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Eco-Friendly Beauty Products

Cara Birnbaum finds it's easy going green — up to a point.

By Cara Birnbaum

WebMD Commentary from "Marie Claire" Magazine

Marie Claire magazine logo

The toothpaste billed itself as "vanilla mint," but the stuff tasted more like chalk and made me pine for the crisp, medicine-y Colgate Total I'd been using forever. Truth is, cleansers, sunscreens, and makeup labeled "Pure, Natural, and Organic" have been associated with the back aisles of crunchy health-food stores for so long, I was prepared for a concoction that tasted, smelled, and, worse, felt funky. I confess that while I've never been wild about eating synthetic (I'm skeeved out by Splenda and Velveeta), I've always liked my beauty stash lab-made — give me test-tube acne treatments over an Amazon-tree-sap formula any day.

So when Marie Claire asked me to swap my trusty potions for an all-green regimen for two weeks, I balked, but boy did I learn a few things. First, a whopping 2,000 new personal-care products with a "natural" or "organic" label hit stores in 2006 — up from about 800 launched in 2005, according to the Natural Marketing Institute. Second, thanks no doubt to celebrity tree huggers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurie David, and Al Gore, high-end botanical brews are proving serious competition for their commercial counterparts. Nude, an upscale skin line from the U.K., even wraps its products in biodegradable starch that can be composted. Then, I discovered I was pregnant — so relinquishing scientifically engineered face wash for a fortnight would be nothing compared with sacrificing sushi, mojitos, and blue cheese for nine months.

Two days later, after the mag sent me my trial bag of green goodies — a formaldehyde-free nail polish here and a lavender-spiked antibacterial room spritzer there — I discovered a few potential "natural" disasters. Tea-tree-oil deodorant doesn't perform as well as my Secret antiperspirant, for instance, and on my pale face, mineral-based sunscreens can resemble Kabuki makeup. And, yes, back-to-the-garden toothpastes pretty much come in that one flavor: chalk.

Marie Claire Photo of Skin Product 1 shelf

I soldiered on, aiming first to cut from my daily regimen parabens, that controversial class of preservatives that seems to act as an endocrine disrupter. Though the USDA is still analyzing the data, Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., an environmental-health scientist with the firm that publishes Consumer Reports, cautions: "Parabens basically trip up the hormonal system, and as a lot of cancers ultimately come from hormonal systems run amok, there's certainly reason for concern." The next morning, I started with paraben-free Jason Ester-C Gentle Facial Wash (not tested on animals, naturally), whose orange-oil-infused lather smelled good enough to eat, and Burt's Bees Very Volumizing Pomegranate & Soy shampoo and conditioner, which left my hair feeling thick and bouncy — despite containing zero sodium lauryl sulfate or phthalates. While some maintain the former is a harmless detergent, others, like Samuel Epstein, M.D., professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, think otherwise: "Sodium lauryl sulfate is a harsh irritant that can facilitate other toxic ingredients' entry into the skin," he says. Meanwhile, phthalates, a class of chemicals added to plastics and many cosmetics, have taken heat lately for the potential hazards to kidneys, lungs, and reproductive organs — especially those of baby boys born to women exposed to everyday levels of the substances. The European Union banned their use in kids' toys two years ago, while our own Environmental Protection Agency continues to conduct studies.

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