The Story of Cosmetics

My main reason for pursuing a minimalist lifestyle is that I enjoy an uncluttered environment. Nothing makes me happier than a sparse, open space with little visual distraction. I also love the freedom that results when you don’t have a lot of stuff to worry about, care for, and move around.

However, I also have a second reason for practicing minimalism: I’m worried about the impact of all that stuff on the world and its people. I’m concerned about how the manufacture and disposal of material goods affect the environment, and how the chemicals contained in them affect our health.

With the latter point in mind, I was thrilled to discover Annie Leonard’s latest addition to her Story of Stuff series: The Story of Cosmetics.

The video was just released yesterday, and is well worth the 5-10 minutes it takes to view it. In a nutshell: it explains that many of the personal care products (creams, lotions, shampoos, cosmetics) we use each day contain toxic ingredients, which are in large part unregulated by the FDA. The chemicals are present in small amounts, but the long term effects of smearing them on our heads, faces, and bodies every day are unknown.

Since I first read about such issues a few years ago, I’ve drastically cut back on the products I use – eliminating things like perfume, nail polish, mascara, and fancy skin creams. I generally stick to a sunscreen/moisturizer combo, lip balm, and minimal makeup (light powder, lipstick, and occasional eyeshadow) when I need to look professional. I’ve also been seeking less-toxic alternatives to my favorite shampoo, body wash, and deodorant, with the help of the Skin Deep cosmetic database.

In the process, I’ve found that being mindful of the products I use has made me even more of a minimalist. Questioning the ingredients in my lotions and potions has not only decreased the chemicals I put on my skin — it’s cleared my bathroom shelves, streamlined my morning routine, and made it that much easier to travel light. :-)

I encourage all of you to take a look at Annie’s illuminating video; and if you’d like to see more regulation of the chemicals in our personal care products, please ask your local representative to support the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010.

{If you’d like to read more about minimalist living, please consider buying my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

35 comments to The Story of Cosmetics

  • JLouise

    The “Skin Deep” site is on my popular list, along with miss minimalist of course. Over the last few years I’ve been changing the products I use based on my increasing knowledge of ingredients. I use to think if a product was on the shelf at a store it was safe, well it’s not. The “Story of Cosmetics” will be a good introduction to people about this matter so thank you for bringing it to everyone’s attention.

  • Having worked in the natural foods industry for years, I’ve always been well aware of the chemicals that go into cosmetics/skincare. I’m at the point now where I wash my face with honey, and moisturize with coconut oil. Both on hand from the kitchen! I do wear a natural sunscreen (a must with melanoma in the family), and I have some sample sizes of mineral makeup on hand in case I need it. The only other things we all use are natural dental care, soap, and shampoo. If I could find an alternative to shampoo that we all liked I’d be happy, but so far, nothing!

  • Although I completely agree with the fact that there are many bad chemicals in common personal care products, I have found the EWC database to be of very little help. I remember looking up several products I have and they came back with mid-range numbers but no explanation of how they calculated it. Mineral makeup is something that I have used for a couple of years now and yet they claim it is risky because of the particulates that can be inhaled. I found the website to be hysteria inducing and for little good reason.

    On another note, I tried Dr. Bronner’s for personal care and it didn’t work out so well! I do love it for household cleaning and for camping, but washing my hair with it gave it a thick and coated feeling. The amount of lotion I had to use after washing my skin with it counteracted any benefits there were. Next time I need to purchase some shampoo or soap, I might try their Shikakai line.

    • I was getting the same “film coating” with the Castile soap until I found I was using way too much. I found that just a few drops or a quick squirt of soap were all that I needed to get clean. I think I used two drops to wash my balding head when I was using it. The bar soap is also a good alternative for shower use, though it seems to go rather quickly for a bar.

      I have their Shikakai hand soap in the kitchen and it works pretty well, so that might be another option.

  • Mia

    Thanks for posting about this. Just watched the video and checked the cosmetics database. Pity Fresh Line ( doesn’t appear in there. I really like their soaps and the ingredients seem OK. No Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Parabens, animal-tested ingredients etc. (

  • Edward Allen

    All you need is a bar of soap and toothbrush.Sun screens are just chemicals.The Arabs cover up in the sun or wear a hat.Sunscreens are another con.Shampoo is a waist of time.Animals don’t use shampoo but their hair looks great.Look at a puma.If you follow a healthy diet, be it vegan or vegeterian your skin will look great.Make up makes people look like Coco the Clown.Show people who you are without make up.Make up is as silly as wearing exagerated shoulder pads.Japanese think we smell because we eat so much dairy.Forget your deodarant, shampoo, makeup and stick with a bar of soap and toothbrush.Short hair is easier. Carry an Umbrella for the Sun.Keeps you cool.

