The Truth About Your Beauty Products: Q & A with Authors of No More Dirty Looks

Ever wonder why some doctors give pregnant women a laundry list of cosmetics to avoid during pregnancy? Or stopped to think why technicians at nail salons are protecting themselves with face masks?

Between recent viral videos on the web and Whole Foods setting standards on organic skin care, the $50 billion dollar cosmetics industry has been getting a lot more scrutiny. Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt, authors of No More Dirty Looks have researched the safety, quality, and effectiveness of everything women put on our bodies from deodorant, to sunscreen, to mascara, to cellulite cream and more. Just like authors such as John Robbins, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser (among others) helped influence a food revolution that made us more conscious of the food we eat, we are at a similar cross-roads with the cosmetics we put on our bodies.

Lucky for us, Siobhan and Alexandra have done the investigative leg-work, from understanding the ingredients to talking to top dermatologists and scientists, so that you can spend more time living your life and less time googling parabens and formaldehyde. Aware of the emotional attachment many of us have to our beauty products, their approach and advice is realistic, approachable, and affordable.

No More Dirty Looks has the page-turning wit and brutal honesty of Skinny Bitch -- who knew that reading about toxins, chemicals, and carcinogens could be fun? I followed their recommendations in the hair guide and was delighted by the results: my usually bland hair became shinier and more voluminous. If the rest of their product recommendations are just as effective, this book will be the best investment in my health (and vanity) I've made. It's a must-read for every daughter, girlfriend, wife, mother and grandmother who wants to cleanse their beauty routine.

Alexandra and Siobhan talk to MindBodyGreen about their "Why Bother" beauty mantra as well as their favorite products for your face, hair and lips.

MBG: How did you become interested in beauty?

Alexandra: I think we were both born with the beauty-junkie gene. As a kid, I used to mix my own beauty elixirs from whatever I could find in the bathroom and then try to sell them to my parents. Meanwhile Siobhan was having these spa sleepover parties with her friends, and the first time she snuck a beer it was to rinse her hair with it.

Siobhan: It's true. And since Alexandra lives in L.A., and I'm in New York, whenever we'd visit each other, we'd do fun kind of girlie things. One trip, that fun thing was the fated Brazilian blowout.

When did you decide to write No More Dirty Looks together?

Siobhan: The research for the book started because we were curious what was in that hair treatment we'd gotten—and then down the rabbit hole we went. We figured if we didn't know about this stuff, lots of other women probably didn't either, and that struck us as just nuts. So we decided to write the book we wished already existed.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching No More Dirty Looks?

Alexandra: It's hard to narrow it down—a day didn't go by that we weren't freaking out together over some new fact we'd uncovered. I was really surprised to learn how much our skin absorbs into the body. Up to 60% by some accounts. But what really got us riled in the first place was discovering that the industry operates with virtually no oversight. It just seemed impossible that companies don't have to prove the safety of their product before sending them to market, and yet that's exactly what happens.

How can using beauty products with unsafe ingredients be harmful to one's health?

Siobhan: There's a lot we just don't know for sure, and it's very difficult to try to show that beauty products cause negative health effects, which is why we always invoke the "why bother" mantra. As in, if we can't be sure it's safe, why bother using it? At the same time, there are some things we know for sure: heavy metals are neurotoxins, phthalates are hormone disruptors linked to birth defects, some preservatives are formaldehyde donors, and formaldehyde is a carcinogen—and these things are in our everyday products.

Why do you think there's relatively low consumer awareness around the dangers of some ingredients and products?

Siobhan: Well, cosmetics is a $50 billion industry that spends a lot of money on advertising, so I'd guess it's not a total accident. But I also think consumers assume that where their health is concerned, someone—by which we mean the FDA—has their back. We see it changing, though. With the Safe Cosmetics Act's introduction and panic about BPA and phthalates, more and more people are starting to learn. It's going to take some time, though—just like it did with food.

When reading ingredient labels, what are some of the red flags to avoid?

Alexandra:  If you see that the ingredient being touted on the bottle—say green tea or vitamin E or something—actually only appears near the end of the ingredient list, you're in trouble. Other red flag

tip-offs are super long words with lots of x's and numbers in them, and fragrance.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make simple and safer choices in her beauty products, but not sure where to start?

Siobhan: Take it slow. Don't throw out everything at once. Replace your products only as you run out, and read our book! We wrote it to walk women through the process. Also, it's helpful to think about it this way: What do you use the most frequently and over the largest surface area of your body? Start with those.

Favorite product(s) for the face?

Siobhan: Right now I'm loving Tata Harper and Evan Healy cleansers, Kahina Giving Beauty argan oil and eye cream, and a weekly green tea clay mask. I also love Lavera and Vive Sana sunscreens for face. Both do triple duty of sun protection, moisturizer and primer.

Favorite product(s) for your hair?

Alexandra: I'm a big fan of Intelligent Nutrients, the clean line from the founder of Aveda, Horst Rechelbacher. We interviewed him in the book and he had some amazing (and unusual) advice.

Siobhan: I rotate between Alaffia and John Masters Organic shampoo and conditioner and have for some time.

Favorite product(s) for the lips?

Alexandra: There's too many good ones to choose from for lips. My mother actually just got this red lipstick from Dr. Haushka that kind of blew my mind—it's that really rich, bold Mad Men-style red. I may have to steal it from her.

Siobhan: I'm an anti-lipbalm girl myself, but I've been loving some lipsticks lately, especially a new one I just got from this company in New Zealand called Living Nature. It's such a pretty color and feels amazing on my lips.

How do you define beauty?

Alexandra: Oh I wouldn't even try! No matter what they say about symmetry and fertility and all of that, I think how we perceive beauty is incredibly subjective, constantly in flux and subject to all kinds of influences. I will say that I was pretty thrilled to see this recent study about the role of confidence in beauty.

What is next for Siobhan and Alexandra?

Alexandra: Lots we hope! Right now were putting a lot of time into NoMoreDirtyLooks.com and our series for GOOD magazine. After spending a year on the book it's exciting to actually be having a dialogue with people. You gotta love the internet for that.

For more on Siobhan and Alexandra:

NoMoreDirtyLooks.com

No More Dirty Looks on Amazon

Facebook, Twitter, and GOOD series

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