Dear Mark: Primal Personal Products?

Skin Care ProductsDear Mark,

What are your thoughts on using personal products such as lotion, deodorant, or even toothpaste? I use these daily, but it certainly doesn’t jive with my “caveman diet” philosophies.

Thanks to reader Steve for his question. It’s true, old Grok wasn’t exactly getting facials and eyebrow waxings at the spa over yonder. While he might not have been the dusty, grungy figure he’s often made out to be, he was undoubtedly rumpled and unkempt by our standards. Alas, we find ourselves in a much different age, an era of rather obsessive personal sanitization (if you ask me) and more attention to “product” than to health. Nonetheless, few of us are happy to take up residence in a backwoods shack. We’ll readily make compromises to live among the rest of civilization. But, when it comes to lotions, soaps, deodorant, etc., how can we be healthy in the primal sense but still accepted by contemporary, “polite” society? Call it the modern caveman’s/cavewoman’s dilemma.

The skin is an organ, after all. It’s our first line of defense against pathogens, toxins, etc. It’s porous, permeable. It interacts with the world and substances it comes in contact with – whether it’s clean, pure water from a mountain stream or the infinite variety of petroleum compounds (and worse, oh so much worse) found in everything from lotion to aftershave to makeup.


I’d recommend it. Your spouse, co-workers, kids and others will thank you for your efforts. Jokes aside, a simple shower with some basic soap suffices pretty well by itself without the help of every pine fresh, floral or citrus-musk, natural woods, rainforest cloud scent that they pump into all the body washes, specialty shampoos, bubble baths, colognes and personal sprays (don’t worry, I’m not touchin’ that one!) they try to sell us these days. One shower indulgence I’d recommend: a shower/bath filter to get rid of the chlorine. Sure, you’ll fork out a little money for it, but you’ll save it over time with less conditioner and lotion. No more dry skin and hair? Hmmm. Guess Grok had it good in some respects. And it’s possible you’d be giving your lungs a break. There’s some concern regarding the daily inhalation of chlorine during showers.

That deodorant/anti-perspirant in your medicine cabinet? That’s a little trickier issue. When it comes to deodorant, I’d use what you need to but proceed with caution. A daily shower is enough for some people, but most of us need a little extra help in that department. Aluminum salts, in addition to other common ingredients (like dyes and fragrances) in anti-perspirants/deodorants, can irritate the skin, causing inflammation and tenderness. In fact, two popular ingredients, neomycin sulfate and cobalt chloride, were found by Mayo Clinic researchers to be among the top ten causes of allergic contact dermatitis.

A more serious concern with anti-perspirant/deodorant is the aluminum content in anti-perspirant products. (The aluminum is there to clog the pores and prevent the release of sweat from the glands.) It’s true that the human body doesn’t need or use aluminum, and enough of it can cause aluminum toxicity (which can result in neurological damage, osteoporosis and kidney malfunction). However, unless you find yourself snacking on that stick of Old Spice or Soft and Dry, you don’t have reason to worry about getting near any level of aluminum toxicity. Claims also abound regarding its connection to Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. To date, no significant studies with accepted methodology support either claim.

Yet, I’d add a wrinkle to this issue. It’s commonly (albeit not universally) believed that the aluminum compounds in anti-perspirants are unable to pass through the skin to begin with. However, the growing number of physicians and health advocates suggest that aluminum compounds have a much higher chance of being absorbed when they’re applied to freshly shaven skin. This concern somewhat bolsters (but doesn’t, of course, prove) the breast cancer claim, particularly because directly beneath the armpit area you find the lymphatic system, which is connected with breast tissue. My ultimate recommendation: avoid anti-perspirants if/when you can and definitely delay using them for a day if you shave the armpit area. If you’re going to go the “deodorant” route, use only 100% natural scents due to the dangers of phthalates (chemical plasticizers that are part of synthetic fragrances).


