At my house, we’re always looking for ways to de-clutter and live more minimally, but it is equally – if not more – important to us to find healthier, less toxic (but still effective) replacements for everyday items. Below are some of the things we have already, or are currently considering, replacing in our home that might make sense for you too. Luckily, there are a growing number of companies making safer consumer products due to demand (and if their claims are independently third-party tested, even better!). I’ve listed a few recommendations for each, but I certainly haven’t tried everything out there– if you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them in the comments section below!
Intended to be food for thought, in no particular order…
1. Plastic food storage containers and water bottles
Replacement: Glass or metal bottles and storage containers, glass jars with lids. Or, if no other choice, plastic containers marked with a # 1, 2, 4 or 5.
Why: Some of the components added to plastic containers to make them more durable unfortunately also pose health risks to users, as chemicals migrate from the container to the food, such as Styrene from polystyrene, plasticizers from PVC, antioxidants from polyethylene, and Acetaldehyde from PET. Health risks may include endocrine disruption, reproductive problems and birth defects, immune suppression, developmental problems in children, cancers, and metal toxicity. This is especially a problem when food is heated in the containers, stored in the container for an extended period of time, the containers are old, scratched or discolored, or if the stored food is particularly fat-rich. Many plastic products contain known endocrine disruptors– bisphenol A (BPA) often used in shatterproof plastic water bottles (PC #7), and phthalates often found in products made with flexible vinyl (PC #3). What about the wave of BPA-free plastic products that have swarmed the market? The substitute chemical many companies are using, BPS, may actually be just as harmful.
LifeFactory (glass water bottles with silicone sleeves)
Ball (glass jars)
Pyrex (storage and bakeware)
Rubbermaid (glass storage containers)
2. Nonstick cookware
Replacement: Stainless steel and cast iron cookware.
Why: Nonstick cookware contains Teflon, a synthetic polymer of the heat-resistant perfluorinated chemicals (PFC) family. When used to cook at high temperatures, Teflon cookware can emit toxins into the air known to kill birds and cause ‘Teflon flu’ (or ‘polymer fume fever’) in some people. Long term effects of Teflon flu have not been studied, but exposure to PFCs has been linked to small birth weight, high cholesterol, thyroid disruption and liver inflammation. Cast iron, though not ideal for all types of cooking, tends to last longer and has the added nutritional benefit of adding a little iron to the foods cooked in it. Stainless steel cookware, since it lacks the ‘non-stick’ coating, needs just a little specialized care to ensure that it doesn’t stick, burn food or become discolored.
Kirkland Signature (stainless steel cookware)
Le Creuset (stainless steel cookware)
Lodge (cast iron cookware)
3. Antibacterial soap that contains triclosan
Replacement: Good ol’ (fragrance-free) soap & water.
Why: Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent found in many antibacterial soaps and personal care products. Not only have some studies linked it to liver cancer in mice, bacterial resistance, hormone disruption, and possibly digestive issues by interfering with the gut microbiome, but others have found that triclosan is no more effective at preventing spread of bacteria and disease than regular soap and water. In fact, one study found that triclosan only became effective at killing bacteria after six hours of direct saturation. These types of findings triggered the FDA to initiate their own review of the substance and, in December 2013, FDA started requiring manufacturers of antibacterial soaps to show that their products are safe and effective (though, you know how I feel about this type of regulation; third-party testing of safety claims is absolutely essential).
4. Cosmetics and nail polish
Replacement: Cosmetics and nail polish made with safer ingredients.
Why: Safe Cosmetics does a nice job of listing chemicals of concern here. For example, looking for hydroquinone in skin lightening products, improperly refined petrolatum in cosmetics, and phthalates in nail polish and color cosmetics in the US (which are banned by the European Union, by the way). Health risks of overexposure to these chemicals include reproductive toxicity, cancers, birth defects, and organ-system toxicity, to name a few. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a great resource to search for products you use and see how they stack up in regards to toxicological review and consumer safety. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has put together a list of safer cosmetic companies here.
Keeki Pure & Simple (nail polish)
Piggy Paint (nail polish)
Zoya (nail polish)
100% Pure (cosmetics)
Juice Beauty (cosmetics)
Ecco Bella (cosmetics)
5. Commercial household cleaning products
Replacement: Homemade cleaning products or products made with safer ingredients. White vinegar, baking soda, dish soap, lemon juice and rubbing alcohol are cheap, low risk ingredients for all-purpose cleaners you can make yourself. I’ve linked to some sites with some such cleaner ‘recipes’ below.
Why: Simply put, why expose ourselves to more chemicals than we need to? A little extra elbow grease using nontoxic substances can usually do the trick. The American Lung Association notes that cleaning supplies frequently contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), eye and throat irritants. These compounds, even natural fragrances such as citrus, can react with ozone to create formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Many fragrances added to cleaning products are considered toxic by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, but because fragrance formulations can be considered proprietary information to the manufacturer, the ingredients are not required on product labels. Generally speaking, commercial household cleaners contain many unnecessary emulsifiers, hormone disruptors, petroleum-based chemicals, algae-promoting phosphates, and compounds that are not readily biodegradable. There is also the added danger of mixing bleach and ammonia to remember when these substances are kept in your home.
