Making the switch over to non-toxic makeup was on my to-do list. The priority level was somewhere between learning how to bake Instagram-worthy cakes and figuring out how to invest in cryptocurrencies. There was a lot of me thinking "Yeah, I should do that. Maybe on a weekend? Will probably take some research, time, and money"—aka, not happening any time soon. That is, until I went on a wellness trip to Palm Springs with Net-a-Porter. The retailer has gotten behind the natural makeup category in a big way, and over the course of the weekend I was introduced to several of the brands that would kick start my journey to non-toxic makeup.
But first, a little background about toxic beauty: It's been hypothesized that parabens—a group of ingredients prevalent in cosmetics in the United States—likely disrupt the endocrine system since at least 2003. This is a particularly terrifying notion when you consider most people start wearing makeup around puberty, when the endocrine system really kicks into high gear.
Here’s a breakdown of how I switched to non-toxic makeup and the best natural makeup brands to shop from.
What is Non-Toxic Makeup?
Non-toxic makeup is any makeup product that doesn't include ingredients deemed toxic by the Environmental Working Group, including, but not limited to, lead, mercury, phthalates, triclosan, and dioxin.
My Non-Toxic Makeup Look
I returned from the trip to Palm Springs with part of my makeup bag transformed and started feeling a vague cognitive dissonance. I knew how unregulated and potentially hazardous some of my beauty products were. (To put it in perspective, the E.U. has banned around 1400 ingredients from personal care products, and the U.S. has banned a measly 30). Needless to say, I was ready to fully commit.
As suspected, it turns out there were some alarming things hanging out in my makeup bag. Some realizations were of the slap-in-the-face variety, such as finding coal tar and chemicals used to degrease engines in a couple of my products. The majority were red flag ingredients that are potential carcinogens and hormone disrupters—more of a distant threat, but no less terrifying. Thankfully, non-toxic makeup is here to stay, making the process of switching easier. "Green beauty is no longer the crunchy, limited, younger sister to standard beauty products," says Annie Tevelin, makeup artist and founder of SkinOwl. "It is here to stay and is leading the movement that your health and beauty should never be compromised." After about a month of testing, I’ve settled on a core group of cognitive dissonance–erasing, non-toxic products I love for my makeup routine (pictured above).
Let's start with a complicated one. We know sunscreen's purpose is to help prevent cancer, but paradoxically some sunscreens use ingredients with links to cancer. This is how I'm wrapping my brain around it: There are two main types of sunscreen, mineral, which creates a physical barrier between your skin and the sun (good), and chemical, which penetrates your skin to filter and absorb UV rays (generally not so good). According to Julie Longyear, herbal chemist and the founder of botanical beauty brand Blissoma, mineral sunscreen is the only way to go unless you are trapped on a boat in the glaring sun with no other options. "We already know that chemicals like oxybenzone act as hormone disruptors, but chemical sunscreens are also heavily prone to causing rashes and irritation too," she says. "It has also been shown that when sunscreen chemicals interact with sunlight they actually produce more free radicals within your skin than if you didn't wear sunscreen at all." A troubling finding, considering people think they are protecting themselves by wearing sunscreen. Longyear goes on: "Mineral sunscreens don't do that. They don't absorb into skin, they are safe for your hormonal health, and they actually do a better job at broad-spectrum protection than chemical sunscreens."
Mineral sunscreens have a reputation for leaving behind a white residue, but that’s not the case with this one from Hampton Sun. It absorbs right away and is free of parabens, chemicals, fragrance, and the notorious oxybenzone. For touch-ups, I also love the Ilia Radiant Translucent Powder SPF 20 ($34).
"The main problem we see with conventional mascaras is that they make sensitive eyes burn and water, which really ruins the point of wearing it if it makes your eyes all red, puffy, and teary," explains Longyear. "Usually people are reacting to the preservatives." The FDA requirement for microbial levels in eye products is more stringent than products for the rest of the face, so conventional mascaras tend to be heavily preserved. Green brands have to work really hard to make their formulas meet this standard while also being gentler on the eyes.
My old mascara's replacement is this one from W3ll People, which came the closest to my beloved old favorite, though still didn't give quite the dramatic results I was used to. Still, it darkens and thickens my lashes adequately, and it’s practically impossible to go overboard and end up with clumpy lashes (something I find easy to do with most chemical-laden mascaras).
There aren’t a lot of non-toxic brow gels out there, so thankfully this one fulfilled all my bushy brow needs. It’s a rather small bottle that I’m afraid I’ll finish quickly, but at least with this, the three types of parabens my previous popular brow product had is replaced with green tea.
Green tea is high in antioxidants, which help strengthen hair follicles and promote growth.