    • Rain on the Parade

      I hate to rain on a parade, but I’d like to submit a defense for people who aren’t willing to give up all the chemicals in their lives just yet. This comment is 2 years late, but that’s what happens when I read through archives, apparently.

      I can’t defend sunscreens. I use them despite their ingredients. But I am interested in your “shampoo free” existence. Clean your hair with something. You may be looking at a puma from a distance but the moment you get close you’ll be in for a surprise: a wild animal’s coat is mighty dirty. Even with the occasional splash in a river, you are looking at some pretty interesting build ups. And the sheen that makes it look oh-so-nice tends to be sweat. Animal hair is greasy and if you want an animal with an amazing coat, take a look at pets who are bathed regularly. Then compare it to a wild animal. There isn’t really much to compare; well tended and frequently bathed pets look significantly better and happier.

      I know several people who don’t use shampoo—either natural or otherwise. They just leave their hair alone or rinse it with water. THE HAIR BECOMES DISGUSTING. After a month I don’t even want to touch it or get near it. And yes, said people are vegetarian and eat well. It doesn’t make as much a difference as one could hope.

      Also, I lived in Japan for 3 years. I visited Russia for a summer. Neither country uses deodorant as a mainstream product. They claim we stink? Try riding the subway! I challenge ANYONE to ride a crowded subway in a country that doesn’t use deodorant or cologne and tell me that a healthy, natural diet is sufficient to remove body odor.

      Here’s a tip: IT’S NOT. It smells terrible. Gag-worthy AWFUL.

      By all means, be healthy and use alternatives to the chemicals you don’t like, but for the love of all noses and fingers everywhere do SOMETHING to ensure that your hair and skin is clean and that you don’t smell like old sweat. It’s disgusting. Seriously.

  • Edward Allen

    Sun screens moisterizers and body washes don’t work and you absorb these chemicals into your body thus effecting organs like the liver.A natural soap and hat is all you need.If ones hair is dry its because washing it strips it of all it’s oils.I haven’t washed my hair for ten years it fine and clean.A organic bar of soap has the same components as body washes and other assorted products they have created to con the consumer into buying more stuff so they can make profits.With a bar of soap you don’t have plastic bottles to chuck or recycling.That is all people used a few years back.Body wash shower Gel-more cons by the industry.Nice skin is related to diet.Vitamin E etc.To make a moisterizer work you would need to apply it every five minutes but you would probably get liver damage from absorbing all the chemicals.Moisterizer is the biggest con by the cosmetics industry on women fearing wrinkles and old age.Sun is what damages skin that is why a hat will keep you young.Japanese women always carried umbrellas and ate fish and no or very little red meet or dairy.They have great skin

    • Charlotte

      I have to say I also tried not washing my hear for several months. It didn’t work!! It didn’t look too awful as my hair is naturally fairly dry, but it did get a little whiffy close up. I’ve never met anyone in person who claims it does work, so I’ve never been able to work out whether all these people who say it does are just pleasantly deluded or their hair is different from mine! As for saying animals don’t need shampoo so we don’t either a) We’re not able to lick our hair clean and b) dogs absolutely stink au naturel!

  • I’m so happy to see this post! I’ve been thinking about minimalist beauty routines for a while now. @Stephanie, I have a similar trouble washing my hair with Dr. Bronner’s: my hair looks fantastic, but my scalp becomes a dry flaky mess. I do use the bar soap for body washing though, and have great skin, never need moisturizer.
    Also, I am in close agreement with @Edward: Sunscreens are full of chemicals, even the more “natural” ones. A hat works wonders, or just stay out of the sun from 10-4 when its rays are strongest.
    I wash my face at night with very gentle soap, and use a wash cloth (no product) for exfoliation in the morning. A dab of jojoba oil for moisturizer. My skin has never looked better, and believe me, I’ve struggled with greasy, broken out skin for a long time and have tried every product out there.
    Salt and baking soda make a great body exfoliant. Or use a dry brush.
    I haven’t given up shampoo yet, and while I’ve tried the baking soda/vinegar thing, it seems it’s not the thing for me. I’ve switched to Giovanni hair products, they have a low number on the Skin Deep website, no unpronounceable ingredients, and they’re affordable.
    I’d love to hear more about what other people are using for alternatives to traditional beauty products…

  • anna

    Dr Hauschka for me! I stopped using chemical cosmetics decades ago when someone explained to me that if you put it on your skin you might as well be eating it as the liver has to process all that toxic junk. I can’t believe women are still buying carcinogenic crap by the bucket load (the worst is slathering this crap under their arms – right next to the lymph glands) and wondering why so many women are getting breast cancer…
    I use Dr Bronner for washing my body and Dr Hauschka for everything else – including cosemtics. Weleda and Lavera are great companies too – the Germans are GREAT at skin care IMO.

