Wellness is not defined by products. Whether expensive or inexpensive, products will never capture what the heart of living in wellness is all about. Nonetheless, products can have a helpful or harmful impact on our health. While I understand that paying for certain products is prohibitive for some people, I believe in spreading awareness about them so that consumers can pick and choose what feels important to them (btw – a few things I’ve gotten rid of have saved me money!).
If nothing else, I hope this article plants the seed for some of your own ideas. The included list of things I’ve changed and products I’ve switched to in effort to reduce environmental toxins in my home has taken years of trial and error, and is nowhere “complete.”
My advice as a wellness professional who is very much in the active state of learning about this topic is to stay curious and try not to feel too much pressure. Small changes can happen one day, month or year at a time as you find yourself ready.
Why Reducing Environmental Toxins is Crucial
I found an excellent summary on EarthEasy.com about why household chemicals and toxins are dangerous, poorly regulated, and difficult to understand for the average consumer:
“A 2004 report by the British Medical Journal states ‘it is clear that environmental and lifestyle factors are key determinants of human disease – accounting for perhaps 75% of most cancers.’ And estimates show most Americans have somewhere between 400 and 800 chemicals stored in their bodies, typically in fat cells.
Because effects from exposure to toxins are difficult to identify, it can be years before problems from exposure manifest themselves as a disease or chronic ailment. In the US, the EPA does screen many products for some toxins, but until needed revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act are enacted by Congress, many loopholes in the system leave the burden of responsibility on the consumer to make informed decisions through reading individual product MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets), following recommendations from agencies like Consumer Reports, or by studying product literature.”
My Main Takeaways About Toxins (in plain language)
I’ve browsed literature, studies and mainstream news articles about environmental and household toxins through the years. Here are a few basic things I’ve learned that people can do to reduce their overall toxic load:
- Change beauty and hygiene products in favor of those that are “cleaner”
- Use unscented products for household cleaning, laundry, beauty and hygiene whenever possible
- Lean towards products that include descriptions on their labels such as: Human Safe, Plant & Mineral Based, Fragrance Free, No Harmful Preservatives, Non GMO, Free of Dyes & Perfumes, Phalate & Paraben Free
- Reduce plastic use when possible, or at least in the kitchen
- When harsh chemicals must be used for cleaning, treating flooring, painting, etc. turn on fans and overhead vents (even turn on your oven’s hood or downdraft vent), open windows, and anything else to increase circulation, get rid of fumes and/or allow for “off gassing”
- Keep water and HVAC systems clean with proper filters that are changed on a schedule
- Eat “cleaner” by going local for ingredients or prioritizing organic fruits and vegetables and naturally-fed and farmed meats and fish. Buying an entire grocery’s list of organic items isn’t feasible for many people. If it’s within your means then try to at least buy organic for fruits/veggies on the “Dirty Dozen” list of produce to avoid heavy pesticide exposure
The 10 Things I’ve Changed in My Household
1) No Dryer Sheets
I started hearing that dryer sheets had a bad reputation years ago but couldn’t wrap my mind around it at the time. I was focused on healthier eating and getting restorative sleep after a few years of dysfunctional insomnia and troubles falling asleep due to anxiety and PTSD. At the time, healthier food and sleep were all I had the brain space and energy for. If you’re in a similar boat right now that’s totally okay! We can only handle so many changes at once.
When I eventually opened myself up to learning more about why dryer sheets are dangerous I discovered a study revealing that dryer sheets emit endocrine disrupting chemicals (ex: chemicals that can mess with estrogen levels) and chemicals associated with triggering asthma. I decided I would order some wool dryer balls but got lazy and did the next week or so of laundry without dryer sheets. I was surprised at what I discovered! There was hardly any difference without them! I personally didn’t notice a major difference in static or softness. From then on, I haven’t used anything in my dryer. The clothes go in, the button is pressed on, and that’s that!
