Q&A: The Dangers That Lurk in Your Make-Up Bag

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When two journalists discovered that formaldehyde was the miracle agent behind their sleek hair-dos, they decided to dig a little further into their beauty products’ ingredient lists. What they found was terrifying. That lipstick? That mascara? All full of toxic chemicals, as it turns out.

In their book No More Dirty Looks, Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt run through those sixteen-letter words that you’re likely daub onto your face each morning. They also tell you how to avoid the worst of the worst, while still indulging your vanity. Earlier this week O’Connor and Spunt spoke to TIME’s Wellness blog about their new book, their new shopping habits, and whether it’s actually possible to find a natural deodorant that works.

TIME: Why did you decide to write this book?

S.O.: We explain in the introduction [to the book]. That [formaldehyde] story is a story we’ve repeated a million times and it’s totally true. But the bigger reason, I think, is that the book didn’t exist and we really wanted it to. The things that we found out — we just were so astounded by the information that we came across. We thought, if we don’t know this, other women probably don’t either.

And what was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this?

SO:  I think for both of us, an early surprise and one that stayed with us was just looking at the laws that govern cosmetics. The products that we buy and trust, we assume that they’ve been vetted and approved by some kind of publicly accountable health agency, and that’s not the case. The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s] Office of Cosmetics and Colors really oversees the industry in name only. I think, among consumers, there’s an implicit trust there that isn’t exactly warranted.

Can you break down for us what exactly the FDA does monitor among cosmetics, and what it does not monitor?

S.O.: Essentially they require that products list their intended ingredients. And it’s important to distinguish between intended ingredients and unintended ingredients because as products sit on shelves for years and year and years, chemicals react together. They create byproducts. There are also contaminants that enter during the manufacturing process.

But intended ingredients are pretty much the only thing that’s required. [The FDA] doesn’t require any proof of safety before a product is on the market. It says in the law that companies have to be able to assure that their products are safe. But to whom? They don’t actually have to submit that information to the FDA.

If I decide to start a cosmetics company, I don’t need to register with the FDA. I don’t need to send them the names or the ingredients that I’m using. Nothing. You can just go to town.

A.S.: In the book we use the example of the soap lady at the farmer’s market. That person wouldn’t exist if there were more stringent laws — for better or for worse.

How have you two changed your shopping habits since doing the research for this book?

A.S.: Dramatically! We basically switched out all of our products. I think it’d be true to say that we both streamlined substantially. I use far fewer products than I used to use. Some of the products I use are extremely high quality, fairly expensive, especially when it comes to conditioner and make-up. Then I replaced other things with DIY things. I use a lot of coconut oil as body moisturizer, that kind of thing.

S.O.: But, really, at some point in the process of writing the book, every single product that we used to own ended up in the garbage. Either we finished it and replaced it with something else — which is what we advise other women to do. Replace them as you run out. But at some point in the process we got rid of everything.

A.S.: [Laughs] Remember my box? I had this box that I kept slowly putting more products in. I didn’t know how to throw them out. Then we read that in California, nail polish is basically considered toxic waste and you’re supposed to dispose of it in a special way. I had all these bottles of nail polish and was thinking, “Hmm, what do I do with these?”

S.O.: I think because a lot of these products don’t work, women tend to hoard them. You buy a conditioner, you don’t like it, you keep it in the bathroom and you buy a new one. You buy this. You buy that. We buy so much stuff. And we expect it to perform and it doesn’t, so we buy more stuff. We weren’t exactly product junkies, but we had unwittingly accumulated large stockpiles of toxic cosmetics that we then had to get rid of.

One thing I found interesting: You write that you feel as though you look better now, using the natural products. Could you elaborate a little more on that?

S.O.: I think for me the biggest change — actually I was going to say it’s my skin, but I think it’s my hair too. I recently wrote a blog post. I used to battle frizzy hair, especially in the summer — and I used to think this was just my genetic lot. Then it turned out that when I stopped stripping my hair with harsh sulphates and then loading on these products that coat the hair but don’t really nourish the hair, when I switched to natural products, well my hair just behaves now and it’s kind of spectacular.

A.S.:  My skin was pretty erratic, but in the last few years I’d gotten into anti-aging treatments — a little bit of glycolic acid and alpha hydroxy, these things that essentially peel off the top layer of your skin. Consequently my skin got way more sensitive. It would get red very easily. I would wake up some mornings with little bumps. Somehow I didn’t put two and two together that I was doing this to my skin.

So now that I don’t use anything stripping on my face, my skin is just much calmer, much less reactive, more predictable. You know, there’s never a perfect silver bullet. We both still have breakouts sometimes. But I do find that the quality of my skin is generally better.

Was there any product that was particularly hard to part with?

A.S.: Mascara! And deodorant. I used to wear a lot of mascara every day. Now some days I don’t wear mascara, some days I wear natural mascara, and on the occasions when it really calls for it I’ll still pull out my waterproof chemical mascara.

That’s part of our message: You want to focus on things you’re using every day. But if you’re really attached to this one lipstick you have, you don’t have to get rid of it. It’s the sort of the 80/20 rule. There’s a tremendous pleasure attached to beauty products and we don’t want women to sacrifice that. So mascara — every once in a while I cheat.

S.O.: It’s the same thing for me and antiperspirant. Antiperspirant is one of the worst things that everyone uses every single day. Some of them contain triclosan, which is not only bad for us, but it’s an environmental toxic which has everyone — the FDA, the EPA — on high alert right now. Then there’s the obvious aluminum, as well as artificial fragrances, and penetration enhancers, and all kinds of things that you don’t want to be putting on freshly shaven underarms every day.

At the same time, there’s nothing more antisocial than being a stinky person. What do you do with that? A lot of the natural deodorants simply do not work. They don’t. We found one that we love, and now we stick with that, but that was a trying process.

And like Alexandra and the mascara, I cheat. If I’m going out, if I have a big meeting or a presentation, if I’m going to a wedding or something, I use my antiperspirant. It’s back to the 80/20 rule. I don’t think it’s good to use it every day, but some days you just want that assurance. Antiperspirant certainly works. It works like a charm.

What was the natural deodorant you found that you did like? 

S.O.: Lavanila. It’s expensive. It’s, like $18, which is ridiculous for a deodorant, but I will say that the one I bought last summer did last me until very recently.

So, on balance, do you think you spend more now, or less, on cosmetics and beauty products?

A.S.: I would venture to say less. We used to get really regular manicures. We don’t do that anymore. Siobhan used to get regular highlights. She doesn’t do that anymore. Just those two costs alone is a huge savings that would probably cover your natural beauty budget. And we use fewer products. When you don’t use the stripping shampoo, you don’t need all the leave-in products. I used to use handfuls of leave-ins on my hair — and very toxic stuff. I think when it comes down to it you really can save when you make the switch, if you’re conscious about it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

A.S.: This isn’t fabricated. We really, really like what we use now better. We feel better about our choices. We feel like we look better — and that was a really huge surprise to us.

You know, we thought we were on this ‘healthy mission.’ But it makes a lot of sense. Companies that are doing large-scale production, they’re always going to look to increase their profit margin. Products have no expiry dates. They stay on shelves for years, so of course they’re filled with synthetic preservatives and all these ingredients that are potentially toxic to us.

But those ingredients aren’t the active ingredients that actually do anything for our skin, so the discovery was that there’s not a huge compromise. At the end of the day you can get more of an active ingredient when you do it DIY or you find a really clean product.

S.O.: This process doesn’t have to be daunting. It doesn’t have to be scary. We don’t all need to freak out. It can be fun. It can be beautifying.

More Photography from Time