A version of this article previously appeared on JacalynBeales.Com.
Approximately five years ago, I made the decision to go green and natural with my beauty. That meant ditching all “generic” beauty products for those typically only found online for $40 per jar/bottle, which further meant spending most of my monthly income on natural skincare.
Yes, it is as ridiculous but worthwhile as it sounds.
Then, three years ago, I stopped wearing makeup altogether and now only wear the odd bit of concealer when I feel I need it. Though I don’t spend nearly as much money on makeup as I do skin care, natural makeup products made with ingredients that are actually natural and palm-free can be a bit pricey, especially when you live in the snowy tundra that is Canada (for UK people, that’s a totally different country from the US, just sayin’) and most of those items are shipped from the United States.
But I digress.
Over the past five years, I’ve tried – and ditched – many a natural beauty product, not only for their greenwashed ingredient labels but also due to their ineffectiveness as a product overall. But my experience with natural skincare – and my commitment to it – has meant avoiding all of the brightly, albeit unflatteringly, lit stores such as Sephora, where most women my age go to play with makeup and drop their paychecks at the checkout counter on the way out.
Cynical? Who, me?
Even I am not immune, however, to the draw and pull of Sephora. Whenever I do have occasion to visit a Sephora store, it is often with a friend or family member, and I never fail to become extremely overwhelmed every time I walk into one. The selection and array of brands is unreal, but what may perhaps be most surprising to us green beauty junkies out there is the fact that Sephora actually carries a few natural brands – or, as close to “natural” as mainstream beauty stores can carry. For example, my recent trip to Sephora revealed shelves lined with Farmacy and Drunk Elephant products, in addition to other “indie” and cult brands like Herbivore Botanicals. Though these brands are quite expensive – the average price of their products starts at around $40 and only increases frighteningly from there – I have been known to spend $100 on facial serums that prove totally effective, so I bit my tongue and stepped down from my soapbox.
For every one natural brand in Sephora, there are five more completely unnatural ones, and watching my friends pick out products that are clearly made with only-God-knows-what was surprising; in fact, while watching other shoppers, I became fascinated by the lack of discerning taste in products. People like certain brands and products, and they stick to them. No judgment, just keen interest.
After speaking to one of my friends in the UK over a series of hilarious Snap Chats recently, she said something that truly resonated with me. To paraphrase, my friend put me in line by betting that I couldn’t last a week using Sephora-sold brands, and my head began to spin. She’s totally right, I thought to myself as I was applying my $65 facial oil that night; there’s no way I could do that.
So, of course, I challenged myself to two weeks of using only Sephora-sold beauty brands. And it kind of really sucked.
How It Went
Upon accepting this self-induced challenge, I made a trip to the mall and entered the Sephora store with immense trepidation – not only for my skin and hair, but also for my bank account. There was no way I was coming out of this challenge unscathed, and neither was my debit card.
As I was perusing each display of different brands and products – many of which were Korean, as is currently the latest trend in beauty and skin care – I kept in mind the type of products I was looking for: facial cleanser, face mask, moisturizer, dry shampoo, under-eye treatment, spot treatment, hair oil, facial oil, and concealer. I would try to acquire samples of each type of product where possible but also ended up buying a few full-size items due to lack of sample-availability.
Facial cleanser. The facial cleanser I purchased was the Clear Bloom Cleansing Oil from Farmacy, which starts off as an oil and eventually turns into a “milk-like” texture for cleansing purposes. It purports to be a makeup remover and cleansing oil, but it was the cheapest cleanser I could find that came in a bottle bigger than my thumb for the same price as others. Aside from the fact that the first 5-8 ingredients are just alcohols and things you seriously cannot pronounce without a sherpa to guide you through the ingredient label, the cleanser smells oddly like dirt and window cleaner mixed together and removed my makeup just about as well as a L’Oreal cleanser would.
So, not a great first start.
Face mask. The next product at hand was the Dr. Jart Water Replenishment Cotton Sheet Mask which, aside from making me look like a serial killer, was ridiculously difficult to use and smelt purely like chemicals, something I haven’t been accustomed to since my days as an over-the-counter, drugstore-beauty user. I purchased two of the masks and used them once each week and saw no visible results, but they did sting like a mo-fo and caused my skin to breakout, so I suppose there’s that.
