Welcome readers! These posts are currently being delivered to you from bustling Tokyo, where the drugstores beckon you to try cosmetics in front of your very own lighted mirror—and the invisible chickens along the main thoroughfares evidently continue to pose a safety hazard (see below). Please tap the little ❤️ above if you’re happy to be along for the ride.
While thinking about what you might be interested to read during my stay in Tokyo, considering everything from the vast options in skincareto amusement parks, I happily fell upon an unlikely source that perfectly captures my experience. It’s from James Baldwin’s book of essays, Nothing Personal. (Thanks to The Marginalian for bringing it to my attention.) Writing about how love can transcend space and time, Baldwin answers my five-year-old granddaughter’s question, “Grammie, why do you go back to New York? And then come to back to Tokyo? Then go back to New York? Then Tokyo, then…why?” Here is why, dear girl:
Pretend, for example, that you… have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong [or Tokyo], which is only a name on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in [Tokyo]... [it] will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And… you will know that one man or one woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.
What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen… you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earthquake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in [Tokyo], for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.
Hang on, the beauty-related portion of this post is coming!
But first, another point about living part-time in Japan. I feel a little awkward when friends ask me to recommend things to do and see beyond what you might find in a guidebook. Awkward because my life here is very pedestrian; my time is spent mostly with family in the kind of daily routine you might find anywhere: work/school pick-up/supper/bath/bed. But here’s the catch: As a non-Tokyo native, I see everything through shoshin, or beginner’s mind—that feeling of encountering something for the first time. A walk around the block is as fascinating as an hour in a museum. And that is the glory of living here: being awakened, day after day, with wonder.
And speaking of wonder—or rather of wondering—on to a couple of pointed reader questions with one very squidgy answer.
Q: While I do pay attention to some degree to the ingredients in the products I use on my body, I am loathe to give up my “Portrait of a Lady” perfume for any "clean" fragrance I've tried. Is there a legitimate risk to using non-"clean" perfumes? I don't know who to trust on this issue in general.
Q: I’ve been reading a lot about menopause and perimenopause and the importance of using products that don’t have lots of yucky ingredients, because they can mess with our hormones. First of all, is that true? I use approximately a bajillion face products because I love to use products, and I’m starting to feel like I should explore some more natural routes. Do they have to be organic, too? Or just without the worst offenders? Also, what are the worst offenders? I’m truly overwhelmed!
A: Truly overwhelmed! That makes three of us! (And probably lots more.)
Fear of toxicity in our personal care products—I don’t care, personally, for that handle, but anyway—is real and the confusion surrounding that fear is completely appropriate. Why? Because regulation of such products—including cleansers, shampoos, and cosmetics of all kinds—is both haphazard and difficult to understand. Which is why I’m unable to tell you in black-and-white terms what products to absolutely avoid.
A recent New York Times story (gifted for you, here) makes an effort to clarify which ingredients are the most dangerous. But if you read that story and finish it as baffled and uncertain as I was, I wouldn’t blame you. Bottom-line, you have a few options regarding how to cope with this issue.
The two extremes: Throw caution to the wind and carry on as usual. Or stop using all products and simply rinse clean except for very personal care. Or finally, take a middle road and choose moderation. You might be the kind of person who won’t wear mascara, but colors her hair regularly because it brightens her outlook. Or you won’t wear lipstick, but polishing your nails is one grooming ritual that adds some color to your life. Or you could go very low-bar, like me, mostly using products free of parabens, pthalates, and fragrance, wearing lipstick and mascara infrequently, and trying to avoid anything that makes you break out in an ugly rash. Basically, I use as few products as possible without making myself feel deprived of “self care,” which is relatively easy, as I don’t derive my “self care” from products anyway.
If you like the feeling of a seatbelt, you might try one of several apps available, like Think Dirty and Yuka, intended to help you figure out a product’s level of potentially harmful ingredients. Be prepared to spend a significant amount of time with your face in your phone, and keep in mind that the ratings are, among other unreliable elements, subjective—meaning they don’t include many factors that might influence your personal amount of risk. For example, here’s a biochemist’s review of Think Dirty, and a dietician’s review of Yuka’s food ratings.
I don’t mean to be (entirely) glib; I know there are readers who will take issue with this prescription and tell us to go on slathering ourselves with cancer juice or whatever. And those people will find their own strategy, which may include interacting with ingredients that agree with them but not with us. Cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, co-host of The Beauty Brains podcast, has this to say: “It is against the law to sell unsafe cosmetic products.”
“Clean” beauty is a made-up marketing term meant to convince you that a product is harmless. Similarly, the term “natural” beauty is meaningless. What I hope will not be meaningless: The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA), a cosmetic regulatory overhaul that became law at the end of last year and that will enforce greater regulation of cosmetic products and facilities. (Unbelievably, it’s the first major update to the FDA cosmetics regulations since 1938.)
As for your particular questions, dear readers above, if a gorgeous fragrance frees your spirit, Romanowski says, “There’s no good reason to stop using [it], as there is zero evidence that it’s unsafe.” I agree—and propose you adorn yourself with “Portrait of a Lady” as liberally as you like. To the reader who’s using a bajillion products on her face, though, I might suggest a winnowing. You ask about the worst offenders? Probably the devils on your shoulder suggesting any of those bajillion products are going to do something miraculous for your complexion. Save your money while you lower exposure risks: Indulge in a DIY facelift. The main ingredient—thoroughly non-toxic—is love.
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A Moment of Personal Horn-Blowing
HNTFUYF was recently included in a roundup of the “23 Best Health and Wellness Newsletters of 2023” by the (what else?) health and wellness website Ness. Thanks, Ness, and thanks to all you HNTFUYF-ers for inspiring me with your thoughtful questions and comments. xo
HNTFUYF, a Payola-Free Zone
Readers, a few of you have asked if I get a cut from sales when I mention a product. I do not. I only mention products I’d like to buy myself, and therefore think you might like, too. I share this so you know my recommendations are offered without obligation.
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send your beauty-related questions to email@example.com. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.
Did you know that Curél, very popular here, is owned by the 187-year-old Japanese company Kao, which also owns Goldwell, Oribe, John Frieda, Jergens, and Molton Brown?
Here she is again, Valerie Monroe, taking on the big questions, especially the biggest, how to live at your best as you age. I am a man, I'm 86, I have zero interest in beauty products, and I do know a few women who are old and don't use them. My first wife never used them at all, and my daughter, who is in her early 60s, takes after her mother. My second wife, who is 80, does use beauty products and colors her hair, and she's seldom happier than the days she comes back from the beauty parlor with a haircut and a fresh color job.. So, to each her own. What I don't like is the beauty care industry. The prices strike me as outrageous even though the ads seldom show elderly women wearing the products advertised. It all seems like a giant scam, very much like the ads for Big Pharma that constantly promote medicines that do minor things, like solve your scratches. And you can't pronounce the names anyway. For the beauty industry, it's all about profit. But life is not all about profit. It's about love, risk, self-confidence, soul, satisfaction, and the beautiful all around you. It's also about sadness, loss, despair, anger, and the long slide toward death. When we give ourselves over to the essentials, we come less and less to care about the inessentials. And that's what I like about Val's columns. She gets it. She plays in the enemy's camp, bit she doesn't join their army.
Oh my that Baldwin quote!