As for lotions? A bit of coconut oil can work wonders. Some people swear by olive oil for hair conditioning. In terms of other products, I’d boil it down to ingredients. Phthalates are found in close to all conventional and even some “natural” personal products. They’re known cancer causing agents and can result in serious birth defects. Do you see “fragrance” on the label? Drop it like Grok would a torch he picked up from the wrong end. Does the product say unscented? Still, check the label. In all likelihood, there’s still some kind of masking fragrance. The only safe fragrance is a 100% natural extract.

Another set of ingredients to avoid at all costs: the parabens. Methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, ethyl-, consider the whole family a lot of bad seeds. They’re known endocrine disruptors, these preservative hooligans that inhabit the majority of conventional soaps, shampoos, lotions, makeup, and sunscreens.

A few other common “offenders” to steer clear of? Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), toluene, mineral oil, paraffin, and petrolatum, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, and bronopol, -eth compounds, coal tar (to name a few). But take a look at the ingredient label of anything you pick up. Anything “primal” about it? A mind-boggling laundry list of chemical compounds that all run together? Are your eyes totally glazed over yet? Yes, it’s enough to make you rethink that backwoods shack possibility.


Instead of hearing just what to avoid, here are a couple resources that actually offer some suggestions for what to buy instead. National Geographic’s Green Guide publication tests and analyzes numerous personal care (and other) products for human health as well as environmental impact.

Also, be sure to check out the Skin Deep database compiled by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for more information on common ingredients as well as less risky alternatives to conventional care products.

The simplest rule of thumb for modern primal living is to use as few products and as little of them as possible, but what this means to each of us will vary by personal aesthetic, professional expectations, and other factors. Personally, I use a little sunscreen if I’ll be out all day and some lip balm from time to time. I use about the most basic toothpaste on the market. Look for the most natural products you can find. If the “crunchy” stuff isn’t up to snuff, use the conventional products but go old school and keep it simple. The more new-fangled ingredients and additions to the formula, the more questionable its effects on your body.

Thanks, as always, for your questions. And I hope you’ll share your own recommendations and thoughts.

savor soaps, .snow, slight clutter, LuluP Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

A Sanitized World is a Healthier World?

8 Unusual Uses for Hydrogen Peroxide

DIY Household Cleaners

That’s Fit: Deodorant Linked to Breast Cancer?

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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53 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Primal Personal Products?”

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  1. We err on the side of “less is better” here. Yes, we shower, shave, etc., but we’re not obessed with it. My boys, this time of year, play outside a lot, but also play in the water hose and the kiddie pool, and so if they are getting rinsed off outside every day, they might not get in the bathtub for weeks. I think, especially for kids, soap is mostly unnecessary and plain water does the job pretty well.

    We’re looking for the most natural products we can, and once I run out of my shampoo and conditioner, I’m going to try olive oil for that. I’ll confess that we’re not big on deodorants either – I don’t like to stink, but soap and water takes care of that, too, and frankly I prefer a man who smells manly rather than like a fragrance.

    Unpopular things to admit, but we’ve never had anyone complain, so we must be taking care of things well enough.

  2. I use coconut oil as a moisturizer and I love it. I sometimes mix a little vanilla extract in, but usually just like the simple scent of it plain.

    Another simple, natural bathing product: make your own salt scrub. Take a coarser salt, like kosher salt, and mix with your favorite good oil. You can add a natural extract scent if you want, or leave it plain. Rub it on and rinse off. The salt clears off dead skin layers and the oil moisturizes. It’s the same stuff you can buy for large amounts of money, only without the large amounts of money part.

    Food Is Love

  3. I’m 100% against the hand lotions (can we include hand sanitizers in there as well?). Beyond the toxicity of the chemicels you’re smearing across your palms, the lotions act to temporarily soften the skin, only to leave the skin more cracked and dry once the lotion wears off (usually less than an hour). Thus the cycle begins of using more and more hand lotion, and needing more and more hand lotion to smooth out skin that dries out from the use of unnecessary hand lotion. The same principal works for Tums. The more Tums you take, the more Tums you need next time you take Tums as your body’s ability to fight indigestion weakens.

