The rooms in our homes are ripe for change. The clothes in our closets, the products in our pantries, the bins in our basements. They might be made with less-than-planet-friendly materials, or come in packaging that will clog our landfills, and there just might be too, too, too much of everything. Where to start can feel overwhelming. Follow along as Mollie Doyle explores our shopping, living, and home habits, and leads us toward a healthier home — for both the people in it and the Earth it sits on.
This month, I turn 50, which is a landmark. To celebrate, I was going to go to Japan and walk from temple to temple, eating sushi. Obviously, this option is out. So I keep wondering, “What is it that I want to do to mark the occasion?” Meditate for 50 days? Raise $50,000 for a cause? Every day I have another idea.
I know I don’t want to celebrate, as some of my dearest friends have, by getting injected. The lines on my face hold the story of my life — laughter, tears, tension, time in the sun.
When I talk to my friend Sarah, who also is choosing to forgo the lure of medical beauty interventions, she laughs and asks, “I guess the real question is, What is the endgame? What are you trying for?”
My answer: “Well, I’m never going to look 24 again. Nor do I want to. I just want lovely hair and skin. But as someone who also fights plastic pollution, I want to know what is effective, but not at the cost of the planet. I guess I want sustainable beauty in every sense.”
So, how do we support our health and beauty in a way that is not medically assisted, but still effective? The first thing to know is that when people talk about sustainability and beauty products, there are two key terms: “clean” and “zero waste.”
Clean beauty is a term used at places like Sephora, on popular wellness sites such as Goop, and in fashion magazines such as Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. And, these days, it is pretty easy to find clean products. But note that words like “healthy,” “natural,” “green,” and “eco,” and even “clean,” are meaningless unless there is a respected third-party verification. If you want to be “clean,” look out for and avoid parabens, phthalates, PEGs, ethanolamines, chemical sunscreens, synthetic fragrances, BHT, and BHA. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are many products with harmful PFAS chemicals in them. You can look your products up on Environmental Working Group’s database of cosmetics called Skin Deep. While I could find only some of my products here, their guidelines empowered me as a consumer.
And then there is the term “zero waste,” which goes a step further. The Zero Waste Alliance defines it this way: “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air, that threaten the environment or human health.”
While most of the products I was using were “clean,” they were not good for the planet. Many of my favorite creams were packaged in plastics such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE No. 2), which is the most commonly recycled plastic (think shampoo bottles), and low-density polyethylene (LDPE No. 4), which is much harder to recycle, and is used in things like squeeze bottles. As most know, even if plastics can be recycled, chances are they are not, even if you put it in your recycling bin. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, only 8.7 percent of U.S. plastics are recycled. Furthermore, all plastics break down, pollute our land and water systems, and release harmful greenhouse gases, including ethylene, carbon, and methane, which all add to our climate change problem.
Before you freak out and say, “I can’t possibly give up this or that,” please know that moving toward less waste is the goal here. But so is having great hair and skin! So the motto is: Progress, not perfection.
For instance, I tried bar shampoo. Too many kinds to name here, but some left my hair feeling like I’d stripped it with turpentine, while others felt like I’d put a gallon of coconut oil in for some kind of deep-conditioning project. I’m sorry to say that I have not found a single bar that works, at least for my very straight, very fine, very flat hair. But I did find a shampoo I love that is clean, and is manufactured by a company that is dedicated to being carbon-negative. I also tried jar deodorant and deodorant in a cardboard tube, fighting pollution in two ways. And I checked out dental hygiene products that include charcoal or Eco-Dent floss, toothpaste tablets, and natural toothbrushes. No plastic in my mouth! The tablets had sugar alternatives and flavors that were overwhelmingly sweet. The natural toothbrushes and floss both left bits between my teeth. Yuck. I did find some face oils that smell lovely, come in glass, and give me dewy rather than greasy skin. But the one I loved most, which was given to me, costs a whopping $185. All in all, the process included a lot of trial and error, and some dollars spent.
As I was sorting and sampling, the final and maybe best beauty philosophy emerged: Use less. There is now much scientific evidence that argues that all of our skin cleansing, polishing, and layering of products is actually harmful to our skin, breaking down our body’s own protective acid mantle. The skin, which is our body’s largest organ, accounts for about 8 pounds of an average person’s weight, and is about 22 square feet. Our skin is our shield, our sensor, our factory for transferring vitamin D, converting calcium into healthy bones, and it literally holds us together. Just like our guts, the skin has its own ecosystem. And if we disrupt it with all this scrubbing, swabbing, slathering, we dismantle the skin’s ability to find balance, and we just make things worse. James Hamblin’s book Clean: The New Science of Skin talks about this in fantastic, and entertaining, detail. Hamblin has not showered in more than five years. I’m not ready to go this far, but the fundamental idea of letting my skin be makes sense. I do not futz around with my other organs — can you imagine exfoliating your lungs? — so why am I messing with my skin?
My grandmother did little to interfere with her skin’s microbiology. She splashed her face with cold water in the morning, and wiped her face with a warm washcloth at the end of the day. That’s it. And she was, by anyone’s standards, a knockout. My mom, who is 74 and is also gorgeous, uses maybe one cream and some nondescript soap. So maybe less really is more?
Beyond shutting down my birthday plans, the pandemic also arrested my 25 years of dedicated blondifiying hair dyeing. Talk about harmful chemicals! Until recently, many hair dye products had lead acetates in them. Yes, that lead. Many still contain ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and paraphenylenediamine (PPDA), which is a common allergen, and found in both cheap and expensive salon products. Researchers at the North Carolina State’s College of Textiles and Department of Chemistry worked with their Max Weaver Dye Library to create a database of more than 300 substances found in hair dye and to look at ways to make hair color safer and more sustainable. So it might be worth asking your hair person about what kind of chemicals they are dumping on your skin and scalp and into your body every six to eight weeks (if you are on a root maintenance program). The most unexpected thing happened to me when I stopped the dye addiction: People started telling me I look younger.
Try this instead of that?
When one begins to think about new ways of living, there is such a pull to replace the bad with something that might be better. Believe me, I know! And while that is not the general tack we are espousing, there are times when it is completely and utterly necessary. For instance, in the bathroom, toilet paper. It really is a must-have, must-use situation. Here are a few brands we like that are a bit gentler on the planet:
- Seventh Generation toilet paper is made from 100 percent recycled paper and whitened without chemical bleach.
- Who Gives a Crap toilet paper: Beyond its amazing packaging, which somehow makes the purchase of toilet paper an event, it gives 50 percent of profits away toward supporting sanitation efforts — a.k.a. toilets — to communities that need them around the world.
- Marcal: While a lot less snazzy than Who Gives a Crap, Marcal is also made with 100 percent recycled paper, and nonchemical bleach, and does the job.
- Or, you can invest in a bidet attachment for your toilet! Most attachments cost between $250 and $300, and are easy to install. We like the Tushy.