A Rash is Born
I'll never forget the two incidents that spurred my journey into natural, or holistic, beauty. The first happened when my now teenaged daughter was a newborn. After a bath, I lovingly applied baby lotion all over her delicate, olive skin. She immediately broke out in a rash. Like a typical new mom, I panicked. I called her pediatrician's office in near tears. The on-call nurse calmly told me to "wipe off the lotion with a wet washcloth." Oh yeah. Duh. New mom fail. The simple solution was to wipe off the offensive product. The not-so-simple follow up was what to use now.
Two years later, my toddler daughter and I were strolling down the perfume aisle of a department store, and once again, she broke out in a head-to-toe rash. I rushed us out of the store and her rash subsided. What didn’t subside was my ongoing quest to figure out why these mysterious rashes were happening. Not surprisingly, she developed eczema and eventually allergies.
You may be thinking my daughter is the exception, not the norm. Some people are just allergic to certain things like fragrance, just like some people are allergic to certain foods. The tricky thing with personal care products is they are typically made up of dozens of ingredients with complicated names like Ethylenediamineteraacetic Acid. If you’re allergic to citrus, it’s a little easier to spot on an ingredients list and stay away from citrus foods; if you’re allergic to Methylisothiazolinone, you may not even know it, much less what it does, and why it’s in your lotion.
Many women complain that certain products give them rashes or itchy skin or cause a breakout. Rather than question the safety of personal care products, we shrug it off to “sensitive skin” and keep trying product after product until we find something works. When we finally do find a product that works, we spread the news like gossip in a hair salon. Your friend boasts, “I finally found an anti-aging, anti-acne, wrinkle-erasing, collagen-making moisturizer with SPF 50 that doesn’t give me hives!” So, you look up the miraculous product only to find it costs $98. You read the ingredients assuming it must be made out of pixie dust made by rainforest fairies to cost that much, but instead find a list of 25 ingredients that you cannot pronounce. It's impossible to tell the difference between the $98 miracle oil and the $12 version at the drugstore. It's overwhelming and frustrating.
Some of us just buy whatever looks promising in the Target aisle or maybe even splurge on a night cream Sarah from Human Resources is selling from her MLM side hustle. But when it comes to our kids, homey don't play that. Moms are possibly the most ardent problem solvers of all time, and we tend to do and spend whatever we can if it's going to help our children. I was determined to figure out the best and safest products for my kids. So, I did what many moms of my generation do, I went organic.
We natural-minded folks like to turn to organic and plant-based products as a cure-all for all of our hygienic woes. Just stay away from those long-named chemicals, slather your child in coconut oil, and all will be well. But guess what? The lotion that broke out my newborn daughter was a “99% natural” product made without phthalates, parabens, petrolatum, or SLS, was “pediatrician-tested and hypo-allergenic” and described as “safe, effective and natural.” So, what was the problem?
I spent years trying to solve my daughter's eczema problem. I tried homemade lotions, natural lotions, drugstore creams, vaseline, just plain coconut oil, steroid topical creams, and prescriptions. I read up on diet and eczema triggers, so we eliminated certain foods. I went green with our household cleaning products and bought HEPA filters. And I wish I could say that I figured it all out. The truth is the health of her skin is a reflection of many things in her environment, from food to mood to the weather and yes, to the products she puts on her skin. Her eczema is still a struggle, but one she has learned to keep under control by eating healthy, drinking lots of water, avoiding lotions and fragrance, and using medicine for the occasional outbreaks that occur.
What I learned from the experience is that the condition of our skin and hair is a reflection of our overall health. Awareness, followed by action, is the key to healthy living and to beautiful skin and hair. We teach our children how to identify poison ivy when playing outside to protect them from the consequential rash, but then we buy baby shampoos with formaldehyde releasing ingredients, lotions with methylisothiazolinone (Allergen of the Year 2013), coat them with sunscreen containing oxybenzone, an ingredient associated with photoallergic reactions, and assume it's all safe. We let our toddlers put on pretend makeup having no clue what's in that little glittery tube of lipgloss. And when they get a rash from one of those products, we treat it with another product containing a whole other set of ingredients we know nothing about. And this is not to say we shouldn't treat our kids' rashes! What I am saying is we use dozens of products on our skin day after day thinking very little about what's in them until something like a head-to-toe rash screams for our attention.
It's not enough to toss out a shampoo because it made your head itch or a lotion because it gave your child a rash. We need to be educated consumers and choose safer products. Did you know cosmetic products are not regulated by a governing agency before they go to market? The only way a personal care product is recalled is if a significant problem is documented by the FDA because enough consumers made formal complaints. And even then, the FDA just issues a warning to the company and puts a little blurb on their website.
Clean beauty is not a fad anymore than eating vegetables is a trend. Listing ingredients on a package isn't enough when you need a PhD in chemistry to understand what you're reading. I absolutely understand wanting to go organic, but this too is not a cure-all. Organic ingredients are not always safer or more effective. And synthetic ingredients are not inherently evil. The key is a holistic approach to beauty, one that considers physical and mental health as equal players, coupled with awareness of what we put in and on our bodies.
A rash is what spurred my interest in holistic self-care and that interest has fueled my career in the beauty industry, an industry that needs to give itself a facelift, rather than pushing a -whatever it takes to avoid being basic, flawed, or wrinkled- approach to beauty.