Happy Earth Day! What is your Earth Day Resolution?
I hope you’ve already switched to greener cleaners and started drinking better milk, and now you’re ready for something new! There are many ways you could change your habits to reduce your environmental impact. Let’s talk about the stuff you use to clean and care for your body.
You might think that the Food & Drug Administration is responsible for making sure (in the United States) that any product marketed for putting on or in your body is safe. Unfortunately, that’s totally false. The FDA does no pre-market testing of personal hygiene products and does not require full disclosure of ingredients! (The term “cosmetics” used in that article does not mean just lipstick and nail polish; it includes more necessary products like shampoo, deodorant, and sunscreen.) Even when a product causes serious injury to consumers and the FDA does intervene, it’s not allowed to issue a recall (that’s a voluntary action by the manufacturer), and other products using the same dangerous ingredients can remain on the market. Cosmetic companies aren’t required to tell the FDA if consumers report that a product hurt them.
This means that when you buy, say, baby wipes for your newborn, they can contain just about anything, and the package may not tell you what fibers are in that soft towelette or what chemicals are in that sweet-smelling liquid. The same is true of most personal hygiene products that don’t make enough medical claims to be classified as drugs.
Not only are your personal health and safety at risk, but many hygiene products also are bad for the environment. Some of the chemicals common in body wash, deodorant, moisturizers, makeup, perfume, and nail polish are known to cause cancer or disrupt hormone production even in people or animals who don’t use them directly but consume water or air polluted with these chemicals by the user or by the factory. A common ingredient in sunscreen washes off swimmers and kills coral reefs. Here are 7 ingredients to avoid.
One of the most horrifying hazards found in hygiene products is microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic that increase the scrubbing effect of a facial cleanser or toothpaste. They are too small to be filtered out of water, which means that plastic microbeads accumulate in our oceans and in the bodies of fish, and we’re drinking them ourselves, with unknown effects. The environmental audit committee of the British parliament estimated that a person who eats six oysters has also eaten 50 particles of microplastics.
A great reference for checking the safety and environmental impact of your favorite products is the Environmental Working Group’s database. It’s not perfect–they’re excessively worried about natural fragrant oils, in my opinion–but it gives you a lot of information to help make your decisions. If you’re curious about a product that’s not in the database but that lists its ingredients on the label, you can search the ingredients in the database.
My family has been moving toward safer, more natural, less Earth-destroying, affordable options in hygiene products for about 20 years now. Here’s what we recommend for many commonly-used types of products. Many of our favorites (as well as other green options we haven’t tried) are available from Grove Collaborative; click here for $10 off your first order!
I side-stepped this one 13 years ago and started washing my hair with vinegar. If that’s too radical for you, though, the other members of my family recommend Nature’s Gate Herbal Shampoo. It says “Daily Cleanse” on the bottle, but they don’t have to use it every day to get clean hair that smells wonderful. A little goes a long way, too–the quart bottle lasts them more than a year!
I wash my face with honey, when I remember, with beautiful results. When I forget and wash with soap (see Body Wash, below) my skin doesn’t look quite as glowing, but it’s good enough–and I’m getting fewer wrinkles than many people my age.
For a facial toner to control and prevent acne, diluted apple cider vinegar works very well.
Once in a while, when my skin looks dull or feels rough, I give myself a facial with a simple scrub of liquid castile soap mixed with baking soda.
An environmental advantage of all these methods is their minimal packaging, compared to most skin-care products. Honey, vinegar, and castile soap all are available in large, recyclable containers. We buy honey and castile soap in bulk in reused containers at our local food co-op. Baking soda comes in a recyclable cardboard box, but we usually buy the 13-pound bag at Costco–not a lot of plastic for so much baking soda.
All these methods are inexpensive, too!
I don’t wear makeup except sometimes tinted lip balm, and all I can tell you there is that I’ve had the same two tubes of Terra Tint for about 15 years and it’s great stuff, plant-based, but I don’t know if it is the same product now made by Alba Botanica.
If you want to wear makeup, check out Caitlin’s 5-minute natural, non-toxic makeup routine!
I apply colorless lip balm several times a day from about October through March to fight chapped lips. My favorite is Bee Folks, which includes beeswax along with natural plant oils, creating a balm that stays smooth for years if you don’t use it up. (This is ideal when you want to stash a lip balm in a place where you might want it but not very often.) Other great beeswax-and-plant-oil balms are Dr. Bronner’s, Badger Balm, and Celestial Seasonings–yes, the herbal tea company now makes lip balm in some of its most famous flavors!
If you prefer an entirely plant-based product, Merry Hempsters makes an excellent lip balm with hempseed and sunflower oil. A fresh tube is every bit as good as the beeswax ones. The only trouble is that, after 4-6 months, the plant oils harden and develop an unpleasant odor. Just use it up quickly to avoid this problem.
All of these lip balms come in a variety of delicious scents made from real essential oils. I can’t stand ChapStick now that I’ve tried these! Natural lip balms are priced around $3 a tube, so the healthier choice won’t break your budget.
