Have you pledged to get more serious about reducing the use of toxins in your life? Whether you’re at home or on the go, relatively simple changes can help you significantly reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
Following are four areas you’re most likely encountering the most harmful chemicals and what to do about it. Focus on one area at a time this spring, and by season’s end you’ll reduce your toxic load dramatically.
Which chemicals should you be concerned about?
The answer to this isn’t so simple. With over 80,000 industrial chemicals currently in use, we know very little about what’s in the chemical cocktail we’re exposed to every day. What’s worse is that only a tiny fraction of these chemicals (just a few hundred) have been tested for safety.
In the United States, companies aren’t required to prove chemicals’ safety before bringing them to market. Plus there isn’t really a way to test the combined effects of the small doses of numerous chemicals we might be exposed to simultaneously.
Scientific research has begun to explore some of the better known chemicals of concern, including phthalates, PCBs, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), flame retardants, BPA, parabens, formaldehyde and PVC. In our bodies, these chemicals disrupt hormone function, raise cancer risk, and cause other health effects we’re just beginning to understand. And they’re used in all sorts of products, from body lotion to flooring to furniture, even in our kids’ toys and school supplies.
Can you avoid them completely? Unfortunately, no. They’re everywhere now, in the water we drink and the air we breathe. But being aware that products on store shelves may not be good for us is a step in the right direction, and seeking out non-toxic alternatives can significantly cut our exposure.
1. Detox your beauty routine
What we slather on our skin can expose us to a huge range of chemicals. Tally up your makeup, soap, shampoo, conditioner, styling products, lotions, deodorant and so on, and you may find that you’re applying dozens, even hundreds, of chemical ingredients to your body every day. Read the label of conventional personal care products and you’ll see an array of ingredients linked to hormone disruption and cancer. If the word “fragrance” appears, then there may be any of more than 3000 proprietary chemical blends that could contain phthalates or other chemicals harmful to health.
What to do about it: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) maintains a database of more than 70,000 products and rates each based on what’s known about each ingredient. Look up everything you use in your beauty routine to find out how safe each product is, and keep only the ones with the lowest toxicity scores . Consider DIY beauty options as well, like simple coconut or almond oil for moisturizing, or witch hazel for toning.
2. Seek safer cleaners
The products we use to clean our homes provide another key route for exposure to chemicals that turn out to affect our health for the worse. Common chemical cleaners contain ingredients like formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, quaternary ammonium compounds (AKA “quats”) and other chemicals linked to respiratory problems, hormone disruption and cancer.
What to do about it: As with personal care products, finding non-toxic cleaners that still get the job done isn’t hard to do, whether you purchase cleaners free of synthetic chemicals or make your own cleaners from simple household staples like vinegar and baking soda.
Building on the success of its cosmetics database, EWG launched a second searchable database of cleaning products, so you can check toxicity ratings of more than 2500 cleaning products, everything from your dish soap to toilet cleaner. Don’t assume a given brand has the same rating for all its products. A surprising number of “green” products receive poor ratings for toxicity, even if other products by the same company get high marks. Be sure to check the specific products you use.
3. Choose chemical-free food and drinks
Sadly, much of the food we consume – even “healthy” food – contains numerous chemicals that have negative impacts on our health, disrupting our gut flora, messing with our hormones and increasing our risk for cancer.
What to do about it:
- Emphasize whole, organic foods to avoid chemical additives and residues.
- Avoid plastics in food packaging and storage when you can, even when marked BPA-free. Emerging research suggests that plastics of all sorts migrate into our food far more readily than we thought. Buy food packed in glass or paper where possible (note that most ) and get metal or glass storage containers for your leftovers. Never heat plastic in the microwave or put it in the dishwasher.
- Filter drinking water with a high-quality water filter and make sure your refillable water bottles are metal or glass. If you buy beverages, choose glass bottles rather than plastic.
4. Get savvy about stuff
Everything we bring into our house – from furniture to electronic devices to the paint we choose for our walls – may add chemicals to our air. Much of it winds up in dust, which we breathe or ingest as we go about our day.
What to do about it:
- While you’re unlikely to replace all the furniture in your house, you can make better decisions going forward, such as choosing a mattress made with natural materials, avoiding carpeting and choosing furniture free of flame retardants.
- Avoid cheap trinkets, which often contain dangerous heavy metals like lead and cadmium, according to a 2015 report from the Campaign for Healthier Solutions.
- Buy paint, floor finishes, and construction materials from a natural home store or online green building retailer. Use these green remodeling tips to make your next home project less toxic.
- Clean surfaces often with a wet mop or damp cloth to remove dust that’s increasingly filled with chemicals like flame retardants shed from electronics and household items.
- Fill your home with air-purifying plants! Many plants remove harmful chemicals from the air. Check out some of the best plants for cleaning indoor air.
While we can’t escape these compounds completely, knowing where we encounter them and working to avoid them can help us greatly reduce our exposure.