I love bucket lists. In my opinion and experience, they help me to focus and live with the seasons. But my idea of a bucket list is probably very different from many others. Too often, when we compile bucket lists or checklists for holidays, whether on home land or abroad, Read more…
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Daily life is stressful, whether you’re a working professional or a stay-at-home parent, a student or even a child. Between study, house chores, dealing with other people and providing care, stress gets to all of us without a doubt. At times, it does us good. A short-term release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline boosts our energy and cognitive function, making us more alert and efficient at what we do. Too much of these hormones, on the other hand, exhausts our bodies. What’s more, the so-called ‘perceived stress’, a feeling that our lives are too stressful, also affects our mental health adding further to the physiological stress that we may be experiencing. Stress is unavoidable, but we all understand that we need to somehow manage it. In this post we will discuss the how and why.
The Biology of Stress
What is stress? Stress is the body’s response to a factor or a situation that is perceived as threatening. The stress response involves several systems in the brain and body, but its primary “accomplices” are the amygdala, hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain, and the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and storing memories and emotions associated with them. It is also responsible for the feeling of fear and can “sense” danger. When we perceive something as threatening or stressful, it is the amygdala that sounds the alarm. Next, the hypothalamus in the brain, which is responsible for hormone release, sends a signal to the pituitary gland (also a hormone secreting part of the brain), which in its turn sends another signal to the adrenal glands, that we need a boost of adrenaline and cortisol to save us from the threat. This pathway is called a hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and the response it triggers is called ‘fight-or-flight’. This is a physiological self-protection mechanism, that helps us make a decision to either fight, run away (flight), freeze or collapse.
When adrenaline is released, it increases the blood pressure, sweating, heart and breathing rates. Cortisol triggers a surge in blood glucose to ensure that we have enough energy to sustain our actions. It also sends that glucose to the muscles required for the chosen action (for example, legs if we decide to run away). As such, it temporarily boosts our physical abilities by increasing the energy supply. These hormones also alter our brain functions, such as memory and critical thinking, to help us get out of the stressful situation. Once their job is done, these neurochemicals are re-absorbed, thus ending the stress response.
Stress is responsible for keeping us alive. But if this response is activated as a false alarm, or too often and for too long as in the case with chronic stress, it may as well eventually become the death of us.
The Negative Impact of Stress
Anyone could agree that living with chronic stress, whether physiological or perceived, is not a pleasurable experience. It triggers a lot of symptoms, such as headaches, restlessness, poor sleep, anxiety, trouble concentrating and so much more. Chronic stress can lower our immune response, making us prone to frequent infections, and eventually lead to cardio-metabolic diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, as well as depression, gastrointestinal and other issues. Both the perceived stress and elevated stress levels need to be managed to bring to ensure our health is not at risk. How can we do this? Stay tuned!
Factors Contributing to Stress
You may find it surprising, but often it’s the same things that come as a result of stress that serve as factors that affect our resilience and lead us to increased stress levels and perception of stress in the first place. It is like a vicious cycle that we fall into and seem unable to get out of.
These common factors include:
- Poor and inconsistent sleep
- Poor and insufficient diet
- Alcohol consumption
- Lack of relaxation/downtime
But life is more complicated than that, and these factors are not the only causes of stress. We may be experiencing some life changes, an illness, changes in family circumstances or relationship, moving places, moving jobs, not having enough money, having difficulties at work, not having a job or simply feeling lonely. Any of these factors can lead to the above, diminishing our ability to cope with stress even further.
If you are not so sure what is the underlying cause of your stress is or what causes your stress response on a daily basis, you can begin by thinking about your current circumstances and answering a few questions:
- Have there been any changes in your life recently?
- Have you moved places or are in the process of moving?
- Have you started a new job or lost your job, or thinking of changing?
- Have you started or ended a relationship?
- Have you had a baby or are planning a family?
- Have you lost a family member?
These circumstances play a major role in creating chronic stress. Even if you don’t make much out of it, they still may affect you in unexpected ways.