This is an interesting one: Daniel had been using Tom’s of Maine toothpaste since before I met him, and I switched to it in 2004, when I was pregnant and my old toothpaste suddenly tasted horrible to me. A few years later, though, Tom’s of Maine was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive and changed the recipes for their toothpastes such that our favorite contained the same ingredients but in a different order, had a slimier consistency, didn’t taste as good, and didn’t make our teeth feel as clean. They also changed from a recyclable steel tube to a non-recyclable plastic tube.
Then we tried a bunch of different “healthy” toothpastes, most of which were expensive and not that great. One of them tasted like dirt!
Finally, in 2013 I read this encouraging news: Most toothpastes are not all that scary! In fact, the original-recipe Colgate, my favorite from 20 years earlier, was ranked as one of the safest toothpastes on the market! I started buying that kind again, appreciating the low price and wide availability. I noticed today that EWG is displaying that version of Colgate as an “old product”–but a quick search found several big stores still carrying it, so I hope we’ll be able to keep buying it.
What about fluoride? I’ve read good and bad things about it, but most of the good ones cite scientific sources while most of the bad ones use scare tactics with little to no evidence. It’s true that fluoride in large amounts is bad for us, but it’s also true that fluoride in tiny amounts prevents tooth decay. We usually use fluoride toothpaste for this reason. However, because every member of my family also drinks fluoridated tap water daily, I’m not concerned about our getting enough fluoride, so we try new toothpastes from time to time even if they don’t have fluoride, as long as they do have xylitol.
What about xylitol? It’s an artificial sweetener–the only one that doesn’t trigger a scary metabolic reaction for me–that’s considered very safe and is certainly better for your teeth than sugar. Whether or not it actually prevents tooth decay is unclear. For now, I’m seeking out toothpastes that use xylitol rather than less-pleasant-for-me and possibly dangerous sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame, or acesulfame-potassium. (Of course, because I don’t swallow toothpaste, its effect on my metabolism is barely noticeable; I think it’s just the taste setting off a psychosomatic reaction, which fades after a few minutes.)
Tom’s of Maine still makes a great product in this category! Daniel and I have been using their natural deodorant for years. However, we don’t like their antiperspirant, which had an unpleasant texture when applied and rubbed off onto our clothing. (I’m saying this in past tense because it’s been about 5 years since we tried it, so they may have changed it.) Anyway, we’d rather not suppress our perspiration; we want to sweat to stay cool, but without stinking. Tom’s of Maine does a fine job with that.
We recently tried Schmidt’s natural deodorant on a special offer from Grove. It’s almost as good as Tom’s. It works well and smells nice, but the consistency is slightly problematic: In winter, at least, you have to hold the deodorant against your warm skin for a few seconds before it softens enough to rub off on you; once it’s warmed, when you put the lid back on it tends to push a small amount of deodorant down so that it forms a crust on the edge of the lid. This isn’t a big horrible problem, just a few extra seconds for application plus another few seconds to wipe off the outside of the container every couple of days.
Here’s my experience with homemade deodorant made from coconut oil and baking soda. Commenters advised me that it would work better if I also added beeswax–but that would be a lot more trouble. I haven’t gotten around to trying it yet, preferring to buy deodorant.
An easy, thrifty alternative to deodorant is to swab your armpits with rubbing alcohol after washing, and maybe repeat it if you get very sweaty. Alcohol kills the germs that cause unpleasant odors. We used to have a housemate who did this and smelled pretty good. I haven’t tried it as an everyday thing myself–but when I was on my way to a job interview on a hot, humid day last September and realized I’d forgotten to apply deodorant, I coated my armpits with hand sanitizer gel (which is mostly alcohol) and that worked very well!
Katie at Kitchen Stewardship has an extensive review of mineral sunscreens and lots of detail on which chemicals are most important to avoid…and why you shouldn’t use sunscreen all the time.
One of the interesting effects of improving our diet over the years is that Daniel and I don’t sunburn as easily as we used to, and our two kids are not prone to sunburn. What I mean is that our daily routine, which involves walking around in daylight for 10-20 minutes at a stretch several times a day, never causes us to sunburn; we slowly get tanned over the course of the summer, but it’s a light tan. We only need sunscreen at times when we’re in more or less direct, constant sunlight for at least an hour. (Daniel does burn on the top of his head if he forgets to wear his hat.) Alba Botanica and Badger Balm sunscreens have worked well for us.
We love All Terrain Herbal Armor, which uses essential oils of citronella, cedar, lemongrass, and peppermint to keep the bugs off. We’ve found it very effective against mosquitoes and ticks; chiggers are not prevalent where we live, so we don’t feel we’ve tested it adequately against chiggers. We’ve also noticed that flies don’t buzz around our picnic as much if we’re wearing Herbal Armor. It smells good, if very strong! It stings a little if you get it in your eye, but it won’t hurt you. Although it also contains soybean oil to help the fragrant oils spread over your skin, it is non-GMO soybean oil, so no worries unless you’re allergic to soy.
