Chemical Landscape: House vs. Body

I recently had lunch with a good friend of mine who told me that she liked my book, Mindful Beauty Is In Your Hands. In fact, she said that it “changed her life” – by which she elaborated that she had determined that her scalp reacts badly to certain chemicals found in shampoos, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Based in part on the advice in my book she is now following a haircare regimen that avoids SLS, limits shampoo use and focuses more on castile soap and apple cider vinegar rinses.

I was so flattered, naturally, but I was more struck by something else she said. She said that she had been so focused on eradicating harmful chemicals from her home, that it hadn’t occurred to her to think about the chemicals she was putting on her body!

So that’s why I titled this post the way that I did. Knowing what kind of chemicals you and your loved ones are being exposed to on a daily basis can be a constant process of reading labels and staying up-to-date on the latest new chemicals in household and cosmetic products.

So far, the best resource I have found for researching some of the products I use is Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database.  You can look up either specific ingredients or actual brand-name products, and get information about whether they are considered an irritant , carcinogenic, a toxin (reproductive, immune system, etc), or if there are concerns about contamination with other associated chemical compounds.  There is a lot of other data present in each profile – I consider the site invaluable when evaluating the commercial bodycare products I use or even for researching ingredients for products I create myself.

Now this site, as the name indicates, is for cosmetic products and not for household products.  However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t look for some of the ingredients in household products in the database.  You’d be surprised how wide a range of uses some chemicals have.  You can even look up vinegar which I discuss later in this post.

As an example of a common brand name cleaning product, I looked up the ingredients of Lysol and one of the chemicals on the ingredient list is 2-phenylphenol.  This is not a chemical I am familiar with in this context (but I’d be more than happy to draw its chemical structure out for you – I’ve always loved drawing benzene rings).

While Lysol, the brand name product, is not in the cosmetic database (because it is a cleaning product and not reviewed by EWG), this compound, also known simply as phenyl phenol, is listed in the database.  Apparently it appears on the ingredients list of 2 facial washes and 1 body wash (all 3 of which have a moderate hazard rating).  Phenyl phenol, by itself, has a high hazard rating (8 out of 10) due to such delightful characteristics as being toxic for our lungs, skin and immune systems, as well as being a potential carcinogen and reproductive/developmental toxin.

Mind you, I don’t know how much phenyl phenol is in Lysol but this is just a very specific reason why I want to avoid using it or being around it.  And I could just as easily have chosen another common commercial cleaning product and likely found another similarly hazardous compound lurking happily on its ingredient list.  If only these nasties would stay on the ingredient list and not end up in our lungs and on our skin.

So instead I use things like vinegar to clean instead.  I find that vinegar is so incredibly versatile in its uses in the house as a cleaning agent, a laundry booster/disinfectant/stain remover, and, of course, cooking ingredient*.  And considering how inexpensive a gallon bottle of vinegar is at your local grocery store, you really can’t go wrong.  Clothes smell a bit off after a run through the wash?  Or maybe you have particularly sweaty gym clothes to clean…  All good opportunities to toss in a 1/4-1/2 cup of white vinegar in the final rinse cycle.  Vinegar both kills mold and odor-causing bacteria, but it also helps to break up any soap remaining in your clothes so it can be properly rinsed away, leaving clothes looking fresher and brighter than otherwise.

*A scrumptious example being Madhur Jaffrey’s Mango Chutney (Aam Ki Chutney) recipe from her book, World Vegetarian, p. 695

Another inexpensive, versatile and non-toxic product you can use for cleaning is baking soda.  Instead of buying chemicals to remove stuck-on grease from pots and pans, try soaking them in a layer of soapy water first, scrape food away and whatever is left you can scrub off with a dry cloth and some baking soda.  The key is to not get the baking soda too wet.  You can also use baking soda as a no-scratch way to clean bugs or tree sap off your car windows.

So – is it time to reevaluate your own chemical landscape, and find non-toxic alternatives to some of its inhabitants?


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