Ecover (cleaning products)
Dr. Bronner’s (cleaning products)
Seventh Generation (cleaning products)
The Honest Company (cleaning products)
HGTV Homemade Cleaning Products (recipes)
Rodale’s Organic Life (recipes)
Wellness Mama (recipes)
6. Personal care products
Replacement: Personal care products made with safer ingredients, or homemade concoctions (note: I cannot attest to the effectiveness of these, but they may be worth a shot!).
Why: Shampoo, conditioner, face and body wash, deodorant, and moisturizer are used so often that it is extremely important to choose the safest ones we can. These substances are absorbed– they don’t just wash off! The EWG has identified a number of ingredients to look for here when shopping around, but I will highlight a few: triclosan, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, formaldehyde, aluminum, toluene, parabens, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). These compounds are associated with various health risks from absorption into the body, such as cancer, reproductive and endocrine disruption, asthma, neurotoxicity, and birth defects. Gimme the Good Stuff has a nice guide to reading deodorant labels and choosing safer ones here. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has put together a list of safer personal care product companies here.
Wellness Mama (deodorant recipe)
Mommypotamus (deodorant recipe)
DIY Naturals (shampoo & conditioner recipes)
7. Sunscreens and bug sprays
Replacement: Sunscreens and bug sprays made with safer ingredients as much as possible, but are still effective against UV and pests that carry vectorborne diseases. Or, long sleeves, long pants, hats, and mosquito netting to block out sun and keep pests at bay.
Why: This can be a difficult one because more ‘natural’ bug sprays may be less effective against pests, so it’s important to choose one based on your individual needs and exposure time. Personally, I weigh my risk of exposure to harmful UV and pests higher than my risk of exposure to potentially harmful product ingredients in this category since I don’t have to use them all that often (I don’t want to just spray things on myself to have them not work!). My recommended bug sprays reflect this sentiment below as they have been shown to be most effective. Though there are botanical- and essential oil-based bug sprays available, Consumer Reports found that these barely repel insects for an hour, if at all. Bug sprays should be EPA registered (look for it’s registration number on the back of the bottle). It is also noteworthy that higher SPF sunscreens are not always better; anything over UV 50 may actually do more harm than good. See the EWG’s 2016 Guide to Sunscreens and EWG’s Guide to Bug Repellants in the Age of Zika for some safer recommendations for you and your kids this year.
Babyganics (mineral-based sunscreen)
California Baby (sunscreen)
Juice Beauty (sport sunscreen)
The Honest Company (mineral sunscreen)
8. Carpets, Flooring & Furniture
Replacement: Wool carpeting, flooring that does not off-gas toxic chemicals and VOCs, furniture without flame retardants, wicker and wood furniture.
Why: Flame retardants have been linked to a number of health issues, such as lower IQ and learning disorders, fertility issues, thyroid disruption, obesity and cancers. As of January 2014, TB117-2013 allows manufacturers to make flame retardant-free furniture if desired. Flame retardants have also been found in carpet padding. Wool carpet is expensive, but naturally fire retardant and hypoallergenic. Green building is a growing industry, and more companies are creating products available for the everyday consumer. Greener construction is a topic that could easily be its own blog post, but it is perhaps something worth looking into next time you move or decide to redo your living room.
9. Wax candles
Replacement: Soy or beeswax candles.
Why: Candle wax is made from paraffin, a petroleum byproduct, and burns petro-carbons, benzene, and toluene into the air. Besides having a longer burn time, beeswax and soy candles are significantly cleaner and may actually have some added health benefits. When burned, beeswax candles may help reduce symptoms of allergies and asthma by naturally purifying the air. Soy candles can still contain some paraffin depending on how they were made, so check the manufacturer ingredients to determine if this is the case. In any case, candles should still not be burned excessively as any type will still emit some sulfur pollution into the air.
10. Non-organic produce
Replacement: Organic produce.
Why: Produce that is not held to organic standards (i.e. the USDA National Organic Program) typically experiences a high exposure to pesticides (fungicides, herbicides, insecticides) during its cultivation, resulting in collection of pesticide residue (both on the surface skin and inside the produce) that doesn’t disappear before reaching the consumer, or even after being washed or peeled. Pesticide exposure from food may not seem like a big deal since the effects are often not acutely noticeable; however, suspected long-term health effects include birth defects, tumors, genetic changes, blood and nervous disorders, endocrine disruption and reproductive effects. Organic produce is often more costly due to demand outweighing supply, additional labor requirements of its production and harvest, organic certification costs, and the government subsidies placed on non-organic produce such as corn. That being said, the question I always ask when people tell me that organic produce is too expensive is: if you can make it work, would you rather pay for safer food now, or for the associated healthcare costs of consuming pesticides later?
Luckily, incorporating organic produce into your lifestyle doesn’t have to break the bank with a little effort put into meal planning and sale shopping. The Environmental Working Group has made it very easy to determine which fruits and vegetables should absolutely be prioritized when shopping organic by publishing consumer resources such as the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ lists.