  4. What about the modern ubiquitous hand sanitizer? I’ve heard mixed things…

    1. Most hand sanitizers have an ingredient called Triclosan, which is a derivitive of herbicide, which makes it an endocrine disruptor. We avoid anti bacterials in our household, and send our own homemade “santizer” with our daughter to school and tell her to avoid the toxic sanitizers.
      I have mentioned and sent reports on the ill effects of triclosan to teachers, who really go no further on it.

      1. Would you mind sharing your recipe for a homemade sanitizer? I’m intrigued! 🙂

  5. I use a chlorine filter in my shower and it works great. I am much more aware of the chlorine smell/taste when I’m not at home.

    I use quality aloe vera as a moisterizer, especially in the summer. Baking soda is the best skin exfoliant! I’ve been using it for years.

    I found a good shampoo/cond. -the basic ingredients are aloe vera, coconut oil, avocado oil, essential oils and smells great.

    1. Baking soda is also a great deodorant 🙂 and an awesome shampoo too (and … it’s fabulous for so many other things as well)! – use vinegar or lemon juice as a conditioner to untangle long hair. I’m freaked out to read all the stuff in personal products. Maybe I’m just afraid of what I don’t know 😀

  6. I have heard that hand sanitizers are not a good idea, that it weakens the bodies natural defenses against bacteria. I would love for someone to either corroborate this claim or refute it based on facts not opinions. I would also like to say that I agree, using hand lotion daily is counter productive, but there are good products out there to be used sparingly.

  7. Women especially should steer clear of parabens, a common type of preservative. Most conventional products are chock full of them. Parabens act as estrogens in the body and can cause serious consequences, from endometriosis to estrogen-related cancers.

  8. I found mine at the health food store but if not here is a website:
    It is under specialty items and it is called, BFC Shampoo. It lists all ingredients. I’ve only tried their shampoo/conditioner.

  9. Some of you may find the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database helpful.

    Unfortunately, a lot of pure oils, like olive oil, jojoba, etc., break my skin out like crazy. And salt scrubs. And most hair conditioners . . . I’ve only had success with Paula’s Choice, and she has a lot to say about the cosmetic and body care industry’s misleading uses of the word “natural”.

    1. I find the more helpful in that it is based more on science than EWG listing of individual ingredients. I’ve also dug into this topic and have found one ingredient can have the same name, whether it comes from animal, chemical or plant -and therefore not all, though the same name, are the same.

      I wonder if the reason you have trouble with pure oils is that they are not necessarily pH correct for the targeted purpose, and the brain then sends out signals to compensate one way or another. I have run into a number of people with similar issues, who have very sensitive skin. Recently Arbonne released a “CALM” collection which seems to be giving those with skin issues a new lease on clearer, non irritated skin.

  10. shaving foam is a con

    i have fairly sensitive skin and used to get only slight reddening with “sensitive” shaving gels – however, i get no reactions whatsoever if i just use warm water

    all gels or foams strip the skin of its natural oils, even if it replaces them with other oils – there contain some alien agents

    it is a complete myth that you need to use any application shave – in may experience – just make sure you use warm water on your skin first and rinse the shaver in warm water before using it.

    Also, many people need not use any shampoo to wash their hair – many can have lovely soft hair without smell if they just use warm water daily. UK Telegraph journalist Matthew Parris is a prominent advocate – challenging anyone to sniff his hair and not find it practically fragrant – note – it takes several weeks for your hair to adjust itself to non shampoo washing.
    note the daily mail’s “soapless experiment too –

    I had to give up the non hair washing lark because, though my hair was healthy, the smell was a bit too earthy for my wife – maybe more of a modern perception but you have to accept your partner’s viewpoint sometimes)

    don’t believe all the hype, though


  11. Scientists have listed a number of reasons to explain the huge differences between breast cancer rates among Western women and Asian women, among them diet, weight, and genes. Reading about the anti-perspirant link, I was reminded that Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese traditionally don’t wear deodorant because their underarm perspiration is relatively odorless.