  • Having a minimal makeup and skincare regimen certainly makes things easier, and also, like you said, is better for our bodies and environment!

    Great post to shine light on what we may not even realize under our very eyes.

  • touroxin

    Great post! I’m going to make the change!!!!

  • HK

    What an interesting post. I have a very basic makeup kit, always have and always will. I use Bare Minerals for my foundation and cover up, and then one eyeshadow trio from Almay (“make those blue eyes pop”).

    I am not one that can go without any makeup at all though, unfortunately. I have terrible undereye circles that need to be covered up somehow.

    However, I’ve never questioned what is actually in my makeup. :/ I just may look into that now.

  • Our skin is the largest organ of the body and absorbs everything that is put on it. Even natural lines need label reading. They don’t always include the best ingredients even if there are a few good ones in there. There are so many wonderful companies that make 100% chemical free products for hair, skin, nails, and makeup. Suki, Monave, Aubrey’s Organics, Dr. Hauschka, and Priti are just a few. I’ve been writing about simplifying your beauty routine and creating your own recipes for beauty with natural ingredients. I have found great joy in making many of my own beauty products and have discovered that they work just as well or better than products that I have bought.

  • This video is great! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Ana London

    Great post on cosmetics!! Im also a big fan of “the story of stuff”.

    I have to say, sometimes (once or twice a year) I spash out on some fancy hair product/moituriser.. but most of the time I keep it simple and frangrace free.

    **Shampoo: I use a solid organic bar…..Although I shower daily, I dont shampoo that often. I once left it 2 months and it was lovely and shiny, natural oils had come back that detergent had stripped.

    ** Conditioner: I use water/cider vinegar and my favorite essential oil..usualy peppermint or rosemary depending how im feeling.

    ** Shower Gel/Soap: I use the same organic shampoo bar for body and hair.

    ** Scrubs/masks: I make my own with sugar; honey, oil and essential oil. Also use Moroccan clay “Ghasool”

    ** Moisturiser: I use half olive, half almond oil..all over body and face…sometimes hair to give shine in summer..lightly (I have long dark curly hair)

    ** Deodorant: Dont use

    ** Toothpaste: Before you go Ahhhh.. try it… I just gently brush the organic soap bar and use this to brush teeth… works fine as its all organic/natural.. Floss as well.

    ** Make up: Im a bit guilty… its not really organic/natural, but im looking into it.. I only have mascara/eyeliner and a lip gloss for special occasions.. dont wear make up day to day.

    There are loads of fantastic sites to help you make your own moisturisers, shampoos etc… I just find the bars are great…all in one and no plastic…also great for travelling and dealing with airport security.


    Ana London

  • Carly

    I’m glad to see more and more people becoming aware of the slack labeling laws in cosmetics and foods. It is challenging at first to live with less chemicals but with the increasing sources of information available on this topic, it’s becoming easier. Baking soda and vinegar for cleaning (I even use baking soda to wash my clothes and vinegar to rinse, although this isn’t an option for everyone), soap nuts can also be used for personal care/cleaning and the ‘no poo’ fad ( if you’re game. Also, I’m not sure if it’s available on kindle but ‘The Chemical Maze’ ( is helpful too, though you might find the book useful if you aren’t an online shopper.

  • I went “natural” on cosmetics some years ago. I use “kitchen” ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, coconut oil, cornstarch, salt, and essential oils in various combinations. I love Dr. Bronner’s soaps and have great results using it on my hair. Works terrific in soft water and with hard water, I follow it with a dilute apple cider vinegar rinse. Like Ana London, I also swipe my toothbrush over the soap and it works fine — doesn’t taste any worse than ordinary toothpaste IMO. If I feel I need more abrasion, then I add a bit of baking soda. I don’t use make up any longer but do use Badger’s natural sunscreen if I will be in the sun for a long time; otherwise, I just cover up with a hat and long sleeves. I’m glad to have all those nasty — and expensive! — chemicals out of my life!

  • Susan

    Dear Miss Minimalist,
    I like your blog very much and I like to share a wonderful tip from a book called “art of simplicity” that a good oil is excellent for cleaning the face and body. Put a little in your hands, make a massage with your hands and wash it away with hot and cold water and dry with a fresh towel. Your skin will be fantastic, no cream, body lotion or something else is necessary. From my experience you can use every good oil that you also use in kitchen (olive, almond) or a baby oil and it is a simple and minimalistic cleaning solution.

