Siobhan O’Connor’s journey into natural beauty began with formaldehyde. Whenever she and her best friend from back home in Montreal, Alexandra Spunt, would travel cross-country to see one other, they’d do “girly things”—including a foray into Brazilian blowouts. Their hair looked great for a month, but when O’Connor’s strands started breaking and Spunt’s hair turned into a “French-fried mangled mess,” they did some investigating and learned that they’d gotten a formaldehyde treatment. (Brazilian blowouts are now officially on the OSHA hazard alert list.) Those investigations turned into a book, No More Dirty Looks, and a thriving blog of the same name. Their goal was to break down the lingo of the beauty industry so that readers could understand exactly what they’re getting when they buy products—and to empower them to make safer, greener choices. (They’re why I started using coconut oil as a moisturizer, so I owe all my dewiness to them.) Both the book and blog are a delightful combination of thoughtfulness and sheer fun—as was talking with O’Connor about beauty buzzwords, the transformative possibilities of clean cosmetics, and chasing the beauty dragon. In her own words:
On Seeing Through Transparency
While I was learning about all the chemicals in the products I was using, at a certain point I had to go through my bathroom and throw out all the stuff that didn’t fit in with what I was learning. One of the craziest things I found was this green tea soap, and I looked at the ingredients for the first time—and there was literally no green tea in it! Green tea isn’t even desirable in a cleanser, but I didn’t know that then; I was just thinking it was semi-natural and so it must be desirable. Alexandra and I both had those sort of playful moments that were like, “Wow, get a load of this!” It’s sometimes hilarious—and sometimes a letdown. There’s been more consumer consciousness in the past few years, but then companies do things like make “natural” soaps that aren’t, and that definitely hurts. It creates an accidentally uninformed consumer. You think you’re making at least a semi-informed decision, but you’re not. There was some research last year about the natural beauty market, and the number-one thing they found across the board was massive consumer confusion. People just did not know what was what. That’s why we wrote the book—here are the ingredients, here’s where you’ll find them on the bottle, here are the different names ingredients have.
There was a New Yorker cartoon—normally I hate those, but I thought this one was awesome: I can see through your transparency. Transparency became an industry buzzword, and it’s bullshit. A lot of the big companies are “transparent”—they give you the ingredients, but it’s not really any clearer, or it’s incomplete. Companies that are radically transparent, though, will always answer e-mails from people who have questions about the ingredients. They’ll use organic, high-grade ingredients, which is why the products are more expensive. And, you know, those products can be more expensive. That’s part of why we do our Friday Deals; it’s a way of giving people things that we think are awesome in a way that’s more affordable and more comparable to what you’d buy at a drugstore, or at least Sephora. But not everything is priced prohibitively in the first place: If you use coconut oil from the grocery store, that costs seven dollars and it lasts for months, and it’s incredibly skin-compatible and moisturizing. If you leave your hair alone, maybe you don’t need shampoo or conditioner. With the exception of a few fancy eye creams, which companies send to me, I buy the products that I use, and I don’t like to spend a lot of money. But you need to figure out what works for you. I have it down to four products that I consider necessities, and the rest are fun incidentals. Using fewer things is better; you can then buy the high-quality stuff and use less of it. Like if you use a concentrated serum, you’re using a drop on your pinkie for your entire face. It lasts. People often spend more in total on less expensive products. I think Alexandra did the math at some point: She’d been using a fistful of regular conditioner every single day, and then she’d feel like it wasn’t working, so she’d cast off a half-used bottle and get something else. When you use something that actually works for you, you don’t need to do that.