    1. Interesting that you mention this…I found that when I am eating a CLEAN lifestyle – avoiding processed, sugars, gluten, soy, dairy, caffeine, etc. that I no longer have odorous perspiration. I remember my first intro to a CrossFit workout while on the elimination eating plan and absolutely no stink – just goes to show how we smell what we eat!

  12. I used to shave with shaving cream. But once I had read about an article on shaving cream being a racket I had to find out the truth for myself. It turns out shaving is better without the cream. Get out of shower, position one’s self in front of mirror and then shave the facial hair in less than 15 secs. The first week, I was afraid to hurt my skin so I put on soap on my face. After about 1 or 2 week, I stopped with the soap and went raw with wet skin/razor blade. Results in faster and better shaves.

    Here’s the article:

  13. i have to add to this that i stopped ushing shampoo and conditioner a year ago and my hair looks better than ever. sodium laureth-sulfate (found in most soaps and shampoos) strips your skin and hair of natural moisture and then conditioners with silicone and other “one” products covers it in “moisturizing” film. what’s the point? i now use a natural bar soap (from health food store) followed by a rinse of a rosemary-infused (just float the rosemary in there for a while then strain out) apple cider vinegar and water mixture, and then rinse again with water. sometimes if i am down to my last nub of soap, i wash my hair with a paste of baking soap, rinse thoroughly, and then do the ACV rinse. i wish someone had told me all this earlier. my hair is fantastic now!

  14. It’s post like these that get me thinking and rethinking about this issue. I feel the same way, that all these products we use are HORRIBLE for us! From lotions, hair products, face products, etc. I just dunno about all of those chemicals…

  15. Tom’s of Maine has some nice stuff that’s a bit more natural. The licorice flavored toothpaste is awesome!

  16. Don’t use soap on your skin unless it’s actually ‘dirty’! (and by that, I mean visibly soiled/smelly)

    Your skin is covered in all kinds of wonderful acidic bacteria which is also called your ‘acid mantle’. These little buggers protect you from potentially harmful other little buggers. The problem is, soap is very alkaline. If you remember chemistry, you know that bases neutralize acids. In other words, soap strips your skin of it’s natural defenses, leaving you susceptible to all kinds of badness… Not to mention, giving you dry skin.

  17. Used to be an every day shampoo and shave guy. Went to shaving 3 days a week instead of 7. With shampoo, I went to every other day, then every 3rd day, then once a week, then just conditioner and finally no products at all. My hair has never been more manageable or free of problems. I just rinse daily with cold water and towel dry. I also gave up deodorant and just use an alcohol based hand sanitizer in my arm pit area that has eliminated all body odor. This primal stuff is just too easy!!!

  18. I have not used deodorant, toothpaste, perfumes, etc for over a year, and my breath is better than it used to be, no body odor whatsoever, unless I am doing extremely heavy work on a hot day (I live on the edge of the Mojave Desert) and when that’s the case, I hop into the shower and rinse off. My medicine cabinet contains dental floss, hydrogen peroxide (to rinse), baking soda (for cleansing everything), a potassium alum ‘crystal’ (inhibits bacterial growth) instead of deodorant… and coconut oil for conditioning/basic health. I have never felt better!!

  19. There are other chemicals such as triclosan and triclocarban that can possibly cause hormonal problems.

    I just learned that my Irish Spring soa[ contains triclocarban and my Old Spice deordorant contains triclosan.

    Just ordered some castille soap and going to use baking soda for everything else.

  20. I don’t know whether this will get any answers/even get read, as it’s an old entry, and I hope no-one’s mentioned it already, but I find that if I leave my ‘pits alone when I shower, they leave me alone during the rest of the day! Meaning, I just give them a quick rinse, but NO SOAP. I used to have all sorts of problems with sweating, and now I’m almost (I’m sure I could, but I haven’t quite dared to yet) ready to give up deo. Based on this, I’m also REALLY tempted to try ‘poo-less…

    Take care!