Also think of the triggers you may be experiencing daily.
- “I feel stressed/anxious when…”
- “At work/home/school, I wish people would…”
Try finishing these phrases and see what comes out. Take a notepad and jot it down. It will feel better to just released it from your mind.
Stress Management Tools That You Could Use Right Now
When we talk about stress management and stress relief, there are two types of tools that we should be implementing to combat stress: short term and long term.
Short term tools are amazing because they could help us calm down and re-focus on here and now. They can help us feel better within an instant and we can use them as we need. Long term tools are also brilliant because they set or modify the conditions for the body to help cope with stress in the long run. For best results, we should always be using both short and long term tools or strategies to manage stress effectively. But let’s start with the short term actions that we can use for immediate relief.
Short Term Stress Management
The Power of Breathing: 4 Ways
To start with addressing the elephant in the room, the most important tool in combating the stress is Breath. Simple as that. We always have it with us, but we rarely consciously use it.
The autonomic nervous system in the human body controls the involuntary processes, such breathing, heart beat, etc. The breath specifically is controlled by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic system slows our breathing and heart rate down, while the sympathetic system brings them up. When we are worried or stressed, the sympathetic nervous system quickens our breath and heart rate. But despite breathing being completely autonomous, it is about the only automatic process in our body that we can consciously control. As such, switching to slow, deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which tells the brain that there is no threat, we are not in danger. It brings the heart rate down and stops the stress response.
So it is up to us to take control. We can employ various breathing techniques that can lower the stress hormone levels and return the nervous system back to its functioning state. Let’s take a look at these breathing techniques. Remember to always start in a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Do a few rounds if it feels good.
- Physiological sighing: despite its complicated name, it’s not a complicated task at all. In fact, it’s the most effective technique of all breathing techniques. It really opens up the tiny alveoli, the air sacs in your lungs, and stimulates the proper oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, which is crucial for the management of stress, simply because excess carbon dioxide in our lungs triggers the stress response. To do the technique:
- Take a deep breath through your nose.
- Without breathing out, take another breath through your nose. Don’t worry if it feels forced or much shorter than the first – it is not, after all, a common for us pattern of breathing.
- Breathe out completely through your mouth, extending your exhale for as long as possible.
- Box breathing: this is a highly recommended technique for anyone suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. Deep breathing, like in box breathing, is instantly calming and helps regulate the autonomic nervous system.
- Inhale deeply for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4.
- Exhale slowly and completely for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4 before inhaling again. Do a few rounds.
- Meditation: meditation can take on many different forms, from guided to unstructured. But it doesn’t have to be long, done in a lotus pose with candles, burning incense and chanting. I mean, you could, if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t be a tool that you could use anywhere. For this purpose, we will keep meditation simple and short.
- Take a comfortable seat and rest your hands on your laps. You can close your eyes or keep them open, gazing softly past your nose, not focusing on any details.
- Take a breath in. Don’t force it, let it be natural. And while breathing in, simply think to yourself “I’m breathing in”.
- Breathe it out completely and think “I’m breathing out”.
- Repeat for as many breaths as you like, ideally no less than 10. Instead of thinking “I’m breathing in or out”, you can simply note “In” and “Out”, or you can count your breaths instead.
- Left nostril breathing: this is another very simple but effective breathing technique widely practised by yogis and Ayurvedic holistic health practitioners. Left nostril breathing involves (as you guessed) breathing only through the left nostril, and it acts on the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the feeling of calm and relaxation. The technique is extremely simple.
- Sit comfortably in your chair, or lie down. Relax your shoulders. Close your eyes if you wish or simply soften your gaze.
- Place your thumb or index finger on your right nostril to block the flow of air to it.
- Breathe slowly in and out through the left nostril and feel the calm spread through your mind and body. Do this for at least 10 breaths, then take a break and repeat if needed.
