Eartha Steward: Better bathing through chemistry? Look again
July 24, 2013
I'm stuck between a rock and an ugly place. I want to be as environmentally friendly as possible without letting my leg hair blow in the breeze or smelling like a beached whale. Is there a way to stay clean and green?
— Madison, Dillon
Yes my dear, there is! The balance between green and clean can seem daunting, but don't worry. Where there's a will, there's a way. The bathroom has become one of the most hazardous rooms in the house with all the personal care products that aren't as caring as they claim to be. A little know-how can go a long way in this department, and you don't have to look like you just got back from Woodstock, either.
Think of yourself as a secret agent of bathroom products. You need to check everyone’s backstory.
Unfortunately the Food and Drug Administration is not watching your back when it comes to beauty products. They have little to no authority over cosmetics and therefore do not review ingredients before they get to your bathroom. Since 1938, the FDA has only had the power to ban eight of the 12,000 different ingredients in cosmetics. Aside from those eight, we don't know what the rest of them do. Some may be perfectly fine, and others might be serious bad guys. It's hard to tell because the Cosmetic Industry Safety Committee allows cosmetic companies to police themselves. How can you say "no" to yourself? So think of yourself as a secret agent of bathroom products. You need to check everyone's backstory, and don't always trust what you read.
Personal care products are too often guilty of greenwashing. They decorate their labels with hot-button words like green, eco, biodegradable, natural and safe. These words are attractive to folks trying to do right by their purchases, but when it comes down to it, these words are just words. They have no real process of certification behind them, and big companies just use them like bright colors or flashy pictures to get our attention. Each time we buy something, we are voting to say that we support or don't support something. So we have to be careful. This sends a message to corporate America that we have standards and we can't be tricked.
So, where do you go in all this mess? I started in my own bathroom, and with the help of safecosmetics.org I was able to see what I really have stored there. I wrote down everything that I use on a regular basis — shampoo, conditioner, nail polish, lotion, ChapStick, hair spray and more. Then I used the site's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database to look up my favorite items and see where they fall on toxicity scale. Boy, was I surprised. Even some of my kids' products were destined for the hazardous waste department!
Common toxic ingredients you want to avoid include parabens, benzalkonium chloride, BHA, phthalates, coal tar, formaldehyde, hydroquinone and DMDM. Check the ingredients list on products before you buy them to avoid these carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins. I don't want any of those on my face!
You can switch out many of those harsh products with environmentally friendly ingredients that still get you clean. Start by finding products that have a shorter ingredient list. Products that contain ingredients you recognize are even better. Instead of that crazy perfume that makes your husband's eyes water, check out some amazing essential oil spritzers. Try Natural Grocers in Dillon or brands that have pledged to maintain their products' high quality — such as Nature's Origins, California Baby and Desert Essence.
To get an idea of how the products you use rank in terms of health and the environment, check out the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database at http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/. And if you want to know exactly what you're putting on your body, there are many recipes online to create your own safe products. Start by searching for your next favorite recipe for foot scrub, toothpaste or facial cleanser on great sites such as thedailygreen.com, realsimple.com. DIY is in, so why not give it a try while making your life clean and green.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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