There’s definitely a political element to natural beauty: I think it’s wrong that the government is structured so that it can’t actually safeguard consumers from the beauty industry. That makes me angry, so there’s some fire there. But beyond that: Going natural made me realize I was chasing certain beauty ideas in this unconscious way. There’s this cycle of using products that don’t work and then buying more products to try, and then those don’t work so you try others that don’t work. There’s this idea that you can buy beauty in a bottle, and that that’s what has the power. Alexandra calls it “chasing the beauty dragon,” and I just love that phrase. And as it turns out, not chasing the dragon feels really good. Things that feel good become sort of self-perpetuating as habits, so if something feels good you want to do it again. That’s how it is with not chasing the beauty dragon: It feels really good, so you want to keep doing it. A few times a year I start to wonder, Am I missing out on something by giving up all of that? But then I remember how I was before and I remember, no, it’s fine—it’s great.
I used to wake up every day and touch my face to see if something had happened overnight. First thing in the morning—that was literally the first thing I did every day. My skin has done a 180 since I went natural—it’s crazy. So obviously that was great, but it went beyond that. Something inside both of us transformed over the course of writing and constantly thinking about beauty and our relationship to it—every woman’s relationship to it. We’ve seen a lot of people fight their natural look. And it’s cheesy to say, but you know what it’s like when you see a really healthy woman, regardless of the shape of her nose or her body, and you’re like, whoa. There’s health and joy, smiles and truth—it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. Natural beauty can go beyond products; it’s about stripping all that other stuff away and just taking joy in the natural curl of your hair or the natural glow of your skin. It’s about not hiding.
We love doing challenges—someone I work with was like, “In your head, is life like summer camp?” and I’m like, You know, kind of. Challenges are fun. We did a no-makeup challenge, where readers sent in pictures of themselves without makeup. Then we did a glamour challenge, where we asked readers to do the most glamorous look they could do, preferably with natural products, and send us their photos. And it’s funny—going glam was really hard for people. If you do your makeup in a dramatic way it’s like you’re saying to the world: I want to rock this look right now, and a lot a people aren’t comfortable doing that. We had people privately e-mailing us and saying, I just can’t do it. It was interesting that doing no makeup was easier for people. I guess the mentality was, Well, if I look bad with no makeup, no big deal. But if you look bad with makeup—it’s like you’ve said to the world, This is the best I can do, and then if it doesn’t work out you feel foolish. People can be shy about the sense of showiness and playfulness that accompanies glamour. The challenge turned out fun—some people went really wild. But I was shocked at how hard it was for some people.
On Resistance to Natural Beauty
A girlfriend of mine is thinking about opening up a natural beauty store, and she was like, “It just feels so superficial.” I flashed back: Up until two months before the book came out, I would avoid talking about it because I thought that people would think I was fluffy or wouldn’t take me seriously. Isn’t that weird? Alexandra had the same thing, like, “Oh, people are going to think this is silly, we’re just girls talking about makeup.” I remember having a conversation with the guy I was with at the time, and he was like, “You need to own this.” And I was like, “Oh!” Somehow hearing it from a dude made me think about it differently.
It’s funny—I feel like guys are easier to win over with this stuff than women sometimes. Men and women are both like, “Whoa, that’s crazy!”—but then women are the ones using the products. There can be a feeling of embarrassment. My friends will say, “Siobhan, I use...” and it’s some toxic product, and I’m like, “I’m not gonna judge you. I’m really not.” It’s like there’s some shame around beauty. Sometimes we feel a certain shame in using products that we know aren’t the best for us—it’s like the guy you shouldn’t have kissed two years ago. You know you shouldn’t be doing it, but you’re doing it anyway. But we’re all about being aware of what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Stripping away the physical toxins can sometimes show us the reasons we really want to wear makeup. Because toxins or not, for women there’s often a certain amount of: I need this. But you don’t. You really don’t. That feeling of need keeps you from having fun with your makeup. I love makeup so much more now than I used to, because before there was no sense of joy in doing it. It would be like, Oh, I can’t do this to my face, or for Alexandra, I’d never do that to my curls. Now it’s like: Oh my God, this is so much fun! From the beginning Alexandra and I wanted what we were doing to be fun and friendly. We both feel this joyfulness about it, and I think we pride ourselves on bringing that to what we’re doing.
For more beauty interviews from The Beheld, click here.