Other Short-Term Stress Management Techniques
- The Five Senses grounding technique: this technique is a great tool to bring your awareness to your surroundings and break the unhealthy thought pattern which may occur when you’re stressed out. To do this technique, simply close your eyes and take a slow, deep breath (or a few). Then open your eyes and notice:
- Five Things You Can See
- Four Things You Can Touch
- Three Things You Can Hear
- Two Things You Can Smell
- One Thing You Can Taste
- Aromatherapy: while it is not a breathing technique, it is a very simple and effective way to alleviate stress. Just like with meditation, you could go all the way out to aromatherapy sessions in a local spa or wellness centre, but what I am offering is a few simple ways to use essential oils to help you through the stressful times.
- Diffuser: when you are at home or if allowed in your workplace, add water and a few drops of essential oils to a diffuser and let the cool mist calm you down.
- Roll-on: you can buy a roll-on essential oil and use it on your pulse points, such as your wrists or temples. These little bottles often come in beautiful blends of oils that are both powerful and pleasant.
- Personal diffuser: these are little wooden cylinders (like this and this ones, not affiliated) that absorb the drops of oil and emit the aroma, which you can inhale whenever you feel like you need a little pick-me-up. Alternatively, you can use a handkerchief and a few drops of oil, but personal diffuser is easier to use when you are out and about.
If you don’t know where to start for your personal dose of aromatherapy, try lavender, frankincense, bergamot, neroli, sweet orange, geranium or ylang ylang. Or check out some oil blends offered by reputable brands like Tisserand or doTerra. Just make sure you’re choosing organic, 100% pure essential oil. Anything less than that may be a fake and will not have the health benefits of the real essential oils. Also, please consult with your healthcare provider if you suffer from any medical conditions, take medication, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as not all oils may be safe for you.
- Tapping: have you heard of it? It’s called Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT, and it involves tapping with your two fingers on various acupressure points such as temples, jaw and collar bones to relieve stress and anxiety. I really wouldn’t be the right person to teach you the EFT as this is not my area of expertise, but here is a simple and wonderful resource that can help you to get started. Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the Tapping Solution and I am not asking you to invest in any plans that they may offer.
- Herbal Teas: cutting down on caffeine for stress management is a must, as it can actually add to your agitation if taken at the wrong times (there’s a whole science to correct caffeine consumption), but replacing your cup of coffee with a mug of herbal tea can have an immediate calming effect on your mind and your nervous system. Good herbal teas include chamomile, lemon balm (Melissa), mint, hemp (I’ve recently tried one – yum!). For night time, it could be a blend containing valerian root. See what range of teas is available to you locally, try them out to see what you can stick to. And don’t forget to consult with your healthcare provider if you suffer from any medical conditions, take medication, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Long Term Stress Management
When talking about stress management, it is most important to talk about causes. Whether it’s work or circumstances, eliminating the trigger, or at least being able to recognise the trigger, is vital. Not all causes and triggers can be fully eliminated. For example, we may change jobs if the current one is particularly stressful, but we cannot eliminate all stress from the new job. And we shouldn’t, because a little bit of stress keeps us productive and alert. It is also more complicated when it comes to stress caused by relationship or health-related issues. In these cases we may not always be able to eliminate it, but reframing our minds and thoughts, and changing attitude can go a long way.
There are, however, behavioural and lifestyle changes that we can make to become more balanced and resilient and combat the negative effects of stress easier. Let’s look at our options.
1 – Physical Activity
Anything from walking to lifting weights can be an excellent way to switch off your overthinking mind. Moderate exercise is proven to lower the stress levels, and for that benefit (among the others) we should be getting a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise each week. That’s 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. It doesn’t have to be a strenuous workout. In fact, strenuous exercise can add to stress, especially if you do not enjoy it. But going for a brisk walk is a great idea when it come to stress management. Another great exercise for stress relief is yoga. It unites the body and mind through mindful movement and breathing (remember, breath is the most powerful tool!) and can bring you both immediate results and the long-term effects.