The ingredient list on this mask (and other Dr. Jart masks) was also quite heinous, as was the fragrance, leading me to conclude that these masks need to go die a slow death somewhere, preferably not in the ocean where the obscene amount of plastic used to wrap these masks will likely end up.
Face moisturizer. After my skin was suitably dried out by both the cleanser and the mask, I needed to layer up with a decent moisturizer and settled on the Ultra Repair Cream from First Aid Beauty. I’ll fully admit here that this facial moisturizer made me swoon thanks to its uncanny ability to hydrate my skin all day long without causing my t-zone to imitate an oil spill. It has a subtle fragrance to it that, shockingly, didn’t overwhelm my nose all day, and it works awesomely under concealer. The ingredients in this bad boy are pretty much what you’d expect – not to natural – but I couldn’t help falling in love with it and I feel terribly guilty about that.
Dry shampoo. Next up was dry shampoo, and I have to tell you that my body was freaking ready for this. For some time leading up to this self-induced challenge (read: torture), I had wanted to try the new Dry Shampoo Foam from Ouai. I had seen the dry shampoo foam all over Instagram, as well as in many an online article, with rave reviews, and the devil’s advocate in me kept insisting that it would be more effective than the natural dry shampoos I own and use – though I’ve alway preferred a natural dry ‘poo to the artificial ones. Upon first using the foam, I was impressed; this was doing its job and I raved about it to friends on Snap Chat like it was my job. I watched the brand’s instructional video to learn how to properly apply and use the foam and felt myself actually becoming Jen Atkin…until I looked in the mirror 30 minutes minutes later.
Not only does the foam have a perfumed scent to it that is totally overwhelming and grandma-like, but the foam had actually made my hair greasier-looking than it was when I first applied the foam. Ouai claims that the dry shampoo foam will give you volume while cleansing the hair; the foam goes on wet but dries dry for a chic yet totally useless user experience that yields unfortunate results. I proceeded to use the dry shampoo foam for another five days – even on washed hair, for volume, as the brand’s video says you can do, and I trusted Jen Atkin because, well, she styles Kim K’s hair and for some reason that made me trust her? – and promptly tucked it away into the back of my bathroom drawer, never to see the light of day again. Is it possible for dry shampoo to make your hair look dirtier, even if it’s clean???? Because that’s what happened.
I should have trusted Sephora’s online reviews of the foam rather than a brief brand video, but I guess this only proves that I’m a sucker for dry shampoo. I’m also totally embarrassed by my semi-promotional snaps I subjected my friends to about this dry shampoo for literally no reason.
Did I mention the dry shampoo foam is $30/bottle? BECAUSE IT IS.
Hair oil. After the harrowingly greasy experience that was the Dry Shampoo Foam, I decided to give Ouai the benefit of the doubt and try the Hair Oil, thinking that not all Ouai products could be bad. And, honestly, for the most part, this hair oil isn’t actually that bad. Unless you factor in the smell. My god, the smell. Applying even the tiniest amount of this oil resulted in a head of hair that smelt as though I had dunked myself in a bath filled with floral oils of I-don’t-know-what-the-heck, and that made this hair oil difficult to use. I found leaving it in overnight was the best solution, but only when I was willing to sacrifice my first hour of sleep being kept up by the stench. So, basically, I used the oil five times and never, ever again.
Oh, and the first ingredient? It’s listed by the EWG’s database as being considered potentially harmful as well as tumor-causing in animals. So yeah…take that as you will.
Eye treatment. Following the hair oil was the under-eye treatment. For my bank account’s sake, I bought two of Sephora’s brand name eye masks in Pomegranate, which purport to tone and energize the under-eye area using, well, you guessed it: pomegranate extract. A salesperson at Sephora recommend it to me as a cost-effective and quick solution to pricey eye treatments, and the color of the packaging caught my eye (no pun intended), so into my Sephora basket they went!
As far as eye masks go, I was surprised by the results of this one; it actually brightened my under-eye area and made my usual bags look less severe. I was impressed by how simple they were to use as well, though they’re a bit slimy and the smell is quite strong. However, for $6 a pop, the results outweigh the low cost, and I’m ashamed to say I would buy this eye mask again.
But, you know, I never will, because the ingredient list is not so lovely.
