Giving Up ‘Toxic’ Beauty Products Changed My Skin — for the Good and Bad

A month or so ago, I broke out in hives. They spread and spread and spread, eventually covering me from head to toe, itching like mad and leaving behind red welts.

I’ve never been allergic to anything in my life, save for a few weeks every spring when flowers around me bloom and I spend a small fortune on Claritin. But this mysterious outbreak wound up being so severe that my throat began closing up and I was prescribed massive doses of steroids just to get the swelling down. A week later it went away, but neither doctor I saw could figure out what caused it, which was actually even scarier.

This terrifying reaction made me think about the stuff I heedlessly put on my body. If the packaging is pretty and the scent is pleasant, I rub, scrub, and lather it up. The glossier the wrapper, the more appealing the concoction. But what’s really inside these beauty products?

So I decided to spend a week using only products with ingredients I could recognize and pronounce. Spoiler alert: They’re tough to find if you want not just purity but luxury and a sense of treating yourself to something special. It’s so much easier to swing through your nearest drugstore or department store makeup counter and scoop up the tried-and-true, regardless of what’s inside. Here’s how my seven-day experiment went down.

My morning routine consisted of just four products

That’s major for this single mom. In general, I keep things pretty simple, so that change wasn’t drastic. In fact, this beauty “detox” forced me to dump a lot of overflow products that I barely used and that didn’t really work for me. Each morning, I showered with one bar soap, then used a shampoo and conditioner, and body balm that I also used on my face.

My skin felt “purer” and looked supple too!

I found that my face felt cleaner and my legs, which are usually dry and itchy, were much more supple and moisturized than when I didn’t use “nontoxic” beauty products. What I noticed most was that the previous lotions I’d slathered on provided only surface relief meaning they helped for a few minutes. In fact, some of the fragrances actually made things worse. Within three days of using the new regimen of oils and “clean” products, I noticed a difference less itchiness, more smoothness.

But I did miss the “squeaky” clean feeling of shampoos

Natural products aren’t generally as luxe as their more ingredient-enhanced brethren. I missed that feeling of smoothness and silkiness (especially with shampoos) that you get from products with numerous additives like sulfate and dimethicone that work together to give you fresh, bouncy tresses. 

Scroll on to learn more about the “nontoxic” beauty products I used from head to toe and my verdict.

As with all beauty products, please read the ingredients and decide for yourself whether it’s a fit for your skin and its needs. Also, talk to your doctor or dermatologist if you’re dealing with any specific conditions.

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Giving Up ‘Toxic’ Beauty Products Changed My Skin — for the Good and Bad

Here’s what actually worked when I made the switch.

Hello Sensitivity Relief Fluoride Toothpaste

First off, if you want that searing, minty explosion in your mouth, the one you get from other brands, forget it. This product is subtle and gentle, with a hint of coconut instead of some chemical derivative of mint. The line is entirely vegan, at this point seemingly effective (hi, Mom, no cavities), and totally affordable. $5, helloproducts.com

Ursa Major Morning Mojo Soap

It smells subtly invigorating, and it’s like the cleanser version of a latte for your body. It’s made with peppermint, rosemary, and eucalyptus. Truly, I stumble into the shower, barely keeping it together, and this baby wakes me right up. $14, dermstore.com

Rahua Color Full Shampoo

Yes, I dye my hair. No, the dye is not organic. But this hair wash makes me feel less guilty about zapping my grays. It smells of chamomile and gardenia and lavender, and I promise, the ingredients listed are your friends. Plus, it leaves your hair full of body and texture. The downside: I don’t like to use conditioner, but the shampoo does require that extra step, because otherwise you wind up with hair that’s somewhat rough and unmanageable. Ah, sometimes those relaxant chemicals do come in handy. $38, dermstore.com

Tammy Fender The Purist Hand Sanitizer

Imagine a product made mostly with lemon, olive, ginger, thyme, tea tree, and eucalyptus that gets your hands nice and clean, if there’s no sink nearby. And it smells pretty awesome too. Plus, I’ve met Tammy, and she is the woman who personally creates each and every product. So there’s something to stand behind. $14, thedetoxmarket.com

Drunk Elephant Juju Bar

The main ingredient in this magical, otherworldly creation is Heilmoor clay. Please don’t ask me how this works. It just does. I use this on my face morning and night, and it leaves my skin softer and more pliant than before I washed it — instead of taut, tight, and irritated, which has been the end result of using most other face washes. And which I used to think meant that something worked. $28, drunkelephant.com

Youth to the People Age Prevention Superfood Mask

In real life, I pretty much loathe kale. On my face, it’s wondrous, thanks to this little bottle of green stuff. I bet if I ate this combo of spirulina, algae, spinach, and kale for dinner, my body would feel as refreshed as my face looks after applying it. $44, sephora.com

Schmidt’s Lavender + Sage Deodorant

Full disclosure: I grew up in Germany, where antiperspirants were about as popular as a hot-sauce enema. So the smell on subways and buses, during the summer, was, well, quite heady at times. I doused myself with American-made products, never realizing (or bothering to realize) just how toxic the stuff in them was — it’s why they worked, after all. I can’t lie and tell you that Schmidt’s is as effective as some of the brands that contain aluminum, propylene glycol, and other stuff, but it smells great, goes on smooth, doesn’t stain your clothes, and seems to get the job done. $9, schmidtsnaturals.com

Tata Harper Redefining Body Balm

I could wax poetic about every single one of this lady’s products. Her elixir vitae is a skin care masterwork. Her sourcing is impeccable, and her serums are lightning in a bottle. But I wanted to devote a special mention to this butter, which melts as you apply it, is safe to use during pregnancy and is 100 percent natural. That term means very little these days, because anyone can pretty much use it, but when you buy from Harper, it means that you’re getting a product full of real shea butter, rosehip oil, green tea, olive oil, among others. As with all her launches, the scent is subtle and gentle, as opposed to chemically overwhelming. $120, tataharperskincare.com

Tata Harper Be Adored Lip Treatment and Volumizing Lip & Cheek Tint

If I can avoid it, I’ll skip foundation, blush, or mascara. But lipstick is my go-to. So think about how much you absorb by eating, or just licking your pucker. What you use better be worth it. My ideal product has shine, goes on light, provides just enough color, and doesn’t crease or cake. Hello, this gem from Tata Harper, which fulfills all the above. The lip and cheek duo, meanwhile, gives your face a dash of color as well. $29 and $36, tataharperskincare.com

Maison Francis Kurkdjian À La Rose

My macrobiotic cousin drilled into me that perfumes are chock-full of chemicals, but to me, the day can’t start without at least a spritz of something scented. It just makes me feel complete, in a weird way. So I searched for a brand that was heavy on actual petals, as opposed to lab creations that all too often have undertones of bathroom cleaners. It also helped that I’ve met Kurkdjian himself and learned about his painstaking, meticulous sourcing, and how he takes years to develop just one perfume. Yes, this one is pricey, but it’s made from Damascena Rose from Bulgaria and Centifolia Rose from Grasse, with hints of pear and lychee. You’ll smell the difference. And you need to use a teeny amount for a major hit. $245, net-a-porter.com