  21. Anyone have recommendations of what brand of to buy for all these products?

  22. I highly recomend Dr. Bronners unscented pure castil soup. It works awesome and isn’t overly expensive. For hair conditioner I use a dime sized drop of Jojoba oil and rub it through my hair before blow drying. I get many comment on how great my hair looks. I only shower every couple days, and because of my generally clean diet I don’t usually stink, but on rare occasion I use a natural mineral salt crystal that seems to work rather well.

  23. When I found out of all the bad chemicals in personal products, I checked the ingredients in my supply closet and donated everything harmful.

    I now use Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, for my body and my hair. (I also use a body brush, long strokes on extremities, brush upwards towards your heart, it improves circulation. I am experimenting with hot/cold showers.) I bought a huge bottle at Target and Trader Joe’s and use a little bottle when I travel. I also use it to had wash my delicates in the sink.

    I have hyperhidrosis, so I sweat more than normal but I only use a minimal amount of deoderant when I am at a social setting. I am having a hard time finding chemical free make-up, although I do not wear any on weekends, I prefer to wear some at work. Any suggestions…I heard Bare Minerals was not very natural.

  24. I’ll just add my two cents worth. For deodorant I’m using a homemade “stick” with equal volumes of coconut oil,cornflour (oops is that allowed!?) and bicarb soda. Melt them together gently on the stove-top and then pour into the corner of a plastic bag. Hang it somewhere so the mixture stays in the corner and allow it to set, it will form in a cone shape, keep it in the bag to store.Just wipe on gently after your shower. At the moment here in Aussieland it is winter so there is no problems with it melting at room temp. In summer I store in the fridge.
    For moisturiser I use plain coconut oil with the same “delivery system”.
    I’m trialing no shampoo for my hair, just warm water rinse in shower, can’t say my hair is looking that good now, I might just give it a month trial.

    1. Jacqui, thanks for the deodorant tip – I use something very similar as toothpaste; coconut oil, bicarb soda and peppermint oil. Persevere with the no shampoo route, I’ve been “poo” free for 18 months now and my hair is the best it’s ever been. Just a quick rinse with warm water in the morning and no product required. I used to use a gallon of conditioner and frizz serum in the old days. If I go swimming in the public pool I rinse with a little diluted cider vinegar which helps get rid of the chlorine.

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  26. I heard something about baking soda hurting the enamel of your teeth, the outside coating. Anyone had any issues with that?
    Also i have tried the no-shampoo for 3 years now, but every now and again i feel like i have to wash it with shampoo since it gets greasy. I tried with the baking soda but it gets dry and brittle, and the vinegar still leaves it a bit gluey, like i put hair gel. Any help would be appreciated. 🙂

  27. If you haven’t recently shaved, white vinegar makes a great deodorant. I just apply with a cotton ball. I may need to reapply later in the day – depending on my activity, the weather, etc… so I carry around a small bottle of white vinegar and some cotton balls in a plastic sandwich bag in my purse.

  28. The aluminium in deodorants basically works by blocking the natural chemical pathways in the body that are responsible for sweat production. Aluminium is a killer and I stay away from it. A safer alternative is to use essential oils and baking soda (home grade/food grade). They are extremely effective deodorants.

  29. There are chlorine filters available in the market that filter the chlorine in showers. They’re a cheap and practical solution to the chlorine problem.

  30. I thought I would add that when I switched away from anti-perspirants, my omnipresent sweating problem disappeared. As did my deo-stained shirts.

    Going to try some more natural products soon, starting with soaps.

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  32. I just found this post! It is very well written and informative. Education and knowlegde is the best defense for self-preservation and personal health. Be responsible and read the labels. I started my company (Primal Life Organics) because I believe in feeding the skin real food. Toxins and chemicals can cause cellular mutation and disease. I make over 100 healthy skin care products from real food sources so the cells can function properly. A healthy, nourished, well fed cell is better equipped to fight disease! Way to go Mark! You rock!