2) Free & Clear Laundry Detergent and Plant-Based Stain Treatment
After realizing how easy it was to get rid of dryer sheets I started to wonder if I could (and should) opt for free and clear laundry detergent. I grew up with the original scent of Tide infusing my clothes, towels and bed sheets. Would it be so hard to disassociate from that scent? Probably not, I decided. And I was right. I’ve tried a variety of brands for Free & Clear detergent over the years and much prefer it now. I’m especially grateful to be scent-free during my pregnancies when a heightened sense of smell assails me.
Quick anecdote: At one month postpartum with my second son I stayed in an Air B&B for a long weekend so that I could be matron of honor for my cousin’s wedding. Despite being perpetually exhausted from nursing my baby around the clock I could hardly sleep the first night in the rental because the sheets smelled SO intense. Whatever detergent or softener had been used on them was completely revolting to me! I think it’s safe to say I will never go back to the using potentially dangerous and scented laundry detergent (not worth risking carcinogen exposure or the extra stink!).
3) Free & Clear Hand Soaps and Dish Soap
You might expect that when I changed all my laundry products around that I also changed other soaps in my home, but I didn’t. I love the smell of vanilla coconut hand soap and the luxurious aroma of various Milton Brown liquid soaps. I wasn’t quite ready to part with them until I noticed that my oldest son’s hands would break out in response to washing them with more heavily perfumed products. My son has eczema and the last thing I want is for him to be uncomfortable in his own skin or grow resistant of hand washing. After making the switch I found that we’re better off as a family. I discovered a gentle foaming hand soap from Target that is especially helpful for getting dirty toddler hands clean!
4) Bye-Bye Perfume!
About seven years ago, I started hearing about women making the switch to wearing essential oils instead of perfumes. I was intrigued but not ready to part with my array of Chanel perfumes. It was my daily joy to spritz myself with one. In retrospect, I’m sure I made some people dizzy by the perfume cloud I walked around in.
When I got pregnant for the first time I started spritzing the perfume on the inside of my sleeve or chest of my shirt instead of directly on to my skin. This felt safer for the baby and allowed me to enjoy the smell. Eventually, once I was breastfeeding, I felt like it was too aggressive for my baby to be pressed up against my smelly fabrics and I gave up perfumes for good. I’m glad I did. Although more research is needed, one study by the Environmental Working Group “estimated that only 34% of stock ingredients often found in fragrances have been tested for toxicity.” Given how chemicals can build up in the body over time, I’m more comfortable living without my Chanel these days – and it has saved me money to invest in cleaner beauty cosmetics!
5) Safer Body Lotions & Sunscreens
Both pregnancy and my son’s eczema inspired me to switch to gentle body lotions for daily moisturizing. I prefer Aveeno for a hand cream and Cerave for body lotion, especially for my son’s dry skin. We coat him in Cerave per the dermatologist’s orders a few times a day. As I learned more about why body lotions with fragrances and added color can dry out skin instead of help it, I began to wonder about sunscreen…
Why am I putting a safer sunscreen on my babies than I’m lathering on myself?
My entire family has tried out the following mineral sunscreens over the last few summers: Blue Lizard, Cerave Face Sunscreen, Think Sport. Most mineral sunscreens are oxybenzone free, paraben free, fragrance free and chemical-filter free. Mineral sunscreen is safer for the ocean’s reefs too.
Concerns over ingredients in most commercial, chemical sunscreens prompted an FDA investigation a couple years ago. The FDA found that only two of the 16 active ingredients in these sunscreens was recognized as safe and effective (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide – i.e. the two primary ingredients for many mineral sunscreens). The FDA also found that four of the active sunscreen ingredients are “systemically absorbed” into users’ skin. One has even been found in breast milk, urine and blood plasma samples. The fact that these chemicals are flooding a person’s system and have NOT been proven “safe and effective” is beyond concerning.
6) Safer Shampoo & Conditioner (no color tinting or highlights)
For a while I used a shampoo and conditioner with color tinting included. The products looked neon yellow when squeezed out into my palm and I was convinced they added a little bit of blonde to my naturally brown hair. Not only do I think I was fooling myself but I can’t help but wonder if those products were safe. Apparently, I’m not alone in questioning the safety of various hair dyes.