An examination of the ingredients in my cult-favorite blush revealed it too was hiding several nasty ingredients. First up: talc. "The big problem with talc powder in makeup products is that you can end up inhaling it," advises Longyear. "The tiny particles can float into your airways and cause damage to your lungs." But the real kicker, she notes, is that "dirty," low quality talc can even contain asbestos. "Asbestos exposure can cause cancer, and given that many people wear powder products daily or almost daily—that's a lot of exposure that can build up," says Longyear. "Given the very loose regulations in the cosmetic industry in the U.S., it's hard to know if a company is using low-grade ingredients or not, so it's best to avoid."
Add a host of parabens to boot, and I’m officially switching over to this high-performing, ultra-smooth blush that's made of 99% natural ingredients.
"There is a lot of debate about what ingredients are safe or not when one starts to head more into non food-grade chemicals, and there will likely always be someone on either side of it," says Longyear. "To me it's easy. Plant-based ingredients are safe, nutritious, they work, and if you end up swallowing a bunch of your lipstick over time it's just like you ate some food."
I tested probably 20 different non-toxic lip products and my favorite by far is this one—I would wear it for the rest of my life. It’s a buildable, moisturizing, and overall not-trying-too-hard lipstick. In a word: perfect. When I do switch things up, my go-to is the RMS Wild With Desire Lipstick ($28) in RMS Red. When I crave a bold lip, nothing else compares for pigment.
On the Think Dirty app, the concealer I’ve used for years ranked with a disappointing seven—not too far from a “most toxic” ranking, which is 10. The most damaging ingredient was polyethylene, a plastic that's been shown to be carcinogenic in some lab studies and is harmful for the environment. And, contrary to popular belief, clean makeup does have coverage. "As a makeup artist for several big box brands, I love using green products, as they give the skin a natural radiance. It puts the skin and the health of the skin center stage," says Tevelin. "There's nothing I miss from my standard beauty products because I'm able to get the coverage, pigments, and innovation from green beauty." Concealer included.
This concealer by Vapour is my old concealer’s replacement. It masks any late night-induced eye bags, the ingredients are all organic, and the brand also commits to producing its products sustainably.
Similar to shampoos, a lot of facewashes have sodium lauryl sulfate, the good old engine-degreasing ingredient. They’re often responsible for that “squeaky clean” tight, stripped feeling many cleansers leave behind.
I hadn’t really considered that a cleanser doesn’t have to leave you dying to slather on moisturizer—that is, until I tried this cleansing balm. This product rocked my world. It has a coconut oil-type texture that melts into your skin, removing makeup but also leaving your face feeling like you just did a hydrating mask. Not to mention, the brand has over 1500 toxic ingredients on its “never” list.
My facewash enlightenment didn't end there either. I also tried this moisturizer, which has a similar premise of other cleansing balms in that it moisturizes as it cleans. With only four ingredients, half of which are food-grade, this moisturizer actually hydrates.
When I had the chance to chat with green beauty mogul Tata Harper about some of the red flag ingredients in facial lotion, she commented on how many there are, but named BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) as common preservatives in moisturizers. "It’s crazy because both chemicals are suspected carcinogens," she mused. "You won’t find any preservatives in our products." In fact, the brand has a feature where you can track when your product was made at the Tata Harper factory in Vermont, when it was hand-crafted, and who was responsible for the batch.
After trying her namesake line myself, I’m a complete convert, and am especially taken with this moisturizer, which controls oils and fends off breakouts with its potent formula.
"Clean products can only be identified by its ingredient deck," notes Tevelin. "The ingredient deck should be free of certain harmful ingredients that result in mood disorders, cancer, endocrine disruption, and fatigue, among others." The types of toxic ingredients stuffed into serums runs the gamut. April Gargiulo, the founder of organic skincare line Vintner’s Daughter, confirms, “There are a lot of ways brands bulk up product inexpensively.” One ingredient to especially keep in mind? Petroleum. Yes, the same thing motor oil is made from. “What you want to look out for are the ones that are petroleum-based, which will clog your skin and are toxic for you and the environment,” says Gargiulo. Petroleum goes by a few different names in ingredient lists, including petrolatum, xylene, toluene, mineral oil, and liquid paraffin. After checking my serum’s label, I found the brand I had been using since high school indeed had petroleum.
Thankfully, this serum was an easy switch to make. It smells heavenly, espouses an application technique that feels like self-care, and most importantly is formulated without sulfates, parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, PEGs, or SLSs.
Shampoo and Conditioner
Enemy number one in shampoos is sodium lauryl sulfate. Name any mainstream shampoo brand, and it likely has it. SLS is used to degrease engines and is found in floor cleaners and car wash products. While I'm sometimes guilty of going too long between showers, I doubt there'll ever be a time I need engine degreaser to wipe out my dry shampoo buildup. That said, the amount of SLS in shampoo is very small compared to high concentrations in industrial cleaners. "Sulfates are used because they are powerful cleansers and can easily break down dirty oils that may be on hair," notes Longyear. "But, they can also be skin irritants, as they are removing skin oils that protect your scalp."
From the few I tested, one of my top favorites were this shampoo and its matching conditioner. It's honestly the most heavenly-smelling thing I’ve ever put on my hair. If you like the smell of palo santo, it's definitely for you.