effective? According to Jody Villecco, quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market, manufacturers have had little trouble creating natural lip balms and lotions, for example, because these items consist largely of oils and waxes. But products with lengthy ingredient lists and specific performance objectives are much harder to formulate without all the bad stuff. In fact, the natural re-creations may never provide the results you expect from conventional versions—so you may just need to rethink your expectations. “Some results that we look for, we shouldn’t be,” says Spirit Demerson, founder of online beauty boutique “Things like lipstick that lasts 12 hours, hair spray with bulletproof hold, and the lather that sometimes eludes us with natural shampoos.”

The good news is natural-minded companies are making progress in producing tough-to-replicate products that really work. So before you sneak swipes of Secret or suds up with Pantene, learn what challenges your favorite brands face—and give the natural-beauty aisle another shot.

Conventional shampoos’ extensive ingredient lists are hard to re-create naturally, because few of these chemicals have one-for-one replacements. Therefore, “if you look at an organic shampoo next to a conventional shampoo, most often you see a completely different formulation,” says Demerson. “Yet they’ll both clean your hair.”

Shampoos traditionally contain cheap, harsh detergents, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium laureth sulfate, and sodium myreth sulfate. These can irritate and dry your skin and also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, natural companies are starting to find safer alternatives. “They’re using gentler surfactants [detergents] like coco glucoside, decyl glucoside, or lauryl glucoside, derived from coconut oil, sugar, and corn starch,” says Rona Berg, author of Fast Beauty: 1,000 Quick Fixes (Workman Publishing Company, 2005).

Since these safer surfactants don’t produce suds, natural-product newbies often think chemical-free shampoos don’t work. However, while advertising has led us to associate robust lather with cleaning power, natural shampoos wash hair just as well without bubbles. For tips on how to get lather even with a natural shampoo, see “Make the Switch” below.

Try: The Healing Seed Shampoo ($14, 8 oz; With hints of fresh orange oil, this squeaky-clean shampoo leaves little to be desired in bounce and sheen.

Conditioners restore the oils shampoos strip from hair and also temper static. This is why nearly all conditioners—even mostly natural ones—contain positively charged salts called quaternary amines, or quats, to reduce static electricity (97 percent of hair is made of a negatively charged protein called keratin). Quats appear on labels as behenalkonium chloride, cetrimonium chloride, and disteardimonium hectorite.
Studies have linked quats to allergies, asthma, and skin irritation, prompting formulators to seek gentler varieties. Some of these, such as guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride and hydroxypropyltrimonium oligosaccharide, even meet Whole Foods Market’s über-strict Premium Body Care Standard.

Still, the safest conditioners contain no quats—but they won’t always provide the same shine and bounce. However, their oil-rich formulations will restore hair over time and add shine. Instead of your usual routine, use conditioner first (giving the oils a few minutes to absorb) and then shampoo the excess away to keep hair from looking weighed down.

Try: Keys Mangrove Hair Conditioner ($17, 3.4 oz; swaps quats for nourishing avocado oil, shea butter, and brassica (vegetable) oil. Use as a leave-in treatment or styling product; the concentrated formula goes a long way, so use just a little.

Hairstyling products
Hair spray, mousse, and heat protectors often contain petrochemicals such as silicone and plastic-like polymers. Silicones guard hair from heat and provide shine but clog pores on your scalp, and some varieties cause respiratory problems when inhaled, says Villecco. And while polymers keep hair in place, they aren’t natural and don’t readily biodegrade.

Natural styling products, on the other hand, contain botanicals that help nourish and restore hair. You may not be able to score a sky-high bouffant, but basic hairstyles will hold throughout the day.

Try: Intelligent Nutrients Certified Organic Perfect Hold Hair Spray ($29, 6.7 oz; uses acacia Senegal gum extract from African acacia trees, along with pumpkinseed, black cumin, and palmarosa oils.

Natural cosmetic companies have especially struggled to reinvent mascara, because its formula and function rely on synthetic, petroleum-based ingredients. In fact, the very first mascara was made with Vaseline and coal dust. Today’s versions often include chains of plastic-like polymers to coat and harden lashes, and silicone to supply that glossy look.

Although natural companies replace polymers with waxes and oils, their mascaras often don’t function the same as mainstream go-to’s. The color doesn’t always last from day to night, and you don’t get the volume or length that a drugstore brand’s coat of plastic can provide. In the instance of mascara, “you just have to decide what’s important to you,” says Villecco. “Using something with all-natural ingredients or something that performs like you’re used to.”

Try: Lavera Volume Mascara ($20; coats lashes with jojoba seed oil and mineral-based color that looks natural and lasts.

Few would argue that natural deodorants last as long as their conventional counterparts. “I’ve tried 16 to 17 natural deodorant brands,” says Berg. “Some have patchouli, verbena, or sandalwood scents, but you need to carry them with you and reapply throughout the day, which isn’t always practical. But hard science shows there’s good reason to avoid the ingredients in most deodorants.”

That science mostly revolves around triclosan, a strong antibacterial also used in hand sanitizers. Since underarm odor stems from bacteria, triclosan keeps funk from forming in the first place. However, a 2006 Swedish study tied triclosan to thyroid dysfunction, and other research links the related chemical triclocarban to abnormal sex-hormone function. Skin irritant propylene glycol is also often added to deodorants to help other ingredients penetrate—not a desired effect when those ingredients can cause harm.

You’ll also never find a safe, natural antiperspirant—actually a drug that makes you stop sweating. But this may not be a bad thing, since the body sweats in order to cool down and eliminate toxins. Plus, like paraben preservatives, the aluminum salts in antiperspirants can mimic estrogen in the body, potentially increasing breast cancer risk.

Luckily, the right combo of ingredients in natural deodorants can still fight off bacteria to leave you stink free—although you may need to try a few brands to find a fit for your body chemistry. Witch hazel and alcohol work as astringents to evaporate moisture and, when paired with antibacterial essential oils like sage, citrus, and tea tree, can keep odor-causing bacteria from multiplying. Some companies have also added natural clays and powders to help absorb underarm moisture.

Try: Erbaviva Jasmine Grapefruit Organic Deodorant ($18, 3.4 oz; This floral-citrus mix stops stink for longer than many natural deos thanks to antibacterial lemon, ginger, and cedarwood oils.