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How scary is your shampoo?

By Lisa Beyer

It might surprise you to know that pretty much everything in your house is full of chemicals that want to kill you. It surprised me, at least, and I consider myself a fairly green person. I’m friends with Mrs. Meyer, Dr. Bronner, and Burt’s Bees. If a drain clogs, I try baking soda and vinegar as the first line of defense. I bike on errands around my neighborhood, and, for years, even used a push mower before giving up because it folded the grass instead of cutting it.

poison-1314907But it’s when I started researching chemical-free cosmetics that I became a hard-core greeny, because it turns out chemicals are in everything. After just one day’s research, I threw away more than six pounds of products from my bathroom that contained phthalates, parabens, petrochemicals and more. I found ingredients I didn’t recognize — like toluene (which occurs naturally in crude oil and is used to make paint thinner and similar items) — but also ones I did — like lead in lipstick and formaldehyde in moisturizers.

It turns out there’s almost nothing manufactured today that doesn’t contain toxins. And Big Chemistry, the Satanic cousin of Big Tobacco, spends a lot of money to make sure you don’t know that. Millions of dollars each year are spent on lobbyists who ensure that anti-chemical legislation is voted down and that the industry continues to either self-regulate or to shape regulation to suit its (diabolical) needs.

Sound like a conspiracy theory? Sure, but the conspirators are Dow, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and the American Chemistry Council, which in 2015 spent more than $10 million lobbying to make sure the chemical flow continues (source: In 2013, they spent a record $12.25 million.

But maybe you’re a natural beauty, and you don’t use cosmetics. That’s great. But I’ll bet you brush your teeth and sanitize your hands and even wash your hair now and then (unless you’re a 12-year old boy). I’ll bet you own some furniture, buy meat that comes wrapped in plastic, and maybe you’ve used an ant trap or two before. Trust me, somewhere in your house — and probably everywhere — chemicals are lurking.

9780399573408That’s scary stuff. McKay Jenkins, in his book ContamiNation, wrote: “In every room of our houses, in every action we take, we are exposed to toxic chemicals.” He should know. Jenkins, a college professor and investigative journalist, spent two years researching the topic after he was diagnosed with cancer and grilled by researchers about all the chemicals he’d been exposed to throughout his life.

These chemicals — ingredients in almost every product we buy — are carcinogens, hormone and endocrine disrupters, allergens, immunotoxins, neurotoxins, and DNA mutagens. (DNA mutagens, by the way, are the building blocks of cancer. Although not every cell that mutates becomes cancerous, every cancerous cell first had to mutate.) To me, this sounds like science fiction of the most dystopian kind.

I don’t profess to being a scientist or journalist, and I’m sort of vague when it comes to politics. But I think lots of us are hip to the idea of cutting down on toxins, so I thought I’d share some of the steps I’ve taken so far in the hopes that you might, too.

No. 1) Start in the bathroom. Why? Because hot showers open your pores, letting the toxins absorb into your skin more easily. Read the labels and do a purge.

No. 2) Avoid synthetic fragrance in bath products and everywhere else, from cosmetics to detergents to scented candles. Unless fragrance is plant-derived (from essential oils, for example), it’s chemical. Perfumers, for example, don’t have to disclose which chemicals they use because perfume and similar products are protected as “trade secrets.” Read the label on everything in your bathroom, and if you see “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum,” toss it. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, 95 percent of the chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum. That’s right, petrol. The stuff we Yanks call gas.

eco nuts soapNo 2) Skip the dryer sheets. If you’ve always enjoyed the smell of dryer exhaust, you may change your tune to know these little beauties are Tox-Ick. Honestly? I miss that smell, particularly on my sheets, but I figure not dying is a good trade-off. Wool dryer balls, while not scented, do a pretty nice job of softening clothes. In the washer, I use either Soap Nuts, possibly the most ecologically perfect “product” ever invented, or Seventh Generation’s lavender-scented laundry detergent.