Results from studies about hair dyes are conflicting. Most recently, researchers at Harvard Medical School found associations between certain cancers and different kinds of hair dyes but were hesitant to declare these causation. They did suggest that the fumes and long-term exposure of working as a hair stylist using coloring products on clients could cause cancer, but that personal use of hair dye products probably doesn’t.
The results of the study are conflicting because on the one hand, the researchers conclude “permanent hair dye does not appear to increase overall cancer risk,” but in the same breath, they admit that there were limitations to the study, especially with regards to gender, race and ethnicity. Additionally, the researchers based their study around the assumption that “hair dye color correlated with natural shades of hair.” This assumption might not capture chemicals involved in stripping naturally darker pigments of hair during coloring treatments. So…to each their own on this topic until further research is conducted. I feel best keeping my natural color for now…but ask me again when I go grey! 😉
7) Investing in Clean Beauty Cosmetic Products
Clean beauty can be expensive but my hope is that more cosmetics companies will make the move towards clean beauty with commercial pressure and perhaps better regulations on ingredients some day (one can dream, right?). I was initially hesitant to pay the higher prices but I don’t wear a lot of make-up so I’ve found that with a few clean beauty products I can cover most of my bases. I currently use Beauty Counter products for face lotion, foundation, concealer and lip stick. I still use my old blush and eye liner for now.
I hosted Beauty Counter Representative and breast cancer survivor Morgan Adams for a Clean Beauty Q&A the other year on the blog. You can check it out to learn more about why she encourages clean cosmetics for clients and friends.
8) Unscented and Plant-Based All-Purpose Spray
For many of the same aforementioned reasons for going fragrance free and aiming for more natural products, I also eventually made the switch with all-purpose cleaning spray. At first, I tried Mrs. Meyer’s lemon scent and used that for a few years because it felt like a move towards fewer chemicals even though it’s scented. Years ago, that was about as close as I could find for a more responsible cleaner off the shelf in grocery stores. It’s organic, paraben free and eco-friendly. Not too bad.
Over the years, I’ve been pleased to see more options including my recent favorite at Wegman’s: Sensitive Home Free & Clear All Purpose Cleaner. I transfer new bottles to my preferred spray bottle under the kitchen sink and recycle the discarded one. The spray is so gentle that is seldom leaves streaks!
9) More Houseplants
According to Swanson Nursery, houseplants have the following main benefits:
- Improving your mood.
- Reducing fatigue.
- Lowering stress and anxiety.
- Improving office performance and focus.
- Boosting healing and pain tolerance.
- Minimizing the occurrence of headaches by improving air quality.
- Easing dry skin and respiratory ailments due to dry air.
I love a lot of green in my home (both decor and plants), so I’m thrilled by how helpful houseplants can be for filtering air and improving its quality. With all the unknown chemicals floating around in our homes from commonly used products this seems like a big win for just about anyone! While some plants like Monstera and Fiddle Leaf Figs can be quite pricey, others like golden pothos (amazing for air purification) and braided money tree are affordable houseplant options. I’ve tried them all through the years and am proud to say that two of my plant babies are 16 years old!
10) Glass & Silicone Food Storage
Research shows that harmful chemicals can leach out of plastics into food, especially if the plastic is hot. Because of this, I’ve tried hard to use mostly glass food storage containers and silicone storage bags in recent years. I also remove any and all plastic wrap from frozen foods before it’s heated, even if the instructions say to leave the plastic wrap on. I’ve found that a round glass casserole dish with the lid on works just as well to steam vegetables as a plastic steam pouch – I simply add a minute or two to the cook time!
At first glance, it can look like a lot of changes. But all of this happened over roughly a decade and is still ongoing. I know I need to get better at being more eco-friendly, probably starting with paper towels (I confess I overuse them in frazzled mom moments), and I could make some more changes to reduce toxins in my home too. As it stands, if I use a harsh cleaning product I usually wear a mask and gloves.
I’m aiming for progress, not perfection. I hope you’ll join me!
Yours in health and wellness,