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What I Learned When I Replaced My Beauty Regimen with 'Safe' and 'Natural' Brands

First and foremost, reading labels is a pain.

There is an ever-growing consumer desire, helped along by the very vocal Environmental Working Group (EWG), for beauty companies to provide “non-toxic” products and to be more transparent in general about ingredients. A few months ago, I chatted with several people who fall on both sides of this issue, and my conclusion (here) was that I am not entirely convinced that my face cream is poisoning me, but that I would like to see more studies and governmental oversight so that we can start gathering evidence either way. Then I started thinking, “Wait, what if the FDA or a newly created agency comes in and actually starts banning ingredients willy nilly like the EU has?” Could my face survive without all my favorite paraben-packed essentials?

To put my money where my mouth is, I decided to substitute out as much of my skin care and makeup as possible and use nothing but so-called “safe” and “natural” products. Because the designation “natural” is essentially meaningless and unregulated, I’m going to call these products “alternative to mainstream,” or ATM, so that I can stop using so many quotation marks. 

I am also totally superficial when it comes to packaging, so my other qualification was that the products had to look chic and sophisticated -- no sunflowers or green leaves on the bottles. Most importantly, however, they had to be efficacious. Natural products in particular tend to get a bad rap for not being as effective as their mainstream counterparts. I tried to pick products that mimicked my favorites as closely as possible, in order to compare how the ATM versions stacked up next to the more conventional ones.

I instituted a personal ban on the following ingredients, which are often the most vilified in the media. (Please note: I’m still not convinced these are all bad, because the scientific evidence is not overwhelmingly conclusive in some cases): Sulfates, parabens, phthalates, mineral oil, oxybenzone and artificial fragrance, since many added fragrances can be made up of dozens of ingredients none of which companies have to disclose, because they are considered proprietary. If a company used essential oils as the fragrance and noted it as such on the labeling, I allowed it.

Read on for my discoveries about instituting a so-called safe beauty regimen, which I did pretty loyally for about three weeks, as well as the best products I found during my experiment:


I am insanely loyal to certain products when it comes to skin care, and I’ve also really fine-tuned my regimen to meet my specific needs, so this is the category I was most concerned about. In addition to using prescription Retin-A, I use SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic religiously, a veil-type sunscreen (Clarins or Shiseido are my go-tos), a double cleanse with two Korean products (balm and gel), toner, various moisturizers based on the greasiness or flakiness of my face at any given moment, clay masks, sheet masks, different eye creams on a rotation, and Caudalie's Beauty Elixir spray. That's just to name a few. 

I chose products from Indie Lee, Tata Harper, Beautycounter, Drunk Elephant, the Organic Pharmacy and Eminence Organics because they tick all of the boxes I set for myself above. I was pleasantly surprised with how well everything seemed to work, and how it generally felt on my face.  My only area of skepticism came when I tried some of Eminence's "retinol alternative" products. The bottom line is that retinol is one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients there is, and natural oils really can't substitute. But, here are the standouts that I would keep and absolutely make a part of my official rotation (double click to enlarge and see the full text/explanations):


It wasn't hard for me to find a wide variety of ATM makeup products to try. Some brands -- like Tarte mascara, Bite Beauty lip pencils, and Ilia lipsticks -- already have top billing in my regular makeup rotation. But I wanted to go off the beaten path a bit and see what else was out there. I immediately thought of Kjaer Weis, an organic brand whose founder I interviewed for one of my very first beauty stories back in 2010. I also tried Josie Maran's makeup range, as well as cult favorite RMS Beauty, some color products from Beautycounter, and a select few pieces from Mineral Fusion (whose packaging is not the chicest out there, but the brand offers a lot of options.) 

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The issues I had mostly had to do with color payoff. It's difficult to get the kind of saturation in natural brands that, say, MAC can pull off. Bite and Ilia both have vibrant lip shades, but for the most part, I'd classify other brands' lip products as "tints." Also, some products, like Josie Maran's liquid Coconut Watercolor eye shadow, creased pretty quickly. While I stuck to the ATM skin care regimen pretty religiously, I cheated a few times on makeup. I went back to my old makeup for a photo shoot I had to do (long story) and for a group dinner, simply because my usual products are like old friends and I know how to wield them confidently. There was  a lot of trial and error with the ATM group. 

However, I found many things I loved, I would recommend, and that I am still using. (Double click to enlarge and see the full text/explanations):


There's nothing I love more than a few good generalizations, so here goes: 

Learn to love oils if you go natural: What I noticed pretty universally with all the skin care products was that they are a bit heavier than commercial brands. Many of them contain coconut oil, marula oil, and/or argan oil as a base -- I missed the sleek slipperiness of dimethicone, which was not in a lot of these products. (It's often on the ingredient shit list, mostly for causing allergic reactions and clogging pores.) Also, my face broke out more than usual. I can't really pinpoint any one product or ingredient as a culprit, but suffice to say I cheated and used my favorite chemical-laden acne products to try to stave off the breakouts. But it was a minor thing, and by the third week my skin could tolerate the products. The key is using much less at a time -- a little generally goes a long way, or you could be a big shiny mess.

It's getting easier to find these products: I did this trial in October, and within the last few weeks there have been a few big announcements which will make it easier to find these brands. First of all, Goop just announced that it's stocking several clean beauty options, including  pretty much all the brands I just tested, like RMS, Kjaer Weis, Beautycounter and Tata Harper. (I'm so in synergy with Gwyneth, it's downright scary.) Target also just announced that it will be carrying the SW Basics line, and some products are already sold out online. Finally, Beautycounter just launched an expanded color cosmetics collection. So the concept of safe/natural products is definitely going more mainstream.  

• Scent is an issue: When you're looking at products without any artificial or synthetic fragrance, the smell becomes an issue. Some products had a tendency to smell either unscented, with that characteristic whiff of zinc, or really, really, well, herbal. Essential oils are fragrant, and if you can't handle strong smells, you'll need to experiment. Tata Harper's are by far the most scented, but Beautycounter and Indie Lee were pretty mild. But if you're used to fake powder scent and that rich lady smell of your expensive night moisturizer, these more real scents take some getting used to. 

• It's not cheap to be safe: Obviously I went higher end in my choices, but I was kind of surprised at how expensive the products were. While you can go to Whole Foods and find some less expensive earthier brands, there's still nothing that quite rivals the drugstore brands in terms of price. Sure, you can find individual products within mainstream brands that don't contain the forbidden ingredients, but I think the next frontier has to be learning how to make "safe" products cheaper. 

Bottom line: I'm not giving up all my regular products anytime soon, but I was happy to find some alternatives that actually work. If they also don't disrupt my endocrine system, then that's a lovely bonus.