The Best Beauty Products for Smart Shoppers

Authors of No More Dirty Looks share their favorite choices—and what to avoid.

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With so many women relying on eye shadow, lip gloss, and other beauty products every day, you'd think the stuff must be as harmless as eating a banana, right? According to a new book, No More Dirty Looks, a more apt comparison might be to handling radioactive waste. Yes, there are dangerous chemicals lurking in your cosmetics.

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The problem, authors Siobhan O'Connor and Alexandra Spunt explain, is that many consumers assume that the products on shelves are completely safe, perhaps because they support the somewhat frivolous pursuit of looking good. While the long-term effects of the chemicals are up for debate, O'Connor asks: "Why are we arguing about how much of a carcinogen or an endocrine disruptor is safe in a beauty product? Just take them out."

The authors promise that avoiding chemicals doesn't mean sacrificing beauty. Instead, they suggest sticking with certain brands or types of makeup that avoid preservatives and other chemicals. While many "all-natural" brands are more expensive, just like organic food, O'Connor and Spunt say you can save money by making a few smart purchases that will last longer than your typical inexpensive ones. U.S. News recently asked O'Connor and Spunt to share their best advice for making smart choices about your beauty products. Here's what they recommend:

Deodorant: Since mainstream deodorants include potentially dangerous ingredients such as triclosan, talc, and propylene glycol, O'Connor and Spunt recommend an expensive alternative, Lavanila's The Healthy Deodorant. While one stick of it runs a shocking $18, the authors promise that it's worth every penny, and it lasts for longer than your average anti-perspirant. But they also offer a much cheaper DIY alternative: Mix baking soda with essential oils, and apply with a make-up brush under your arms. More work, but also totally affordable.

Shampoo and Conditioner: If you're as adventurous as Spunt, you can stop washing your hair altogether. Seriously. She has curly hair and found that following the "no poo" movement—a mini-trend where people stop using shampoo—made her hair look better, not worse. If going au-naturel is not for you, then the authors recommend Alaffia Shea Butter Daily Shampoo, which costs less than $10. You can also make your own by mixing baking soda and water.

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Perfume: Typical perfumes usually include phthalates as well as neurotoxins, the authors report. That's why they make their own. Spunt mixes vanilla extract (something most people have in their kitchens) with essential oils, such as cedar. Store your creation in a dark glass container so it lasts longer. Brands such as Jurlique and InFiore also offer natural options, but are more expensive than your own inventions.

Foundation: "We both embrace the mineral makeup category, but because it's the fastest growing category, there are a lot of fake naturals," warns O'Connor. "Mineral make-up" generally refers to products made up of natural ingredients without any preservatives or dyes. Just be sure to check the ingredient list, because a product could carry the "mineral" label while still using parabens or silicone. Some of the authors' recommended brands, such as Jane Iredale DreamTint moisturizer, tend to be pricier but you can use less each time so they last longer.

Mascara: The authors' research turned up all kinds of disturbing substances that are found in mascara, including mercury, coal tar, and parabens. While no one would choose to put such ingredients near their eyes, the problem is that there aren't a lot of good waterproof alternatives. Spunt, who says she enjoys wearing heavy mascara, now only wears it on special occasions, such as a night out on the town, instead of every day.

The best money-saving advice, according to the authors, is to buy nicer products—but less of them. "Now that we found things that we really love, we're not chasing the beauty dragon in the same way. We used to go buy so many products—I used to try new hair products every few weeks—but we're not in that cycle anymore," says Spunt. Plus, she adds, "If you try something and you don't like it, return it."