Last Update: September 27, 2022
Some world travelers say the best way to get to know a city is to walk its streets and visiting its most important monuments. For me, it’s walking the aisles of the local drugstore.
It’s been my weird custom for years: After settling into my hotel room, I hit up the nearest drugstore. It’s always a memorable part of my trip. The array of affordable beauty products available in different regions is completely fascinating. But one thing I’ve noticed is that many of the makeup, lotions, and cleansers I grew up using in the United States aren’t even available abroad.
One possible reason is that the cosmetics industry is much more strictly regulated in other countries. The European Union, for example, bans 1,328 chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm, or birth defects; the FDA has only banned or restricted 11 chemicals. Even if you can find your go-to drugstore mascara at a foreign store, the formulation and ingredient list is most likely totally different—and far safer.
Thankfully, beauty- and health-obsessed Americans can check cosmetics’ safety rankings on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. The EWG ranks items on a scale of 1 (totally benign) to 10 (potentially very toxic)—if a product gets an 8 or above, it’s worth throwing out. Here are some of the worst offenders, and organic, all-natural alternatives that work just as well (if not better!).
Facial cleansers and scrubs are often formulated with ingredients to give skin that tingly, clean feeling. Problem is that many of them, like menthol derivatives and microbeads, can also cause irritation (especially for sensitive types). Propylparaben, added to products as a preservative, is a known endocrine disruptor, and ranked as one of the most dangerous ingredients in the Skin Deep database. That’s one we recommend avoiding altogether.
Microbeads in particular are really scary for another reason: they pollute the ocean.
So when you spot these ingredients on labels, leave those products on the shelf, and opt for a gentle natural exfoliant like SeaBuckWonders’ cleanser. Orange essential oil gives it a light scent, and sea buckthorn oil hydrates skin without leaving behind an oily residue.
Body washes are popular for a reason—they produce a pleasant lather that you can’t usually get out of a bar of soap, and they smell amazing, too. Problem is, many conventional formulas get their scents from mysterious artificial fragrances, which have been linked to inflammation and allergic reactions. Other ingredients to watch out include retinyl acetate, an artificial form of vitamin A that’s been linked to organ system toxicity and cancer; and DMDM hydantoin formaldehyde, a preservative.
Dr. Bronner’s liquid soaps lather up and smell nice, too—but without the chemicals. Glycerin, coconut oil, and essential oils are the key ingredients in Bronner’s simple formulation that’s so safe for skin that it earned the top safety rating—a 1—from the EWG. It comes in several fragrances so you can choose your own adventure, and even better, has tons of different uses around the house (in and out of the shower).
What could be unsafe about lotions that promise to soften callused feet and hands? A lot. The most popular drugstore brands totally fail the EWG’s standards of safety because they’re made with retinyl acetate—widely considered one of the most toxic chemicals in cosmetics—parabens, and petroleum. Although these products make skin feel soft and smooth when applied, they don’t actually penetrate skin cells to hydrate them long-term. Instead, they create a seal over skin that traps in moisture but suffocates pores, almost as if you were to wrap skin in plastic. As soon as the product is washed off, you’re left looking just as dry and ashy as before.
Don’t live with sandpaper skin! Instead, use pure products that provide long-lasting hydration to thirsty skin cells. This ultra-moisturizing Raw Shea Butter lotion relies on two key ingredients: raw shea butter and certified organic jojoba oil. Together, they work to instantly revitalize dry patches and leave skin looking and feeling younger and softer.
Some days, shampooing, conditioning, and styling hair just isn’t feasible—if you’re short on time or just feeling lazy, dry shampoo is a lifesaver. But it might be time to rethink the cheap, spray-can kind that you can pick up from the drugstore for a few bucks. Between the artificial fragrance and the butane (the highly flammable stuff that’s used in lighters), you could be asking for a major allergic reaction.
Safer, natural alternatives are out there—like Acure Organics’ powder version, which absorbs oil and removes grime. Beyond reviving day-old locks, the product’s argan oil stem cells and CoQ10 improve the strength of hair at the root, which helps prevent damage.
The perfect liquid liner that doesn’t smudge or fade is tough to find. And nabbing one with an applicator that makes it easy to draw winged cat-eyes or tightline precisely is basically like finding the holy grail. Many old-school brands have products that get the job done, but rely on additives like aluminum powder and propylparaben for staying power and to remain shelf-stable.
Thankfully, No Miss Cosmetics’ liner stays put all day long, comes with the perfect brush applicator, and uses all-natural ingredients that won’t irritate sensitive skin. Bonus: it’s cruelty-free and fragrance-free, too.
There’s a particular mascara (pink tube, green cap) that’s been a makeup bag staple for decades. But the classic jet-black formula has a dark side—it’s laced with propylparaben and butylparaben, both flagged by the EWG for the potential to cause allergic reactions and developmental and reproductive toxicity.
Sacrificing long, dramatic lashes in the name of a safer makeup routine isn’t the only answer. On the contrary, Mineral Hygienics’ Ultimate Volume Mascara lifts, plumps, and—thanks to the nourishing beeswax—leaves lashes in even better shape every time you take off your makeup. It also dries more quickly than other natural mascaras, so you can swipe a few coats on before you rush out the door without worrying about “raccoon eyes.”
There you have it: Organic, green beauty swaps for your drugstore faves. All-natural products can be inexpensive and work just as well—no chemicals required.
Photo credit: Ella Ciamacco
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