Transitioning from Toxic to Natural
(4 - 5 minute read)
Switching from synthetic personal care products to simple, natural alternatives means giving up superficial attributes like foam, fragrance, and texture, which are achieved using toxic ingredients. This article explores how we got so dependent on these products and shares 3 ideas we can rely on in our efforts to get back to natural.
When we wash our hair with an off-the-shelf shampoo, we expect to experience things like fragrance, lather, and slipperiness. When we clean our teeth, we have similar expectations around foam, sweetness, and smooth texture.
We’re so conditioned to an experience like this that we find it difficult to trust that we can get clean, for example, with a tooth-cleaning substance that feels dry or tastes salty or bitter, or a hair washing substance that doesn’t lather and isn’t fragranced.
Consider the characteristics we've come to expect from toothpastes:
- a certain mouthfeel and texture,
- a strong, “fresh” flavor
- breath “freshening” effects
- tooth whitening effects,
- a certain color (or even sparkling specks or stripes!) when you put it on your toothbrush,
- consistency – we expect the toothpaste to come out of the tube the same every time,
- and convenience – we expect all of this to be packaged neatly and conveniently in an easy-to-use tube, and for it to have an indefinite use-by date
Once we’re accustomed to toothpastes like this, missing out on these characteristics can make us feel like we haven’t cleaned our teeth.
But nothing on that list has anything to do with oral health. All of those characteristics are achieved using ingredients that can damage our teeth, our oral microbiome, and/or our overall health, not to mention our ecosystems. (Learn a lot more about how to help your teeth keep themselves healthy from the inside out, and how to make your own teeth-cleaning pastes or powders, here.)
In the case of shampoos, what we experience in a typical “lather, rinse, repeat” session is achieved with ingredients that actually make our hair dirtier, not cleaner, while they’re adding to the toxic assault on our bodies and our environment.
How did we get here?
How have we come to place such high values on things like fragrance, flavor, texture, or foam that if we don’t experience them, we feel unclean?
Why has the personal care industry for so long gotten away with filling bottles and tubes with substances that are either useless or toxic, and profiting by selling them to us en masse?
I don’t know definitive answers to these questions, but I have a few theories.
Distrust in nature
One of my theories is that this happened partly as we became more and more divorced from, and distrusting of, nature and natural substances.
The scientific revolution, industrialization, institutionalization, and mass production have gradually removed us from the dirt and grime of a natural, earth-based, hand-made existence and placed us into shiny, clean, fragranced, climate controlled environments, where all kinds of concoctions are considered essential for keeping up the shine and keeping out the dirty aspects of nature.
Our perceptions of cleanliness and how to attain it have been shaped by clever marketing, aided and abetted by mass media.
Multinational corporations have spent the last century developing global perceptions of what constitutes cleanliness and beauty, and building an industry around those perceptions.
Hygiene practices and beauty ideals have been defined by the modern beauty/personal care industry, which has ballooned out of mass production and mass marketing and from the application of scientific research to industrial products1.
And it’s a big industry. In the USA, for example, people spend more money on personal care and beauty products than on reading materials, education, or social services. The social importance of smelling and looking clean (along with the ways we define “clean”) has been successfully lodged into our cultural psyche2.
The beauty/personal care industry has achieved the “success” it has with huge advertising budgets, by spanning health/science and aesthetics/beauty, and by shaping demand for its products by exploiting deep-seated cultural and societal perceptions3.
The need to fit in
The emergence of a modern beauty industry coincided with the homogenization of the world’s economies and cultures.
Those responsible for expanding the beauty industry’s horizons worked hard to homogenize, globalize, and standardize perceptions of what defines “clean” and “socially acceptable.”
Personal hygiene, as defined by the industry, has become synonymous with social acceptance.
I remember as a teenager—I’m sure you do too—showering and changing in a high school gym after Physical Education class, in clouds of aerosol deodorant spray. We thought that was personal hygiene and we knew that if we didn’t use that stuff—if we had Body Odor—we’d be rejected and ridiculed.
The air in big cities at rush hour has been shown to be heavily polluted with toxins that do not come from car exhausts. They come from fragrances and other substances associated with “personal cleanliness,” as people ready themselves to be seen on their way from home to work, from work to the gym, and from the gym back home again.
Each transition is associated with a grooming ritual that has little to do with actual cleanliness and health and more to do with conditioned assumptions. Profitable ones.
Natural substances aren’t very profitable
Natural substances in their original, naked state, are excluded from personal care products partly because they refuse to do things that synthetic substances can be made to do, and partly because they’re not profitable.
One of the reasons they’re not profitable is that they’re inconsistent – they vary from season to season and from region to region; they’re harder to standardize, to homogenize, and to patent.
Another reason is that nature places limits on their production – they’re part of a cycle of life that cannot be rushed or pushed too far out of balance before it collapses.
As science has found increasingly clever ways of manipulating cheap chemicals to behave in ways that natural substances won't, industry has enjoyed enormous profit margins and we’ve lost our ability to separate fake from real, toxic from clean.
Shaped by our economic and legal systems
This hasn’t come about because the individuals in the board rooms of the companies that manufacture personal care products want to poison people and destroy our atmosphere and oceans. After all, it’s their home too.
It’s come about because their livelihoods depend on pleasing shareholders, and also because they're insulated from the real consequences of their decisions.
We have an economic system that rewards only profit and that defines profit only according to numbers on the bottom line of a spreadsheet.
And we have a legal system that eliminates any individual, personal involvement with, or accountability for, the final result of a corporation’s activities.
Combined, our economic and legal systems have more or less made it impossible for us to end up anywhere else than where we have.
How will we get back?
You can’t find experiences like modern toothpaste, modern shampoo, or shaving cream, anywhere in nature.
The combinations of ingredients that provide an experience like that are synthetic, made with modern technology, so far removed from nature that using them severs us utterly from our origins.
As we make efforts to find our way back to nature again, modern marketing—still driven by economic and legal structures that still haven’t changed—pivots with us and presents us with “natural” products that in most cases are only slightly less harmful and are often a lot more expensive.
It’s a work in progress, and we’re far from agreement about the best way back to natural, or what that even looks like in a modern world.
But these things I feel pretty sure about:
- We can redefine, one individual, one family at a time, what we mean by “clean” or “socially acceptable.” A woman who dares to go out in public with hairy legs, for example, is holding space courageously for these changes.
- We can learn to make our own health care and personal care things at home, using simple, inexpensive ingredients. Its not complicated, and its very empowering.
- It’s a waste of time and energy to point the finger at the bad guys. In fact, there are no bad guys, only ineffective systems and vulnerable human beings seeking security (economic or otherwise) and acceptance.
- “Globalizing the Beauty Business before 1980” by Geoffrey Jones
- “Globalizing Beauty: A Cultural History of the Global Beauty Industry” By Dr. Katherine T. Frith
- “Globalizing the Beauty Business before 1980” by Geoffrey Jones