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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