2 – Proper Nutrition
This is not what come to mind when we talk about stress, but poor diet may add to our stress levels simply because it does not provide the body with the nutrients it needs to keep our energy levels and brain function at its optimum level. Moreover, highly processed foods further rob our bodies of nutrients to break them down and digest, while providing only the empty calories at best. That is why it’s important that we eat 7+ servings of fruit and vegetables a day, quality protein (beans and lentils, tofu, eggs and lean meats) and carbohydrates (brown rice, whole wheat breads and pasta) and unsaturated fats (avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, oily fish). Diets that involve low calorie intake or omission of the entire food groups, such as low carb or low fat, can create unnecessary stress within the body. The same goes for forcing yourself to eat a diet you do not enjoy. It is so, so important that you find healthy, balanced meals that you enjoy eating!
3 – Avoid Alcohol
This should be self-explanatory, really, but I will have a go. Having a glass of wine to relax after a stressful day may seem like a good idea. And it often provides a short-term relief. But alcohol is toxic to the body. It slows down our brain and changes the neurochemical composition in the brain, affecting our mood and thoughts. It also disrupts the sleep pattern and increases our perception of stress as well as making us less able to cope with it. For a long-term stress management plan, alcohol should be avoided. A glass of wine may be enjoyed safely from time to time, but it’s best enjoyed when you are not stressed.
4 – Reduce Caffeine Intake
While a good energy stimulant, caffeine (especially in coffee) can magnify the effects of stress on our body in a very specific way: caffeine elevates the cortisol and adrenaline levels, which are already elevated when we are stressed. It further inhibits adenosine, the hormone that allows us to calm down, meaning that the effects of stress will also be prolonged. While I wholly believe in the health benefits that coffee offers (when we drink about 3 cups a day), the advice I always give and religiously follow myself is:
- No coffee for about 60-90 min after waking (as this is when the cortisol levels are naturally at the highest point, to help us kick-start the day)
- No coffee after 2 pm (or even 12 pm, if you’re a very early riser and have an early bedtime, or if you’re more sensitive to caffeine – we all metabolise caffeine at different rates)
- Cut down to 1 cup/day or eliminate completely at the times of high stress/anxiety.
5 – Quality Night Sleep
Poor sleep can interfere with the normal function of the brain and nervous system and drastically diminish our resilience. Getting enough sleep should actually be the first step in your long-term stress management plan. Aim to have at least 7 to 8 hours of night sleep, best if you can keep it close to the natural circadian rhythms (going to bed before midnight) unless your work schedule does not allow you to do so. Create a bedtime routine that will help you to wind down in the hours leading up to sleep and stick to it. For example, I like to do a gentle yoga routine to release tension accumulated during the day, then climb into bed with a mug of chamomile tea and a book, read for 30-60 minutes and then switch off. Avoid bright lights and electronic devices 1 to 3 hours before sleep.
6 – Mindfulness
Mindfulness can represent a whole group of actions in your stress management plan. But in general, mindfulness is something that we can control in the world that is largely out of control. On a day-to-day basis, breath is what turns any activity into a mindful activity. Why? Simply because it roots our body to where we are, to the present moment, the thought, the feeling. Mindfulness can mean simply paying attention to your breath when you are doing something. Or it can be in a form of meditation, breath work. There are more forms of mindfulness too, for example:
- Mandala colouring/mindful colouring
- Guided meditation
- Walking meditation
- Gratitude list
- Mindful eating
- Mindful art and craft (e.g. origami)
Any activity can be turned into mindfulness if we just breathe.
7 – Cold Therapy
A less conventional tool, but useful nevertheless. Cold exposure, such as taking a cold shower or a cold plunge in a lake. It lowers your blood pressure and stimulates release of dopamine, a so-called happiness hormone. It also literally takes your mind away from the troubles and, together with breath, brings your focus to here and now. When deliberately exposing yourself to cold, you control the stressful situation, which increases the resilience. Be sure to start slow, with 20-40 seconds exposure, very gradually extending to a minute or more.