Spot treatment. Moving onto the spot treatment, and my skin was ready for some TLC from a blemish-fighter that would [hopefully] help repair the not-so-stellar results of the cleanser and face masks. The lovely sales people at Sephora were kind enough to give me a sample bottle of the Super Spot Remover from Origins, as there was no way I was going to spend $25 on a bottle of gel with an ingredient list longer than my college application. Nah.
Like most generic spot removers, I found this one from Origins to have a slightly chemical-y smell with the ever-popular burning sensation typical of spot treatments which seek to burn the blemishes from your skin. Though it wasn’t entirely useless, as far as spot treatments go, I found it dried out my skin quite severely and worked best when applied over a facial oil at night. It did help to banish the odd blemish or two I experienced after using the face masks and cleanser, but I fear to think of the ingredients used and how dry my skin could potentially become with continued use of this spot treatment.
Facial oil. The facial oil in question was a sample of the U.F.O Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil from Sunday Riley, a brand I see on Instagram and beauty pages quite regularly. The oil purports to be a medicated dry oil which absorbs quickly and clears congested pores for problem prone skin. And while it did absorb into my skin quite nicely, I’m unsure as to where the “dry” part comes in. Within half an hour of using the oil, my skin not only became quite oily itself, but the oil did little to calm my naturally red cheeks. It was also next to impossible to use under makeup as part of a moisturization routine, and the smell was something else. Something not very good. Like burnt grass and tea tree oil mixed together. Was I losing it??
Considering a full-size, 35ml bottle of the oil costs $100 (before tax), I said a silent prayer of thanks to the sweet women as Sephora who were willing to give me a sample.
Concealer. When it came to concealer, I decided to purchase one that wasn’t at all natural – and doesn’t purport to be. It was, however, recommended to me by both friends as well as Sephora employees who swore by its effectiveness and ability to mattify the skin. So, needless to say, I was all for giving this concealer a go. It’s the Soft Matte Complete Concealer by NARS, and yet again I was able to get my hands on a small sample of it. The full-size container of the concealer goes for $38 a pop, but my small sample was enough to last me almost the two full weeks, and matched my skin quite well, in the color “Macadamia.”
Real talk: this stuff works. And I’m not at all ashamed to say that I would probably buy this concealer if it weren’t filled with ingredients I’m wary of putting on my own skin. It provided amazing coverage without drying out my skin and worked well as an under-eye concealer on days when my bags were particularly awful. It even did a great job of mattifying my skin, which was a welcomed surprise.
Over the course of two weeks, I pampered my skin with Sephora-sold brands which were at times totally overhyped or completely justified, both in their pricing as well as their overall effectiveness.
Though my skin and hair don’t appear to have benefitted from the products I used, apart from the under-eye mask and concealer, which both pleasantly surprised me, I learned a very important lesson over the two weeks of this challenge; mainly, that many brands are pretty awesome at greenwashing, especially when the packaging they use to do it totally distracts from that greenwashing. I was disappointed to learn, for example, that the cleanser I was using had a palm derivative in it but made no effort in its packaging to attest to that. The ingredients in the hair oil also concerned me, and I found it slightly off-putting that something as simple as a hair oil could have potentially harmful ingredients.
Was I at all surprised that some of the more artificial and chemical-laden products worked well? Not really. But I didn’t expect to like them, let alone find them to be as effective as they actually were. And though I’m committed to using only natural products – I’m not-so-subtly glad for the challenge to be over – the two week period did help me to recognize why some people may be wary of ditching their tried-and-tested products (like concealers) for more natural options. Some of these not-so-natural products really do work, but it’s up to us as individuals to determine whether the risks and results from using artificial ingredients on our skin and hair are truly worth the temporary benefits.
No one made me “suffer” through two weeks of using Sephora-sold products, but I’m happy to have put myself through the “ringer” of not-so-natural beauty. Now, I’ll never have to wonder again what some of beauty’s most currently-coveted items are truly like.
Oh, and neither will my bank account. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Are you a green beauty convert?
Also by Jacalyn: The Moon Juice Cookbook Is As Woo-Woo As You’d Think–And I Love It
Related: Is Your Green Beauty Habit Actually A Fast Beauty Addiction?
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Photo: Sephora, Tolph Cam, Fashionista, Mrs. James Recommends