No. 3) Use Bon Ami cleanser as your go-to cleaner in the kitchen and bath. Bon Ami is a non-toxic alternative to all the chemical-based cleansers bon_ami_powder_cleaner_1_1_2013that most of us use. Just look at the health and safety warnings on your average toilet cleaner. Do you want to clean with something you’re advised not to actually breathe? Cause I like to breathe when I clean. It makes all that scrubbing easier. Bonus: Bon Ami has a cute chick on the container and only cost $1.97 at Target. I am in love with this product.

No. 4) Visit the Environmental Working Group ( to research product you use and find safe alternatives. EWG is a “non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.” Its mission is “to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment” and “drive consumer choice and civic action.” You can find information about virtually anything on the website: bug sprays, sunscreen, sustainable seafood, cleaning products, GMO foods, cell-phones, BPA and so much more. They have a database of health and beauty products called SkinDeep in which you can look up just about everything before you douse it on the temple you call your body.

Also check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ( These two sources aren’t always in agreement, so it’s best to learn to familiarize yourself with ingredients and decide from there.

Beauty-Think-Dirty-AppNo. 5) If you have a smart phone, download the free Think Dirty app, and scan or type in the name of your toiletries and beauty products (again, this is not just cosmetics but everything every single member of your family uses on his or her body) to see how safe they are. Products are rated from zero to 10, with zero being the safest and everything up to 3 considered safe. This app is strangely fun, and I was addicted to it for a while.

(There’s also a GoodGuide app that rates cosmetics, food, and just about everything, but I can’t recommend it because I couldn’t get it to work on my phone.)

No. 6) Don’t assume. Just because a product markets itself as green or cruelty free or packaged in 60% post-consumer recyclables or handpicked by newborn babies in Antarctica, don’t assume it’s safe. I was surprised to find products by Lush, Aveda, and even Burt’s Bees (owned by Clorox) that didn’t meet my newly strict criteria of not being manufactured by the devil.

No. 7) NASA says to get some houseplants (10–12 is the exact recommendation). If plants are good enough for Mark Watney, they’re good enough for me! I’m shooting for one in every room to start, taking care to find specimens that are not toxic to pets. I found out the hard way that one of my long-time favorites, the hard-to-kill Pothos (or Devil’s Ivy), is toxic after my kitten nibbled the leaves and started foaming at the mouth.

No. 8) Try making some products. After I dumped my Method bathroom spray in the non-aerosol bottle, I made my own with filtered water and essential oil. Essential oils can be picked up at Wegman’s, Mom’s Organic Market, and even Target and Walgreen’s (as well as a zillion places online). So far, I’ve also made detangler, laundry soap, dryer sheets, facial serum, kitchen cleanser, body lotion, facial scrubs, conditioner, dishwasher soap, clay face masks, and moisturizer — all with varying degrees of success but all fun.

No. 9) In the kitchen, your new best friends can be your grandma’s old best friends: vinegar and baking soda. It’s so easy to use these to clean it hardly counts as “making” anything. Just be aware that some homemade products don’t keep as long as store bought ones, particularly if you use water (even filtered water) in your recipe. The veggie wash I made needs to be refrigerated.

No. 10) Read McKay Jenkins’s book, ContamiNation. A friend loaned me her copy, and I stopped reading it on page 17 and ran (okay, drove, but my car is tiny) to the bookstore to pick up my own copy that I could take notes in it. Jenkins’s book has been called by reviewers “The Silent Spring for the body,” referencing Rachel Carson’s 1962 book about pesticides that’s credited with launching the environmental movement. (Incidentally, Carson herself died — of breast cancer — two years after publishing her book. Or maybe that’s not so ‘incidental.’)

So there you go. Try some or all of these steps, and try not to freak out in the process. Even a few changes are better than none, and maybe once you make a few, you’ll be encouraged to make more. If your body doesn’t thank you, the planet will.

You can read more of Lisa’s work here.

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