8 – Body Massage
Stress tends to create a lot of tension in the body, which may be further adding to the perceived stress. Getting a massage and releasing that tension promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being, which are very important for relieving perceived stress. Another pathway, in which massage can make a difference, is physical touch. Physical touch releases oxytocin, another happiness and bonding hormone. In fact, sharing a hug for 10 to 20 seconds is the best way to stimulate oxytocin release. So make sure you get at least one of these.
9 – Water Therapy
Water is naturally calming to a human body. It can be attributed, in part, to a ‘dive reflex‘ that humans (even newborn babies!) have when plunging into the water. When the dive reflex is activated, our breathing stops for a short moment and the heart rate slows down, the blood gets redistributed from the limbs to the heart, brain and other organs, and the parasympathetic nervous system activates. We already learned that activation of the parasympathetic nervous system has a calming effect on the body and makes us feel safe.
Water seems to affect us on many levels, from bringing on a sense of calm and putting us in a meditative state to boosting our creativity. I know for a fact that a lot of my writing was inspired by the sea. Behavioural psychologists are still learning what it is about the water that makes it so relaxing, whether its the floating sensation, the sounds of waves or running water, a certain temperature or even the blue colour, but the fact is undeniable: water makes us feel calm and can lower our stress, both in the moment and long term when we engage in water-based activities on a regular basis. And no, we don’t even need to swim or dive (although go for it if you are able), even having regular baths in the evening is enough to make a difference. A shower can make a difference, if you do not rush about it and take time and slow down. My personal tip: try a Spa playlist when taking a shower or a bath and maybe add some candles (but follow the safety guidelines).
There are many, many things that you could do to help alleviate both physiological and perceived stress. Going to saunas and steam rooms, getting other holistic treatments, doing talk therapy or even something as simple as making time to read books, getting a bubble bath or talk to your loved ones can play a role in lowering the stress levels and boosting your well-being. Any act of self-care is not going to go unnoticed short-term and is definitely going to change your life for the better long-term if you keep it consistent.
If you feel like you are getting too tense or stressed out in the moment, pick one (or a few) of the short-term strategies to help you shift your focus on the present moment and the things that you can control. But do incorporate the long-term solutions for the best results.
Hope you found this helpful. And if you have any tried and tested strategies of your own that you would like to share, please do so in the comments below.
It’s not always easy to turn our lives around and start something new without a clear plan. When we want to change our diet or start exercising, it’s easier to turn to someone who has expertise and knows exactly what to do and how to do it. And so we choose to buy a plan and follow it, rather thank spend time finding out through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. We want to get results and we want them quick.
But even the best sought after diet plans and exercise routines don’t always work the way we expect them to, or only work for a limited time until we lose the motivation to continue. Why does this happen? Why do we fail to follow the plan until the end or stick to newly built routines after the goal is reached?
Have you ever noticed that no matter how your day has been, whenever you enter a park or a forest, or even step into your garden, all the troubles and stress seem to almost instantly melt away and you can breathe easier? This is the effect of the green space on your mind and body. Let’s talk about the green space, what it is, why it is important and how to create one that will always be within your reach.
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How difficult can it be to make skincare and makeup that are natural and free of toxic ingredients?
With all the wealth of knowledge we possess in our modern world, it should be a no-brainer for skincare manufacturers to figure out what ingredients are truly healthy for our skin and body and which are not so much, and it seems logical that only the cleanest, healthiest ingredients should be used in formulations that we apply to our skin on a daily basis. But this isn’t always the case.
Unfortunately choosing brands that are more expensive, prestigious and luxurious does not necessarily mean that they will be better for your skin, no matter what skin experts they have working on their research and development teams. This makes the mission to find clean, natural and toxin-free skincare brands a much-much harder task. But do such brands exist? Is clean, non-toxic skincare a beautiful myth or could it still be a reality? Let’s try and figure out!
