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Toxins, Be Gone

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Products from Limegreen and Savor Beauty.
  • Products from Limegreen and Savor Beauty.

The death of a friend is a powerful thing, generating enough force to spin a life in an entirely new direction. That was the case for Talima Davis and Allison Lamb, whose friend Tamara died of liver cancer in 2008, at the just-blossomed age of 28. When Tamara's doctor said the cancer was caused by toxins in her environment, and that those same toxins were probably accelerating the cancer's rapid growth, Davis and Lamb realized that things in their own lives needed to change. The two women, who were dating at the time, reached back to their families' roots in rural North Carolina, where their grandmothers were matriarchs of simple, clean living—and where sustenance and healing came from the garden and from natural home remedies. "We had to make an adjustment in ourselves to really start looking at what we put in our bodies and in our homes," says Lamb. In her Brooklyn kitchen, Davis started concocting her own cleansers and room sprays from organic and vegan ingredients like almond oil and witch hazel, to share with family and friends. Word spread and demand grew for the handcrafted goods, which were urban-born yet nurtured with the homespun simplicity of a Southern country childhood.

When Davis's cousin Tavasia died of breast cancer in 2012—again, they were told, from environmental causes—a sense of urgency propelled her hobby into a budding business. "I had had enough, and I could tell that Talima had too," says Lamb, who urged Davis to quit her corporate day job and shape her passion into a spunky wellness start-up. Now based in Newburgh—where a larger studio space is allowing the venture to scale up production—the multiuse natural beauty and skincare company Limegreen has become a family operation. The couple married in 2010, and Lamb joined Davis in quitting her job as well three years later—just before the birth of their daughter—to step into the role of Limegreen's co-owner and creative/marketing mind.

Plenty of would-be beauty companies start out in home studios, only to fall flat in an oversaturated market. But Limegreen has a differentiator: All of their products have at least three different uses. A balm works equally well to soothe cracked skin or a baby's bottom as it does to tame men's beards. Cleansers are all-in-one, applying to hair, face, body, and hands. A candle melts down into a fragrant massage oil or moisturizer. "Our grandmothers used baking soda for brushing teeth, cleaning, cooking," says Lamb. "Do we really need five different products that do five different things? Our lives today are so complicated; we're living in a time with so much excess. We want to give people ways to simplify." It's an ethos with appeal: Last December, Davis and Lamb were invited to join other entrepreneurs in pitching their products to beauty-industry leaders on the Lifestyle TV show Project Runway Fashion Startup—and were one of the few who were offered a $200,000 deal.

Up the Creek without a Hazmat Suit

As American consumers, we all too often get complacent: We forget that we're living in a kind of toxic soup. Dubious chemicals infiltrate our lives: flame retardants in furniture, mercury in fish, Teflon from nonstick pans. In 2005, the watchdog nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a landmark study that found an average of 200 environmental toxins in the umbilical cords of US-born infants. The same report noted that 286 chemicals had been detected in umbilical cords from pesticides, pollutants, cleaning and cosmetics products, food packaging, flame retardants, and environmental waste. Since that report, we've learned more about the deleterious effects of those toxins, many of which have been linked to various cancers and which can cause birth defects or abnormal development, as well as diminished intelligence, behavioral problems, infertility issues, and metabolic dysfunction. The latest science even links environmental toxins to chronic diseases and epidemics like Alzheimer's and autism.

Armed with knowledge and vigilance, we can reduce our toxic load. Paying closer attention to our personal care products is one way to begin. According to EWG, the average American woman uses 12 personal care products that contain 168 unique ingredients. The average American man uses six products that contain 85 ingredients. "The cosmetics and personal care product industry is largely under-regulated," says Nneka Leiba, EWG's deputy director of research, noting that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has little authority to review the safety of chemicals in cosmetics or recall products that cause harm. Compared to other countries, our regulations are alarmingly loose: While the European Union has restricted the use of more than 1,000 ingredients in personal care products, the US has prohibited or restricted only 11 chemicals.

Common "worst offender" ingredients include phthalates, formaldehyde, and long-chained parabens such as propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben. Many of these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can affect our hormonal systems and reproductive organs in insidious ways. "Long-chained parabens can act as estrogens and disrupt hormone signaling," says Leiba, "which can lead to impaired fertility, lowered thyroid hormone levels, and other reproductive problems." Phthalates, she adds, have been linked to reproductive abnormalities in baby boys, reduced testosterone and sperm quality in men, as well as early puberty in girls. And formaldehyde—a preservative that lurks in many shampoos, conditioners, and even children's bubble bath—is a potent allergen that's classified as carcinogenic when inhaled.

