Naturally, natural is best

I have long been concerned about the synthetic ingredients in our personal care and cleaning products. The number used has increased enormously over the past 80 years since they were first synthesized by scientists. Today it is estimated that the average woman uses between 168 and as many as 500 synthetic ingredients every day in their personal care products.

While these individual ingredients and products have been classed as safe (when used as directed) by the Australian regulatory authorities, there are few studies on the cumulative effect they may be having on our bodies and the environment. But let's just focus on our bodies for now.

Our skin is more like a net rather than a barrier, so products we place on our skin may be absorbed into our bodies. And what are all these ingredients doing to us? While few studies have been done on this, we know the rates of cancer and are increasing.

Some of these synthetic ingredients such as silicones do not readily break down in your body or the environment and may only reveal their negative side-effects in years to come. Our bodies have taken thousands of years to evolve to become what we are today, so I think it will take time to adjust to these new forms of highly processed ingredients. I use a very basic test; if I place the ingredient (or product) on a table outside, will birds, insects and wildlife be attracted to it? I'm afraid the answer is no. It's a bit like the butter and margarine test. Put both on a table and see which one attracts attention and which is ignored. For these reasons, I have chosen to remove man-made materials from my personal care products and I thought I would share that journey with you.

I first became aware of the dangers of strong cleaning chemicals after developing a severe case of contact dermatitis while working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant as a high school student. While I was provided with rubber gloves, the industrial scale of cleaning required meant they easily broke and were rendered unless. Over time my fingers swelled and split to the point where I couldn't use my hands at all. By switching to waitressing and using cortisone cream my hands slowly healed.

Some years later, while working as a reporter, I did a story on a woman who was also affected by powerful cleaning products. Pat had worked as a cleaner at a hospital south east of Melbourne, Victoria, for many years. She was so severely affected by the products used that she could no longer function normally in society. Her body had become so sensitised to the products that if she went into a room that had been cleaned using them her body would react to it. She became quite reclusive as a result.

While these experiences made me carefully consider the cleaning products I used, and led me to clean using bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar with essential oils as a starting point, I had never considered the ingredients in my personal care products. I was never big on makeup, just a little mascara and blush on special occasions. I would wash and condition my hair in the shower every two days, and use my trusty roll on antiperspirant daily. It wasn't until I discovered how lovely handmade soap felt on my skin (covered in the blog How We Started), that my journey into developing other synthetic-free personal care products began.

One of my early batches of soap.

I would just like to take a moment to explain why I am avoiding the words 'natural', 'naturally derived' and 'organic' when referring to the products I make. According to the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists (ASCC), there are no guidelines to the application of these words in the cosmetics industry. Under the suggested definitions of the ASCC, the products I make at Bird Body Essentials are all 'natural' products, our soaps are 'made with organic ingredients' and while our other products contain organic ingredients, they may not meet the 70 percent threshold for the 'made with organic ingredients' description.

After making soaps, I turned my attention to the other personal care products I use. When one very good customer informed me that she only ever used my soap bars to wash her hair, I felt I could come up with a more targeted product. Through research I discovered Macadamia Nut oil is a very fine oil similar to the sebum produced by our scalp, so I use it as a key ingredient. Through researching I discovered that Rosemary essential oil performed as well as the leading hair growth medication for the treatment of alopecia (over a six-month trial) without the side effects. Rosemary oil can also improve memory, a useful side-effect for a product applied regularly to your head. I created my shampoo bar around these key ingredients. Since using my shampoo bar (and the conditioner bar I later developed), I no longer get an irritated scalp like I did when I was using commercial brands. I was not aware of this issue until I had switched to my solid haircare products.

A few years ago I started to notice my teeth were getting increasingly sensitive to ice cold foods like ice cream. The reaction got to be so annoying that I decided to go to the dentist convinced I needed some fillings. I surprised to be told that I didn't need any fillings, but had developed sensitive gums so in future I would need to use a toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth and gums. I read the ingredient list on the commercial toothpaste I used and discovered sodium laurel sulphate (SLS) was an ingredient in it. This chemical was also in the recommended brand.

SLS is a skin irritant. According to the Healthline summary, SLS is an ingredient in household cleaners, cosmetics and many personal grooming products including hair products such as shampoo, conditioner and dyes; dental care products toothpastes, mouth washes and teeth whitening agents; creams and lotions including hand creams, anti-itch creams and even sunscreens; bath oils, salts, body wash and bubble bath. It is also used as an emulsifier and thickener in foods. In its final report on the Safety Assessment of Sodium Laurel Sulphate and Ammonium Laurel Sulphate, the International Journal of Toxicology stated that: In absorption, metabolism, and excretion studies, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate had a degenerative effect on the cell membranes because of its protein denaturing properties. However the concentration of the ingredient was very important. The study concluded: Both Sodium and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1%. I have found no studies on the cumulative effect of using multiple products containing SLS daily.

So while all products in the Australian market meet the safety guidelines of the regulatory authorities, at Bird Body Essentials we take a more cautious approach. We choose to avoid SLS along with all other synthetic ingredients. (The one exception is adding BTMS 50 to my conditioner bar - this highly processed ingredient based on Rapeseed oil is essential to achieve that slip that is necessary in a conditioner.)

One study of all relevant research papers comparing dentifrices (toothpastes) containing SLS and SLS-free toothpaste, found that just changing to a SLS-free toothpaste fixed problem mouth ulcers that had not been caused by the herpes simplex virus.

So when I was advised to switch to using another brand of commercial toothpaste to fix my sensitive gums, I decided to make my own. Starting with bicarbonate of soda (a natural abrasive and deodoriser), I researched and slowly built the product incorporating organic coconut oil, calcium carbonate and other natural ingredients which have properties beneficial for teeth and gums. Within a week of using the final product, the sensitivity of my gums was significantly reduced.

This journey has made me an ingredient-list reader. I could often be found standing in the supermarket aisle with my reading glasses on and magnifying glass in hand reading the tiny ingredient list on the product I was considering purchasing.

At Bird Body Essentials I have slowly made my way through the essential body products required as part of a daily personal care regimen until all the bases were covered. The range uses ingredients you can find in a health food store and most are safe to eat (but I wouldn't recommend it).

While it is a big ask to suggest people go synthetic free in their personal care products, here are a few of the more common ones which you may like to try and avoid.


Silicone, made from silica (derived from sand), can be manipulated by chemists to produce anything from hard resins to light-feeling creams. It goes by many names, but the more common ones include: dimethicone, amodimethicone, cyclomethicone, methicone, trimethicone, nylon, trimethylsilylamodimethicone and dimethiconol. Silicone is a cheap product that adds gloss to hair and reduces frizz. It also adds slip and improves texture of skin care products. However silicone is an occlusive ingredient meaning it creates a barrier that prevents penetration. I think of it as liquid plastic wrap. Nothing gets through. Although not toxic, the over-use of silicone-based products can result in a build-up on hair follicles and the skin. This can prevent the absorption of nutrients and natural oils. Silicone is also found in lake sediment near urban areas is not biodegradable and often not properly removed by waste water treatment plants. The environmental effects of silicone pollution are still being researched.