A Brief History of Cosmetics
The origins of skincare can be traced back to the ancient civilisations. From decorative cosmetics in Ancient Egypt to face masks in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, it looks like skincare was always a part of our lives and from the dawn of time was used by men and women alike.
It began with the use of natural ingredients, such as olive oil, rosewater, cucumbers and animal fat among the others, but it was not always as healthy as applying olive oil to moisturise the skin. For example, the decorative cosmetics in Ancient Egypt often used minerals and metals to create pigmented makeup, such as kohl (or charcoal), copper or even lead.
The beauty standards were continuously evolving, much like they do now, and by the 14th and 15th centuries, it was no longer about simply nourishing your skin to obtain the healthy glow. The definition of the healthy glow itself had changed and people admired pale faces and pink cheeks, which were achieved with powders formulated from wheat that made the face white and crushed berries that stained the cheeks.
By Victorian times simply dabbing on the powder and berry juice was no longer a solution to obtain a clean, blemish free complexion, and people turned to the use of chemicals such as ammonia, mercury and arsenic. However, many of the skincare products were still homemade from natural ingredients at hand, such as cucumbers, oils and glycerin.
From then on many more colours made it to the new beauty standards. Spray tans and bronzers, pigmented foundations and juicy lipsticks are now a staple in almost every makeup bag. But overall the standards stayed the same – we want to see a clear, matte or slightly dewy glowing skin, with as little blemishes and imperfections as possible. Yet the disastrous trend in using chemicals to achieve this dreamy complexion had stayed on top for quite a long time. It’s only in the recent years that natural skincare and cosmetics have started to come back into the trend, colonising many of the shelves in stores and giving rise to new all-natural brands.
Today you can find so many skincare brands to suit every taste and skin need. You see products marketed as organic, natural, eco-friendly, plant-based, cruelty free and vegan just to name a few. Among these some brands are known as luxury brands and professional brands. Some are also medical grade skincare brands that use chemical or medicine based active ingredients designed to treat certain skin conditions. It can be quite difficult to choose which brand to go for, and the claims can be quite misleading. So how do you make that choice?
My personal views
As the heading suggests, these are only my personal reasons behind choosing one brand or another. It's also important for me to note that this post is not sponsored. I am not affiliated with any brand and do not receive any compensation for promoting or giving any opinions on the brands discussed in this post.
When it comes to choosing makeup and cosmetics, I am very picky. I can’t remember the last time someone gave me a makeup or skincare item as a gift for birthday or Christmas, as a good few years ago I had asked people to not gift any makeup or skincare products to avoid disappointment, as for me the choice of skincare depends on a few vital points that I do not wish to sacrifice:
- It must be cruelty free: no animal testing, no animal derived ingredients, no sales to China or other countries where animal testing is required by law.
- It must be predominantly natural: plant-based, with the majority of ingredients being of natural origin.
- It should be ‘green‘ whenever possible: this includes ingredients, packaging and the company’s environmental strategy.
- It should be organic whenever possible.
- It should be local whenever possible.
Before buying any new brand I always conduct my research into the company’s mission, ethos, ethical and environmental policies and strategies. I may sometimes let go of organic, green or local factors depending on the product, as long as it is completely cruelty-free, but I still prefer to tick as many boxes as I can.
I normally keep my skincare and makeup routine minimal as I don’t like overloading my body with either. I have a face cleanser (for which I use the reusable bamboo pads), a couple of face masks, a couple of hydrating serums, a moisturiser, a few body lotions and a hand cream. For makeup it’s a foundation, a blusher, a couple sets of eye shadows, two mascaras – a normal one and a waterproof and a few lipsticks. I have a highlighter/bronzer combo, a powder and a setting mist but I rarely use them – only when I need my makeup to last for hours.
You would think that my make up is top-notch green and mean. But no – even I have fallen victim to the ruthless marketing the companies resort to in order to attract the clients. In fact, I recently found out that most ‘natural’ makeup and skincare are not so natural, and are laden with chemicals that can be toxic in so many ways that it’s scary. But let’s start from the start.
