how not to f*ck up your face

Does Using Nontoxic Beauty Products Actually Matter for My Health?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

This column first ran in Valerie Monroe’s newsletter, How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

Though I live part time in Japan, I feel a little awkward when friends ask me to recommend things to do and see beyond what you might find in a guidebook. Awkward because my life here is very pedestrian; my time is spent mostly with family in the kind of daily routine you might find anywhere: work, school pickup, supper, bath, bed. But here’s the catch: As a non-native of Tokyo, I see everything through shoshin, or beginner’s mind — that feeling of encountering something for the first time. A walk around the block is as fascinating as an hour in a museum. And that is the glory of living here: being awakened, day after day, with wonder. And speaking of wonder, or rather of wondering, on to a couple of pointed reader questions with one very squidgy answer.

Q: While I do pay attention to some degree to the ingredients in the products I use on my body, I am loath to give up my Portrait of a Lady perfume for any “clean” fragrance I’ve tried. Is there a legitimate risk to using non-“clean” perfumes? I don’t know who to trust on this issue in general.


Q: I’ve been reading a lot about menopause and perimenopause and the importance of using products that don’t have lots of yucky ingredients because they can mess with our hormones. First of all, is that true? I use approximately a bajillion face products because I love to use products, and I’m starting to feel like I should explore some more natural routes. Do they have to be organic, too? Or just without the worst offenders? Also what are the worst offenders? I’m truly overwhelmed!

A: Truly overwhelmed! That makes three of us! (And probably lots more.)

Fear of toxicity in our personal-care products — personally, I don’t care for that handle, but anyway — is real, and the confusion surrounding that fear is completely appropriate. Why? Because regulation of such products (including cleansers, shampoos, and cosmetics of all kinds) is both haphazard and difficult to understand. Which is why I’m unable to tell you in black-and-white terms what products to absolutely avoid.

A recent New York Times story (gifted for you here) makes an effort to clarify which ingredients are the most dangerous. But if you read that story and finish it as baffled and uncertain as I was, I wouldn’t blame you. Bottom line: You have a few options regarding how to cope with this issue.

The two extremes: (1) throw caution to the wind and carry on as usual or (2) stop using all products and simply rinse clean except for very personal care. Or, alternatively, you could take a middle road and choose moderation. You might be the kind of person who won’t wear mascara but colors her hair regularly because it brightens her outlook. Or you won’t wear lipstick but polishing your nails is one grooming ritual that adds some color to your life. Or you could go very low bar, like me, mostly using products free of parabens, pthalates, and fragrance, wearing lipstick and mascara infrequently, and trying to avoid anything that makes you break out in an ugly rash. Basically, I use as few products as possible without making myself feel deprived of “self-care,” which is relatively easy as I don’t derive my “self-care” from products anyway.

If you like the feeling of a seat belt, you might try one of several apps available, such as Think Dirty or Yuka, to help you figure out a product’s level of potentially harmful ingredients. Be prepared to spend a significant amount of time with your face in your phone and keep in mind that the ratings are, among other unreliable elements, subjective — they don’t include many factors that might influence your personal amount of risk. For example, here’s a biochemist’s review of Think Dirty and a dietician’s review of Yuka’s food ratings.

I don’t mean to be (entirely) glib; I know there are readers who will take issue with this prescription and tell us to go on slathering ourselves with cancer juice or whatever. And those people will find their own strategy, which may include interacting with ingredients that agree with them but not with us. Cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, co-host of the podcast The Beauty Brains, has this to say: “It is against the law to sell unsafe cosmetic products.”

Clean beauty is a made-up marketing term meant to convince you that a product is harmless. Similarly, natural beauty is meaningless. What I hope will not be meaningless: the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act, a regulatory overhaul that became law at the end of last year and will enforce greater oversight of cosmetic products and facilities. (Unbelievably, it’s the first major update to the FDA’s cosmetics regulations since 1938.)

As for your particular questions, dear readers above, if a gorgeous fragrance frees your spirit, Romanowski says, “There’s no good reason to stop using” it, “as there is zero evidence that it’s unsafe.” I agree, and I propose you adorn yourself with Portrait of a Lady as liberally as you like. To the reader who’s using a bajillion products on her face, though, I might suggest a winnowing. You ask about the worst offenders? Probably the devils on your shoulder suggesting that any of those bajillion products are going to do something miraculous for your complexion. Save money while you lower exposure risks: Indulge in a DIY face-lift. The main ingredient — thoroughly nontoxic — is love.

Valerie Monroe was beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the monthly “Ask Val” column for nearly 16 years. Now she writes the weekly newsletter How Not to F*ck Up Your Face. Her goal continues to be to shift our thinking in the beauty arena from self-criticism to self-compassion and to learn how to be loving witnesses to ourselves and one another as we age.

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