This week's news headlines have been filled with reports of chemicals in baby products and their possible toxicity. The main concern of this latest report is over phthalates, which are added to plastics to make them more flexible and have lately been raising concerns over their use in toys, as they are suspected carcinogens and hormone disrupters. It turns out that phthalates are also regularly added to personal care products in order to increase the longevity of the fragrance, as well as to increase the absorption of lotions into the skin.
The main reaction to this latest information seems to be one of helplessness. Many people feel like there's nothing that can be done, as these chemicals are in everything (even though they're not listed on the labels) and are seemingly impossible to avoid. While it does take some careful shopping, alternatives are certainly out there. I've been allergic to most mainstream grooming products for almost 20 years now (I'm convinced that this is some kind of payback for my "product" addiction as a teen), so I've had to find products without any kind of artificial colors, chemicals or fragrance whatsoever. It can be a little frustrating, but it is possible, and it's a small price to pay for eliminating the eczema and skin irritation that I experienced previously.
The best place to start when looking for healthier alternatives is your local health food store - I gave up shopping in the beauty department of drugstores and supermarkets years ago. However, not everything being sold as "natural" actually is - many of these products (even ones labelled as "organic") still contain irritants and questionable ingredients. Look for short ingredient lists, with things that you actually recognize listed on the label. There's a good list of things to avoid located here.
Another option is to make your own products, which gives you total control over what's going onto your skin, and can save you money. One of my favorite books on this topic is Natural Beauty at Home by Janice Cox, which is packed with recipes for everything from lipgloss to hairspray. Cranberry Lane is a great local company that sells everything you need to make your own delicious homemade goodies. Not only will these things be better for your family and the environment, but it's a lot of fun too. Kids love making their own flavored lipbalm and bath bombs, and it makes a great birthday party or sleepover activity!
We seem to have been duped into believing that we need this stuff in order to make ourselves look and smell better, but it's absolutely not true. I used to spend a fortune on mousse, gel, and hairspray to get my hair looking how I wanted it (bear in mind, it was the 80's), but now I don't use anything and my hair is shinier and fluffier than ever. I was also convinced that if I found just the right cleansing routine, I'd end up looking like Cindy Crawford, but now I use nothing but a bar of olive oil or goat's milk soap, and I'm happy to report that I don't look any less like Cindy than I did before.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a total ascetic when it comes to these things. I definitely love things that smell nice, but now I just have to have them around me, not on me (and they can't be artificial!). And while I don't wear full make-up like I used to, I still wear a lick of mascara and a touch of blush if I'm going out. It took a long time to find brands that didn't make my face peel off, but I can get away with a little bit of it now and then.
It only makes sense that if we shouldn't be exposing ourselves to these chemicals through our personal care products, we shouldn't be using them to clean our house either. Detergents with any kind of fragrance or chemicals drive my skin crazy, and if I walk into someone's house that's been cleaned with regular harsh cleaners, I'll have sneezing fits for an hour (I used to think that people with allergies were either wimps or faking it - can you say Karma?). I get by with baking soda, vinegar and liquid soap for most of my cleaning, with a dash of my favorite essential oil for a little added zip(there's nothing like a little lemon, lavender, pine, mint, or eucalyptus oil to make things smell really fresh and clean!).
It gives me the heebie jeebies to thing about the chemicals that get dumped into our water supply every day. Next time you reach for that harsh cleaning product, stop and ask yourself how you'd feel about stirring a bit of it into your next glass of water, because that's exactly where it all eventually ends up.
But what about killing germs, you might ask? By now, most of us know that taking antibiotics unnecessarily is creating strains of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics, yet we think nothing of using anti-bacterial products in our homes, and they also contribute to resistant strains of bacteria. If we're careful and avoid splashing raw chicken juice around our kitchens, most of these things are unnecessary anyway, and it has been suggested that children who are raised in very sterile environments have higher rates of asthma and gastrointestinal illness. It turns out that a little bit of dirt is good for us.
Having this chemical senstivity has, for the most part, been a royal pain in the you-know-what, but it has also been a blessing in disguise. If you suffer from itchy, sensitive skin, eczema (my doctor was convinced for years that the rash on my arms was a fungal infection), or other unexplained skin irritation, watching what you put on your body or clean your house with might make a difference. Even if you don't have such a visible reaction to these unwanted additives, choosing milder products will decrease your family's exposure to potentially toxic chemicals, keep our water clean, save you some money, and maybe even prevent future health problems. How can you go wrong?