What’s in your skincare products?
I recently decided to do a complete raid through all my makeup, skincare and toiletries and check what ingredients they have and just how natural those ingredients are. That was the beginning of the massive revelation that made me toss half of my makeup bag into the bin and send me on the quest of looking for new brands and analysing their ingredients in great detail. You may think this is crazy and futile, but I will soon explain just why I did that.
To begin, many conventional brands like L’Oréal, Maybelline, Bourjois, etc., and the so-called luxury brands, such as Clarins, Clinique, Guerlain, La Roche-Posay and so on, have very little if any ingredients that are ok for skin. The vast majority of their items contain harmful ingredients that are not only environment pollutants but can also seriously disrupt the natural processes in your body.
Here is an example of a few of such ingredients:
- Aluminium (Aluminum salts): often used in antiperspirants, aluminium salts block the skin pores, disrupting the natural metabolism and excretion of toxins through skin. Continuous exposure can have a neurotoxic effect.
- Benzophenone: known as a sun block, this ingredient is known to be an endocrine disruptor that crosses the skin and behaves as female hormones in the body. It is also a known allergen, and is not recommended for use in creams, especially on children.
- Benzyl Salicylate: used for fragrance, it is an established contact allergen in humans and has to be identified on the product packaging. It is also a suspected endocrine disruptor.
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): endocrine disruptor that can disrupt your thyroid function and sex hormones, may affect fertility and development. May cause allergic reactions and irritation. This ingredient should be avoided, and yet it is widely used in makeup.
- Butylphenyl methylpropional (Lilial, BMHCA): synthetic fragrance compound deemed to be not safe fo use in cosmetics by SCCS (The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety). It is an established contact allergen and must be listed separately on the product ingredient list. May have genotoxic potential and reproductive toxicity. It may also be an endocrine disruptor with thyroid and estrogenic activity. May induce irritation of the mucous membranes and eyes.
- Cera microcristallina: mineral oil that is produced by the oil refining process and may contain harmful residues. It is prohibited in food products but is allowed in cosmetics. It can damage DNA and act as a genotoxic carcinogen thus contributing to development of cancer. It can accumulate in the body, particularly in the lymph nodes and liver, and cause inflammation. It is present in nearly half of all lip balms, which is especially problematic, since it can be ingested and once ingested, it may never be fully eliminated.
- Paraffin: a mineral oil that has the same effects as Cera microcristallina. May also be present in skincare as Paraffinum liquidum.
- Phenoxyethanol: a preservative that is toxic to liver and blood, may affect hormones and fertility. It is also an eye irritant (which is ironically present in many mascaras) and can cause contact allergies in rare cases. In France, products containing phenoxyethanol may not be used on the skin of young children.
- Polybutene: another mineral oil that is prohibited for use in food products but is allowed in cosmetics. It poses the same risks as paraffin and is a potential carcinogen.
- Propylparaben: a preservative that possesses antibacterial and anti fungal properties. However, this chemical is an endocrine disruptor that may have estrogenic and androgenic properties, meaning that it can contribute to estrogen-dependent tumours, such as breast cancer, and may affect male hormones. May cause skin allergies.
- Octocrylene: a UV filter that is found in sunscreens, including those for sensitive skin. It is a known allergen which can cause sun allergies. It is also suspected to be an endocrine disruptor.
- Synthetic wax: a mineral oil produced through oil refining process. See Cera microcristallina for effects.
This list is by far not exhaustive, but it should give you a pretty good idea of the nasties that can be found in the majority of conventional makeup and skincare. But what about the ‘natural’ brands?
How Natural is ‘Natural’?
After I rummaged through my shelves of skincare products and my makeup bag, and disposed of half of my stuff feeling quite disenchanted despite my very best efforts to keep my skincare cruelty-free, plant-based and as eco-friendly as possible, I disembarked on yet another quest: to find the natural skincare and makeup brands that will be good for my skin and environment and will not contain these harmful ingredients. And of course, they have to be cruelty free.
