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natural-beauty
Photo: Courtesy of Shen Beauty via Allure

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A year ago, after my brother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, I looked at my beauty stash and started tossing things: Anything with a phthalate or paraben had to go. The purge was partly therapeutic and partly out of fear these ingredients may be perfectly harmless; but then again, they may not (read why these ingredients are controversial here). Soon, I found myself spending hours reading labels, studying ingredients, and feeling crushed by a mountain of information. I needed help. So I asked Beauty Lies Truth bloggers Jessica Assaf, a student at Harvard business school, and Alexis Krauss (half of the band Sleigh Bells), for their best advice on transitioning to a green routine. Here’s what you need to know—and what I wish I had.

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1. Ask yourself why

Are you just concerned about potential hormone disrupters? Cut out parabens and phthalates. Is your skin highly sensitive to certain ingredients? Get rid of them. “Start by eliminating two or three ingredients. Once you become familiar with certain sulfates and certain parabens, your knowledge base will grow,” says Assaf. “It starts with knowing what you’re looking for, so you feel empowered.” For Krauss, her “a-ha!” moment came when she read about the environmental impact of plastic microbeads in some beauty products. “I am very passionate about the environment and sustainability. The microbead controversy helped me see that the products I was using were not only disrupting the planet, but were causing harm to our bodies,” she says. “So I had this huge moment: ‘Holy shit, what is this?! I need to get educated.'” Making the transition to a natural routine is as much of a lifestyle choice as going vegan or dyeing your hair blonde. “It’s really important to make a personal connection,” says Krauss.

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2. Read labels

You’re going to need to develop an unfamiliar new habit: turning a bottle or package over and reading the ingredient list—from top to bottom. That jumble of unpronounceable words mean something. “When you go to the store, you have to turn the product over, you have to actually look at the ingredients,” says Assaf. “We deal with companies all the time that say they use active naturals. There is a lot of green-washing out there. The label might lie but the ingredients don’t.”

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3. Learn what’s what

If you’re cutting out parabens, look for anything ending in the suffix (-paraben), which usually fall at the end of the list. Sulfates will also be clearly identifiable. Phthalates aren’t as simple—they’re usually lumped into the ingredient simply listed as “fragrance” (look for fragrance-free products or products using only naturally-derived fragrances). There are shortcuts, too: Type the product name into sephora.com—they list what the product is formulated without under the description (parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, and GMOs). Assaf and Krauss recommend the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep ingredient database—a searchable site and app that rates how controversial an ingredient is based entirely on scientific studies and commissions. It also lists products the ingredient can be found in. Within a week of going down the natural beauty rabbit hole, words like isopropylparaben and Methylchloroisothiazolinone could roll off my tongue. I’m not bragging, but…

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4. Don’t assume

This was my biggest mistake. I assumed that my crystal-clear essences and hot hair oil treatments had to be mostly natural—I was wrong. I found out several months (while reading the labels) later that they both had parabens, and I felt…betrayed. Products need preservatives to stay fresh, but I didn’t expect ones that had only a handful of ingredients to opt for such a controversial ingredient. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the ingredients in all the products you use every day. Just because something is called Tea Tree Oil, doesn’t mean that’s the only ingredient in there. Read the fine print of your most-beloved products. You may be surprised (and not in a good way).

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Photo: Getty Images via Allure

5. Shop smart

Really good, quality natural products are hard to find—and can be expensive once you do. Finding them is easy once you know where to look. Stores like Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods offer some great natural brands at inexpensive price points, while Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters are solid stores to find some niche, natural brands. But the best place to look for brands and deals is online: There are plenty of boutique websites that carry only natural brands that meet a certain criteria (whether in ingredients, sustainability, or packaging). Try Credo Beauty (they include samples in every order), Spirit Beauty Lounge (check out their $25 and under section), Follain (they have stores in Boston and Nantucket), and Shen Beauty (which has a storefront in Brooklyn, NY).

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6. Be realistic

Yes, of course it’s okay to use a body wash that isn’t natural if it’s your favorite body wash. Don’t chuck out your favorite mascara, either. And please don’t start judging your friends for swiping on a chemically loaded lipstick in front of you. There’s a limit both to what natural products can do and a limit to how much you can put blame on certain ingredients. “We’re not saying your shampoo will give you cancer, because that’s not the truth. That’s fear-mongering,” says Assaf. “But we are starting to see how these low dose exposures to chemicals are adding up over time.” So strike a balance—swap out some of the easier items (makeup removers, moisturizers, and scrubs) for natural alternatives—while still enjoying a good inky black eyeliner once in a while.

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7. Test, test, test

The best part of going natural: Trying all the new stuff. There are so many cool brands to discover once you start looking for them—Drunk Elephant, Tata Harper, Ilia, Vapour Organic Beauty, Beautycounter, just to name a few. Finding an alternative that you actually like—a hot pink lipstick, a natural foundation, a cleanser that doesn’t smell earthy—takes practice. I read a ton of reviews online before I committed to anything, and have found some of my favorite natural products through a bit of trial and error. And for Krauss, her natural products have to hold up to particularly high standards: Her makeup needs to last through an entire Sleigh Bells performance. Her picks? Beautycounter tinted moisturizer and lip sheers, Ilia lipsticks, Jane Iredale mascara, and RMS Beauty eye shadows. But even she hasn’t gone totally natural yet. “I’m still looking for a really nice, dark, smoky eye pigment.”

More reading from Allure:
These Are The Best All-Natural Beauty Products, According to Alicia Silverstone
13 Natural Makeup Companies Beauty Junkies Love
19 Stylish Pieces to Kick-start Your Fitness Plan

By Jenna Rosenstein for Allure
This post originally appeared on Allure.