As discussed in last week’s post, using products that don’t contain harmful chemicals may seem like a daunting task. But the more we understand how harmful they can be the more important this becomes.
There are so many products available today. Degrease this, take that stain out. Boost the laundry detergent, make the house smell better. There is a never-ending list of products that most of us happily bring into our homes and surround ourselves with daily. But studies continue to bring to light the potential harms of prolonged use of many of these chemicals. The damage can range from triggering allergies- stinging eyes, irritated throat, rashes- to more serious consequences such as difficulty concentrating (which points to neurological damage), higher BMI in children, asthma, leukemia, and some cancers.
It sounds extreme. What harm could a scented laundry detergent possibly cause, for example? One study, published in Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health was carried out in a home-like setting, using washers and dryers that had been scrubbed clean prior to the study. Cycles were run under three scenarios- with scented liquid detergent, without any detergent, and lastly with detergent and with a popular brand dryer sheet. The study found that many well-known detergent brands contained 25 “volatile” air pollutants, including acetaldehyde and benzene. According to the American Cancer Society, benzene causes leukemia and other blood cancers. Acetaldehyde has been found to cause nasal tumors in rats and laryngeal tumors in hamsters and is categorized as a possible carcinogen in humans by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
Anne Steineman, a professor at the University of Washington and involved in the study, shared
“I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found. Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level,”
Chemicals included acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent; and acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane.
An additional concern is fragrance, added to many items we bring into our homes. Manufacturers aren’t legally required to list the chemicals found in fragrances (they can be listed as simply “fragrance” or “scent”, for example), yet a significant amount of evidence shows that some compounds used for fragrance can contain phalates. Studies show that chronic exposure will adversely influence the endocrine system and functioning of multiple organs and can have negative long-term impacts on the success of pregnancy, child growth and development, and reproductive systems in both young children and adolescents. National surveys have found that 20% of those surveyed reported negative reactions to scents and air fresheners (double that amount for people who already have asthma)- knowing what is in products can make all the difference.
This is similar to another harmful substance, PFAS, which you can read about here. Both compounds are commonly referred to as hormone disruptors and can still be found in many products you can purchase at nearly every store.
So, if manufacturers aren’t required to list all ingredients, helping consumers at the very least be able to make decisions of their own accord, what can be done? To make matters more complicated, some products that boast being a safer alternative have been found to contain chemicals that they say they avoid. One example is the Honest Company, a popular children’s brand (everything from detergents, lotions, sunscreen, shampoos, etc). Third party testers have found issues with products containing sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, found to cause irritation, organ toxicity, developmental and neurotoxicity, and possibly cancer.
It’s a lot to take in. Making smart decisions can’t always be boiled down to choosing a more conscious brand, as reports have found. The alternative is to shop as smart as possible- check the labels and do the research- but also utilize alternatives that you make, limiting exposure at the source.
- 1 cup of distilled white vinegar
- 1/8 teaspoon of Castile soap
- 1 tablespoon of baking soda
- 3 cups of warm water
- Spray bottle
- Non-acidic essential oil, optional (non-acidic to avoid reaction with surfaces)
There’s nothing like walking into a home and being welcomed with the scent of freshness or smells that evoke special memories. Scent is powerful and most of us can tie scents to our emotions. No need to ban scents from the home but do opt for healthy options.
Aromatherapy has been proven to induce relaxation by decreasing the sympathetic nervous system activity that regulates fight or flight. It dates back to 4,500 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt where different scents were used depending on the malady it was meant to treat.
- Use essential oils in diffusers. Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts. Use a diffuser that is ceramic or glass (avoid the use of plastics as often as possible); mix a few drops of essential oils with water and enjoy the scent that wafts through your home. A few combinations that smell great are orange/clove, lavender/basil, bergamot/geranium/lavender.
- Try a simmer pot. This is an easy way to scent the entire house through the day. Start by adding a couple of cups of water to a small pot. Add herbs (try rosemary and lavender), citrus slices (or just the peels), you can add a couple of drops of essential oils as well. Bring the pot to a boil, then turn to low for a few hours. Just make sure to keep a close watch, as the water will evaporate and need to be refilled.
- Make a DIY air freshener. Fill a small glass jar with about 1 cup of baking soda. Add 15-20 drops of essential oils. Cover the top of the jar with a piece of fabric and secure with a rubber band or something similar. Shake it up. Tuck the jar somewhere in your closet, on a bookshelf, or anywhere that you like to add a boost of scent. Shake the jar occasionally to renew the smell. The baking soda also absorbs bad smells, so it’s doubly useful.
- One great way to add wonderful smells and end the day with a home cooked meal is to set up a slow cooker in the morning. Fill it with vegetables, chicken or beef, water and season to taste the night before then just plug-in and leave. I love opening the door after a long day at work to the rich smells and knowledge dinner is just a forkful away.
Skip the store-bought laundry boosters loaded with scents. If you’re going for extra-clean clothes, try adding a cup of baking soda or vinegar (don’t do both at the same time, as it’ll cancel out their impact and potentially make a mess) to the wash load. Vinegar can help break up buildup on towels and get them fluffy again and can remove bad smells. Baking soda can also help brighten clothes and can remove smells like smoke, sweat, etc.
For a nice whiff to the clean laundry instead of using dryer sheets, use wool dryer balls. They help break up the clothing items as they tumble in the dryer. If you add a couple of drops of your favorite essential oils onto the balls before starting the cycle, you’ll also get a light, yet healthy bit of scent to your load.
For stain removal, try using hydrogen peroxide. Test for color fastness on an inconspicuous corner first. Pour a bit of peroxide on the stain and let it sit for 10 minutes. Wash as usual. Extra-stubborn stain? Mix up peroxide, a bit of baking soda, and water- spray the solution on the stain and let it sit. Wash as usual.
For the laundry detergent, choose free and clear options- meaning no dyes or fragrances.
White vinegar is great for cutting grease. For floors, be cautious if you have natural stone like marble or granite as it is porous. For a healthy, but thorough clean, try:
- 2 cups warm water
- ½ cup white vinegar
- ¼ cup rubbing alcohol
- 3 drops liquid dish soap (make sure it doesn’t contain any antibacterial ingredients, moisturizers, or oxygen bleach)
- 5-10 drops essential oil (like peppermint oil) of your choice (optional)
This is quick and easy! Mix equal parts white vinegar and water for streak-free windows. The smell of the white vinegar dissipates, but it doesn’t hurt to open windows to clear the odor quickly.
There’s no need to always use a disinfectant when cleaning. In many situations, you can use a soapy dish rag, or even just a damp cleaning rag to wipe up messes. Save the more potent cleaners for situations when they’re warranted- like cleaning up the countertop after cutting raw meat. Make sure you follow the directions, as many of us spray and immediately wipe the counter- to be effective, the spray must sit on the surface for a short amount of time.
If you want to completely avoid harsh chemicals, use a solution of white vinegar and water (again, be cautious when using with natural stone). Studies at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that vinegar is an effective natural alternative to bleach for killing microbes. Soaking an item in a 10% vinegar solution for 30 minutes kills even hearty disease-causing bacteria.
Sound overwhelming? Every little bit counts. Start small and increase the use of natural products slowly. As time progresses, you’ll not only feel better but save money too.
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