I spent a few days searching the vast horizons of
Is Clean Skincare a Myth?
The ultimate answer is No. Clean, non-toxic skincare and makeup do exist, and I am happy to say that I found a few items among my own collection of skincare products. The ultimate definition of such products is that they don’t contain any chemical ingredients, unless they are essential oils or other natural plant extracts and vitamins. Their ingredients are classified as no risk or, in some cases, low risk – based on the fact that many plant extracts and essential oils are still capable of causing individual sensitivity. If the ingredient can cause sensitivity, it is best to go by what you are known to be allergic to or not. An allergy-prone person in general, I am happy to have no known sensitivities to ingredients like geraniol, linalool and such, which are compounds that are found as naturally occurring in oils and plant extracts such as lavender or geranium. Skincare containing these ingredients will still be classified as clean and non-toxic, but it is good to be mindful about any individual reactions that you may have.
And of course, finding such clean skincare may take sometime and effort among the sea of so-called ‘natural’ cosmetics.
How to check your skincare?
Now that we have established that ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ does not always mean exactly what the word conveys, it is the right time to ask How do I know if this is natural and clean?
Luckily, you don’t have to be an expert in toxicology to check your ingredients. There are many databases at your disposal that list and rate the ingredients in terms of risks they pose. Two of the databases that I can personally recommend (and as I said, I am not an affiliate and do not get paid for advertising them) are EWG and Yuka.
EWG Skin Deep is a website that you can use to check the brands and their ingredients. It uses a visual colour-coded score system and has its own verification system. EWG also has a separate database and a free mobile app for checking the ingredients in foods, which is very handy. However, there is currently no app for skincare and cosmetics.
Yuka is a very handy app, developed by a passionate French trio. The app is completely free and provides you with a barcode scanner which you can easily use when shopping, or whenever you like. It features both food and cosmetics in one app. It also has a colour-coded classification system, which classifies the ingredients into No Risk, Low Risk, Moderate Risk and To Avoid categories. Moreover, you can easily click any of the ingredients and read the background with links to studies and publications. Each product is also scored on a 100 point scale, with a 100 being Excellent and 0 being Bad, which provides a visual guide of how good or bad the product is. As previously mentioned, the app is free and allows you to use the barcode scanner. Each product that you scan is logged and you can see the breakdown of your foods and cosmetics by rating. You can also add your scanned items to favourites. There is an option to pay for the app, starting from €9.99 a year to help develop the app. Paid version allows you to search any product in the database by its name. I personally use this app more than EWG website as it is much handier.
One word of warning: some ingredients showing as low risk will consist of essential oils and plant extracts. They are classified as low risk because with these ingredients there is always a risk of allergic reaction. This will reflect on the overall score, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the ingredient is toxic. This is why it’s important to read through the assessment and use your own judgement.
My key take-aways
My search is by no means complete, and the journey has just begun, but in the last couple of weeks I have learned so much – and that is on top of everything I already knew. However, it is time to draw some interim conclusions and to decide which brands I will keep using and which I would like to use. Although I don’t specify it below, all of these brands are cruelty-free and suitable for vegans.
Brands To Keep:
- The Handmade Soap (local Irish, natural ingredients)
- Kinvara Skincare (local Irish, natural, herbal ingredients)
- Evolve Beauty (UK-based company, natural ingredients)
- Sand & Sky (the serums I use are quite clean but the masks are not. I will keep the serums until I find a suitable replacement)
- Facetheory (UK-based, natural, herbal ingredients)
- Wild (UK-based deodorant brand, natural, eco-friendly)
Brands To Try:
- Leahlani Skincare
- Ilia Beauty
- Vapour Beauty
- UpCircle Skincare
If you have any tried and trusted brands that offer clean, cruelty free and vegan makeup or skincare, please comment below. I am always looking for suggestions!
Hope you have enjoyed this post and discovered something new today!
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