Jan. 19 2011 10:24 AM

When it comes to cosmetics, do contents matter?


I credit Don Bolles, drummer for late-'70s punk band The Germs, for turning me on to Dr. Bronner's soap. Bolles was arrested in 2007 by a Newport Beach police officer who argued that Bolles' bottle of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap contained illegal drugs. It didn't. It wasn't the ridiculousness of the incident that got my attention but, rather, Bolles' praise for Dr. Bronner's, which he said he used for everything from brushing his teeth to washing his clothes.

So, I bought a few bars of Dr. Bronner's soap. And that's when I realized how bad the soaps I'd been using really were. You're not supposed to go through life with rashes and rough spots on your legs and arms? Who knew?

Since then, I've dabbled in organic / all-natural products, though I never gave much thought to what I was using and why. So, here, I've taken four all-natural products and put them up against what was in my medicine cabinet. Want to research what's in your medicine cabinet? Websites like cosmeticsdatabase.com, a project of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization, and Goodguide.com, started by a Berkeley environmentaland labor-policy professor, rate products based on ingredients and, in the case of Good Guide, manufacturers' environmental and social responsibility.

And, ultimately, perhaps that's what it's all about.

You're probably not cutting your life short by using Crest toothpaste instead of, say, Tom's of Maine, but which company would you rather patronize? Procter & Gamble or a cool biz started by a husband and wife that gives back to the community?

Toothpaste—Crest Pro-Health vs. Theraneem Organix: Neem, a semi-tropical tree that's used to make everything from spermicide to bug repellant, is also supposed to be great for cleaning teeth. I was drawn to Theraneem's 1950s-esque slogan (“If you want your teeth to gleam, brush with Neem!”) and opted for the cinnamon flavor. It smells like Christmas and looks a little like cookie dough—which makes the bitter taste that much more of a bummer. But toothpaste's not supposed to be sweet. Artificial sweetener is what makes anything you eat or drink after brushing taste icky.

Theraneem isn't listed on Good Guide, but EWG finds nothing wrong with it, except that it contains cloves, which some people are allergic to.

Crest Pro-Health, on the other hand, rates 5.1 on Good Guide's 1 to 10 scale (1 being worst and 10 being best), and EWG gives it a 5 (1 best, 10 worst). The offending ingredients are stannous fluoride and propylene glycol, both neurotoxins. But you'd have to ingest a lot of toothpaste to do yourself harm, and who wants to swallow toothpaste?

I'm on the fence on this one. After a few days' use, the flavor of the neem paste grew on me. One morning, I grabbed the Crest without thinking and was surprised by how sweet it tasted.

Dental floss—Crest Glide Comfort Plus vs. Tom's of Maine unflavored: Neither website had a rating for the Crest floss. Tom's received a perfect score from EWG and an 8.7 from Good Guide, but the floss done tore up my mouth. You could tow a car with this stuff. I'm willing to compromise my conscience for a smooth floss.

Nail-polish remover—Cutex Quick & Gentle vs. Almost Natural Polish: Almost Natural wasn't listed in either database, but it doesn't contain acetone or ethyl acetate, two sketchy ingredients found in most other brands (and, whatever you do, avoid products that contain formaldehyde). Sure, it takes a little more scrubbing to get the polish off with Almost Natural, but the vanilla scent is quite nice.

Deodorant—Secret Flawless Renewal vs. Kiss My Face Active Enzyme vs. Crystal Essence Mineral Deodorant: Browse the deodorant section of any health-food store and you'll see pink breast-cancer ribbons on packages and words like “no aluminum” and “paraben-free.” While most studies have found that using deodorants that contain aluminum (a neurotoxin) or parabens (preservatives believed to stimulate the growth of cancer cells) doesn't increase one's risk for breast cancer, a few studies have raised questions that beg further research. And, other studies have shown a link between an accumulation of aluminum in the body and Alzheimer's disease.

The unknowns about aluminum and parabens might explain the huge number of aluminum-free, paraben-free deodorants. So, I opted to make this a three-way challenge.

Sorry, Crystal Essence, but I forgot just how annoying roll-ons are. Sure, you got a perfect score from EWG, but I don't have time to wait for you to dry. And your performance was so-so. If I had to run to catch a bus in 80degree weather, I wouldn't feel comfortable holding onto the ceiling bar.

Kiss My Face claims only to be a deodorant, but it contains cornstarch, which has drying properties. Though, it also contains ethanol, disodium cocoamphodipropionate and phenoxyethanol, none of which EWG likes a whole lot. Overall, KMF scored a 5. Good Guide liked it a bit better, giving it a 6.8.

Secret got a 6.4 from Good Guide, which pointed out that the product doesn't contain enough aluminum to impact the “typical consumer.” EWG gave it a 5, taking issue more with the fragrance (allergies) than anything else.

Since I'm left with a practically unused container of aluminum-free, paraben-free deodorant, maybe I'll alternate with Secret and wait until more conclusive studies come out.

Write to kellyd@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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