Synthetic fragrances, too, are a red flag. "The word 'fragrance' can encompass any number of more than 3,000 ingredients, all of which are kept hidden from the public," says Leiba. "Some fragrance mixtures are known to include ingredients linked to hormone disruption, particularly phthalates, as well as skin sensitizers and allergens." Unfortunately, most of us are slathering dubious brews like these on our skin and hair every day.

Caring for the Skin You're In

Maybe Angela Jia Kim is lucky that she's allergic to parabens and synthetic fragrances—because even if they're not marked on a product's label, her body will let her know they are there. Yet Jia Kim, a former concert pianist, had to learn this the hard way. One night in 2005, before she walked onstage for a performance in Chicago, she reached for a bottle of "natural" lotion and applied it all over her body. As her fingers flew over the keys, she broke out in hives in front of hundreds of people. "After the concert, this guy comes up to me and says, 'You're as red as your gown.' I was humiliated," Jia Kim remembers. "I took a look at the ingredients, and I was shocked because there were all these chemicals in this so-called natural lotion. I've always had very sensitive skin, so I just thought, 'You know what? I'm going to create my own thing.'"

Back at her Manhattan apartment, Jia Kim started experimenting in her kitchen, making lotions and potions as a creative outlet. She soon got obsessed with the trial-and-error process of working with a range of simple ingredients such as olive oil and coconut. "I'm Korean, and Korean women are very serious about their beauty rituals," she says. "My goal was to create something that my mom and my sisters would end up using." It wasn't meant to be a business, but when she shared her creations with family and friends, they couldn't get enough. Eventually, they wanted to pay her for them. "I became this accidental entrepreneur," she says. On a lark, she hawked her products at a holiday pop-up shop in the city—and sold $40,000 worth of creams. Fast-forward to today, and her brand Savor Beauty (formerly Om Aroma & Co.) has a flagship spa in the West Village and a 5,000-square-foot facility, boutique, and spa in Saugerties, the production hub for her line of organic, "eco-chic" products, from cleaners and toners to serums and eye creams. This spring, a third spa location will open on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Mixed into each Savor Beauty product is a heap of wellness research and a heightened consciousness about health. During those early days when Jia Kim was experimenting in her apartment, it seemed like everyone she knew had cancer. "We have to ask ourselves questions. What deodorant are you using? How is it affecting you? What are you putting on your décolletage?" She was shocked to find that a seemingly natural product that her mother was using at the time had 55 ingredients, and the fifth ingredient was formaldehyde preservative. "Up to 60 percent of what you put on your body is absorbed into your bloodstream," says Jia Kim. "People have caught on to 'you are what you eat.' We need to start a revolution of 'you are what you put on' too."

Finding Shelter from a Chemical Storm

It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when we rub products onto our skin and nothing particularly terrible happens (most of us don't turn into a lobster). Yet most cancers don't show up in our bodies until years after a toxic insult, and chronic illnesses have multifactorial causes that are not so cut-and-dried. Many agree that the government needs to develop tougher requirements around proving that ingredients are safe before they become available on drugstore shelves. Until that happens, we can empower ourselves by reading labels carefully and voting with our wallets, which forces the market to change for the better. Change is happening, slowly. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates household cleaning products, recently took historic action by announcing that it would list the first 1,000 chemicals in need of urgent review. Under the newly updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) legislation, the EPA will evaluate such chemicals as 1,4-Dioxane, a widely used carcinogen. Yet one drawback of the revised TSCA is that it does not cover cosmetics and other personal care products.

EWG has developed two consumer tools to protect the public from potentially hazardous ingredients. The Skin Deep® cosmetics database, available on the EWG website, lets shoppers search for products to see how they rate for safety. Launched about a year ago, the EWG Verified™ Program takes this effort one step further by placing the EWG Verified mark on products deemed safe. So far, the mark appears on 833 products and 52 brands, with others in the pipeline to be verified.

What we really need is greater transparency—and that is exactly what small, local businesses like Limegreen and Savor Beauty are so well-equipped to provide. On a given day, customers can walk into Savor Beauty in Saugerties and watch an employee whip up a sugar scrub in the beauty kitchen. Limegreen, located on Spring Street in Newburgh, has open studio days when you can drop by and purchase products directly from their makers, Lamb and Davis. It's not exactly life on Grandma's farm, but the DIY environs have a similar feel—and a purity that the owners are determined to preserve. "Our daughter has always been strapped to one of our hips while we're making a balm or pouring a candle," says Lamb. "She knows nothing else besides this."

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