Here's a secret the $50 billion cosmetics industry doesn't want you to know: You don't need almost any of what they're peddling. Truth is, that our bodies are smart, and long before the advent of $200 eye creams—or even basic shaving cream—we were all doing just fine. Of course, some of the products we use have appeal beyond their utility: They smell good, they feel good, they make us look good. Others—and especially some of the ones sold to us as things we need—are nothing more than marketing ploys that create more problems than they solve.
Don't buy it? This tidbit from the annals of cosmetics history might convince you: When a certain shampoo maker discovered their hairwash was causing dandruff, the story goes, they didn't reformulate the product—they marketed a dandruff shampoo. It's a pretty good metaphor for the business, whether it's true or not, which is why there are things like neck cream, lotions that remove our protective cuticles, and so forth.
But when it comes to personal care, less really is more—and that goes for the bare necessities as well. To wit, here is a list of things you think you need, but really, really don't:
Lip Balm We all know someone addicted to their ChapStick, and there's a real simple reason for that: Many lip salves contain alcohol, which can dry the hell out of your lips. And so you reapply, thinking you're adding in much-needed moisture that can only be provided by the stuff in the tube. Not so. Left alone, most lips can maintain their own moisture balance just fine. If you must use lip balm, however, go for something with just a handful of truly nourishing ingredients like the ones from Buddha Nose or Burts Bees'.
Aftershave Most of us think we need aftershave to "close our pores" after shaving, but that's not quite right; our pores are clever and they will do that on their own. The main purpose of aftershave is that it smells, and it restores balance to your skin after you throw it out of whack with your shaving cream. Shaving creams, like soaps, are usually pretty alkaline—which is not your skin's natural, happy pH. And aftershaves often contain alcohol, synthetic fragrance (a no-no), and the rather-toxic BHT. Instead, use something else to shave with (see below) and if you still really want to splash your face with something, opt instead for some nice cheap rum. I myself haven't tried it, but I hear it works like a charm.
Foot Cream The skin on our feet may feel thicker than the skin on our forearms, but that doesn't mean it needs its own product category. Instead, pick a sustainably harvested allover lotion like Alaffia's shea butter lotions, or Whole Foods' super-affordable Everyday Shea, slather that on your feet, and then put on some cotton socks if you really want to lock in moisture.
Toner This is one of those things we think we need because we're using the wrong products to begin with. Because most soaps and facial cleansers are alkaline, and our skin is naturally a little acidic, marketing wisdom says we need to restore that balance by buying another product and applying it on our open pores. Instead, opt for a skin- and earth-friendly soap to begin with—or use a cream cleanser if you want to get fancy—and call it a day. If you like the feeling of toners, get a gentle, alcohol-free one, like those by Evan Healy.
Body Scrub Skin sloughs off on its own, but there's no getting around how good it feels to give your back a good scrub-down. Instead of buying another bottle of something—increasing waste and increasing your exposure to hidden, bad-for-you ingredients—use a loofah or a simple wash cloth. For a more pleasing scrub, do as Milissa Skoro suggested, and make your own: mix olive or coconut oil with sea salt or brown sugar, throw in a dash of vanilla, and go crazy.
Leave-In Conditioner Those of you with particularly unruly manes can skip this one, but most of us do not need leave-in conditioner. As with soaps, when you make the switch to gentler cleaners—sulfate-free shampoos are easy to find these days, just check the label—it obviates the need for more and more products. A simple everyday shampoo from your health food store, followed by a little conditioner, should be plenty for most of us. Leave-ins also often coat the hair with fragrance and other ingredients that can build up on your hair, making it look and feel worse over time.
Shaving Cream Another thing you don't need. Yes, it's nice to have something between the blade and your face or legs, to ensure a close shave and the least amount of discomfort possible, but there are so many other things you can use that don't contain harsh sulfates and foam boosters. For legs, I like using the conditioner left on my hands after I apply it to my hair. Shaving oils are also great for face and legs—but so is any old oil you have lying around, if you can get past the putting-oil-on-your-face thing (a stretch for some, surely). Even a simple three-ingredient soap works well.
Body Wash Like foot lotion, this is a rather absurb product category, often packaged in plastic and loaded with chemicals you would not want near you if you knew what they were. Again, simpler is better. An all-purpose soap like Dr. Bronner's can be used for body, hands, hair, clothing, and even your toilet. Another option: Use a washcloth and no soap whatsoever. Rub your skin clean, gently, without any product at all.
This is the third installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Thursday.
Read more on their blog.