We love Dr. Bronner’s castile soap! It’s made from organic, fair-trade ingredients in a recycled plastic bottle–which we can refill from a bulk jug at the food co-op. It seems expensive, but it’s highly concentrated; a quart lasts about six months for our family of four. It’s gentle on our skin and comes in a variety of tasty scents. It’s safe enough to brush your teeth with!
We also use bar soap in a soap saver. This enables us to make use of every bit of the bar, with no mess or waste, and making the soap saver cost less than $1. It makes good lather for shaving.
We use Dr. Bronner’s castile soap here, too, in a method foamer. Here are instructions for making your own foaming hand soap–it’s very easy and costs about 1/3 less than even the cheapest ready-to-use hand soap.
Lotions and Salves
Most of the time, we just rub pure oil into dry skin–either the last drops of cooking oil or coconut oil. It’s easy and affordable to use a product we have on hand anyway for cooking. Obviously, anything you can eat is safe to absorb through your skin. No worries about additives! Pure oil sinks into skin very thoroughly. The downside is that if you use even a little bit too much, your skin feels really oily, and the oil can rub off on your clothes or furniture. Use sparingly, and rub it in.
Coconut oil also is fabulous for skinned knees and similar injuries: Gently pat it on the scraped skin to alleviate that itchy pain and also help it heal by perhaps preventing infection. A few years ago, I slipped on autumn leaves and badly scraped my cheek, and coconut oil cleared it up beautifully in just one week, with no scarring.
I’ll sometimes buy a bottle of lotion or tube of hand cream to use at work, but I don’t have specific recommendations; it’s hard to find lotion that is truly made from all plant-based ingredients. (I recently reviewed Seventh Generation’s new baby lotion.)
For really serious dry skin or rashes, we use Kerry’s Herbals Miracle Salve—read more about it here.
We buy by the case and get the highest recycled-paper content we can find, either unbleached or whitened with hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine, because bleaching paper puts dioxins into the environment. We are currently using Cascades Moka toilet paper.
[UPDATE: Check out my article “What’s the REAL Cost of Your Toilet Paper?” for detailed evaluation of where to get the best price on the greenest product in 2018.]
I’ve cut my at-home use of toilet paper by at least half, by using cloth wipes after urinating and for some of the other tasks where I’d otherwise use toilet paper or a tissue. Our whole family uses handkerchiefs instead of facial tissues, cloth napkins instead of paper napkins, and cloth towels instead of paper towels most of the time, although we keep a small supply of the paper stuff for guests and very messy situations.
I am a big fan of the reusable menstrual cup, an incredibly simple alternative to buying a bunch of disposable products every month! My favorite is the Sckoon Cup, but the Diva Cup is also very good.
I also use cloth pads and pantiliners. These do require more maintenance than disposable products, but I think it’s well worth it for the comfort of wearing extra layers of underwear instead of a crinkly disposable thing! Mimi’s Dreams is my very favorite brand of pads. Your preferences may vary, so what I recommend is to buy one each of several brands with different features, to learn what you like. Try my shopping index for lots of options!
For those times when you really want a disposable product, Natracare and Seventh Generation both make disposable pads, pantiliners, and tampons that work every bit as well as Kotex or Tampax and are free of pesticides and chlorine bleach.
Diapers and Baby Wipes
We’re almost done toilet-training our second child, and we’ve loved our cloth diapers! Read the article for details; we recommend Mother-Ease diapers with Dappi nylon pull-on pants.
For wipes, we just use washcloths moistened with plain water. Reusable, chemical-free, easy, and cheap!
We have needed disposable diapers and/or wipes for some childcare situations and some travel. Lydia is now required to wear disposable training pants at preschool until she is fully trained. We like Honest diapers and training pants and Seventh Generation wipes and training pants. I’m not convinced that these products break down in landfills any better than other disposables, and I’m very wary of that superabsorbent gel, but I appreciate that these brands are at least trying to be safer for my baby and to minimize waste and pollution in their manufacturing.
There’s really no need to buy plastic microbeads suspended in chemical goo, when there are so many natural ways to smooth the calluses off your feet! Pinterest and YouTube are filled with recipes for homemade foot scrubs using inexpensive food ingredients like kosher salt and olive oil. My favorite foot-scrubbing method, though, is a pumice stone. This is a type of volcanic rock whose rough texture is great for removing dead skin without actually hurting you. Just scrub wet feet at the end of a bath or shower; after you get out of the tub, rub in coconut oil and put on socks. A pumice stone will last for decades!
If you have very stubborn calluses on tired, aching feet, soak them in hot water with Epsom salt for a long time (read a good book!) and then scrub with the pumice stone. Epsom salt is sold inexpensively in drugstores. In addition to softening your skin, soaking in Epsom salt increases your body’s magnesium level, which helps to relax sore muscles, reduce blood pressure, and relieve constipation and headaches.
What changes will you make this Earth Day? Do you have favorite green hygiene products that I didn’t mention?