  • Annie

    So I totally ran out of sunscreen and therefore stopped using it and my (facial) skin completely CLEARED up!!! NOT on blemish whatsoever. What’s up with that??? Ahh, it’s called CHEMICALS!!!! Please, Miss Minimalist, provide more information on ‘NO’ or ‘Natural’ based cosmetic (hair, face, body) options. How do I protect my two children from sun damage without sunscreen???? They have RED hair, fair skin, blue eyes!!!

  • […] leave a comment » A reply to Miss Minimalist’s Minimalist Make Up post. […]

  • […] week’s post on The Story of Cosmetics inspired a lively discussion on natural beauty alternatives. Many thanks to everyone who commented! […]

  • Need Clean

    I was already using “natural” products, but my sensitive skin forced me to avoid more natural and synthetic ingredients. I get rashes from certain plant materials and chemical ingredients, so I make my own simple makeup with small packets of colorants from TKB Trading.

  • Castalia

    I am Greek and our ancestors used olive oil on their skin and hair as well as for sunscreen. I use it too and I think it is better than any expensive moisturizer, hair serum, or sunscreen.

    • Kate

      Ah! Olive oil would be very dangerous for a light-skinned person in the sun! I am as white as a cloud, and oils mixed with the sun are terrible for me. After using the olive oil in a hair treatment, my scalp burned, as did the area on my neck where it dripped (and I only thought I removed!). I know many people on here will disagree, but I find no shame in using Zinc Oxide. It prevents sunburns on my very fair skin- something a hat and clothing can’t entirely prevent (for me, personally). I’m sure many others are fine without, but I refuse to develop agonizing burns.

  • JessDR

    I know this was posted a long time ago, but I have a *great* natural deodorant to recommend. NOW brand makes a really good one, based on zinc oxide.

    It works *extremely* well (and I get fairly stinky), and none of the ingredients rates higher than a 3 in the cosmetics database. It also lasts a long time: I usually apply it every day, but I’ve gone two days on a single application.

    It also comes as a smear-on paste, which is even longer-lasting (I used it every 2-3 days), but it’s harder to apply than the stick form.

    Both forms are white, so they can rub off. I usually apply it as the first step in my grooming routine, then wipe off any excess before I get dressed.

    • Charlotte

      I use organic nasty-free deodorant, shower gel, shampoo and moisturiser from Green People. And toothpaste. And an organic lip balm fron Fresh&Wild. Nothing else. Haven’t worn any makeup for years. One of the few ways in which I have been extremely minimalist without even realising all my adult life, despite many other pack-rat tendencies. As a feminist I actually very much disagree with the assumption made in the post that makeup is needed to ‘look professional. It’s not needed for guys to look professional, ergo there’s no good reason for it to be needed for women to look professional. It’s just another assumption made by society for a number of negative reasons – and a great example of another thing over which we should ‘stick it to the man’.

  • Exploring Minimalism

    I really enjoyed the video and it’s actually inspired me to do some more research into chemicals in common products. Just a side note, the link has changed. will now take you to the webpage.

  • Tina

    You can use baking soda as a deodorant. Or corn starch. Both are better than commercial deodorants which contain a chemical bad for the kidneys. I haven’t used make-up in years except when going to a wedding or other super-fancy place. I stay out of the sun as much as I can and if I can’t I wear a long sleeved shirt and a hat. I use a tiny bit of shampoo once a week and a tiny bit of conditioner (size of a dime). No gels, spray or anything else on my hair. People have always used cosmetics, even painting their faces with lead for a while.

  • Tina

    By the way, a dermatologist told me not to shower every day. He said two or three times a week was plenty. I have extremely dry skin and dry hair. My mother is 89 and showers twice a week. I notice extremely bad breath on other people faster than body odor.

  • Tina

    I’ve also noticed that drinking plain water, not coffee or pop, was good for the skin and cigarette smoking ages skin faster than not smoking.

  • Tina

    When I was young girls washed their hair every week or so. Now people put so much gel, mousse or whatever in their hair, they wash their hair more often. I have noticed more women not dying their hair as it goes gray. I gave away a bag of art supplies yesterday, I have another bag for my grandsons’ art teacher. I also have 2 big bags of clothing and dishes for Goodwill. People give me things and I keep what I need and pass on the rest. I also took a stack of DVD’s, books, and magazines to the library to give away.

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