It's 2019. You don't need to be a tie-dying, dreadlock embracing hippie to delve into the world of organic non-toxic living. This type of lifestyle is going mainstream for all the right reasons and we are all kicking ourselves that we didn't jump on the bandwagon sooner. It's not too late.
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My journey into this world began around four years ago when a friend started selling Beautycounter products. Beautycounter, as you may know, is a rapidly growing direct sales cosmetic and skincare company that prides itself on being free from over 1500 questionable ingredients, many of which are known carcinogens and banned in other countries.
Curious, I purchased a few products. I liked them, however, the high price point got me researching other "green" products on the market and I was surprised by the selection I found. I also stumbled upon the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep website, where you can look up most beauty and personal care products and see how they "score" based upon the ingredient list. They also have a Guide to Healthy Cleaning which does the same with cleaning products, and a ton of other invaluable resources.
Since then, I haven't looked back. I have systematically "traded up" everything from mascara to dish soap. It took some time but my husband has recently started to embrace this type of living too, most recently proudly coming home with natural deodorant and body wash.
Prior to 2016, I (along with millions of others I presume), was under the assumption that if it could be produced and sold to consumers it was safe. Oh how wrong I was. The regulations, or lack of, are actually kind of scary. Many of them are outdated and are also influenced by lobbing from various industries. Here are just some examples.
Food additives are incorporated into food products for a variety of reasons, including to maintain crispness, retain moisture, prevent caking, add colour, improve shelf life, artificially sweeten, thicken, improve appeal, etc. For the most part, these additives are far from natural or anything we would otherwise consume. So how are they regulated? According to Health Canada, each approved food additive has gone through a rigorous evaluation to ensure its safety. In the USA it is actually up to the company that creates and intends to use the food additive to do their own research and determine if it is safe. Is that not a HUGE conflict of interest? So what about all the research clearly outlining the negative health implications associated with the consumption of aspartame, carrageenan, sodium nitrite and nitrate, BHA/BHT and a long list of others, many of which are proven carcinogens? Not to mention a large percentage of the average diet is high in processed foods containing all kinds of food additives, not just one in isolation. Yikes.
As a rule of thumb, if the ingredient list has ingredients I don't recognize or can't pronounce I put it back and find a cleaner option, or at the very least, look them up. I recommend checking out the EWG's Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives for more information.
Washing our produce isn't always enough (but is important, find out the best way here). Just as our skin absorbs chemicals, so does theirs. Chemicals can sit on the skin and be washed off (with proper washing), but they are also absorbed by the skin and the roots via the plant's water supply. It is unavoidable, however by paying attention to the Dirty Dozen (the 12 fruits and vegetables that have been measured to have the highest level of contamination) and the Clean 15 (the 15 fruits and vegetables that have been measured to have the lowest level of contamination), it is easy to modify our choices and either avoid or eat less of the items on the dirty dozen, or choose organic.
Unfortunately, this issue goes beyond produce. Glyphosate (a component in the controversial weedkiller RoundUp) is classified as a "possible carcinogen" and has been in the news recently as it has been found at levels that far exceed what the EWG considers safe in a number of oat-based cereals commonly consumed by children. Further studies have found that wheat-based products are no better. The amount of Glyphosate legally allowed in the foods we consume is 127 times greater than what the state of California (who labels everything and anything that could cause cancer with a Prop 65 warning) considers safe, and this level is still 100x more than what the EWG considers safe (read more here). And still nothing changes. It is up to us as the consumer to look out for ourselves and determine what we are comfortable with. Eating everything in moderation and choosing organic, when possible, is the best we can do. Personally, I prefer not to feed my family any amount of weed killer, and I try my best to support the companies that use more natural means of weed control.
Just over 10 years ago BPA, or bisphenol A, was all over the news. Although it wasn't exactly public knowledge, it seems it had long been known that BPA was a potent endocrine disruptor, and it was finally being banned from use in baby bottles and formula cans. Canada was the first country to ban it with many others following suit. With all the attention BPA was getting, most companies took it upon themselves to eliminate BPA from all of their plastics. "BPA free" is now advertised on a majority of plastic bottles and containers sold in stores, and is something consumers have grown to expect.
However, BPA is still legal and alive and thriving in other areas many of us are unaware of. This is evident by the fact that a majority of the population has traceable amounts of BPA in their bodies. Paper receipts and canned foods are two of the ways we all continue to be exposed to BPA, and quite possibly at higher rates than we ever were with plastics.
Most of us are handed paper receipts daily and those who work in retail can easily handle hundreds per day. Just as our skin can absorb other things, studies have demonstrated that it can rapidly absorb BPA. Check out this resource from the Environmental Defense for more information and simple ideas to reduce your exposure. I have made an effort to say no to receipts if I don't need them, touch them minimally, throw them away promptly, not let my kids touch them and wash my hands after handling them.
Many of us also eat canned goods daily, weekly or at least monthly. A majority of cans are lined with BPA, which leeches into the food. This is almost worse than plastics as food sits in these cans for months or years and the canning process involves heating the can and its contents to extremely high temperatures. Heating BPA is the single worse thing you can do to release it into the food, and it's done before it has even reached the store.
BPA free cans do exist, however, the price point is generally much higher and it is unknown if the chemicals used in place of BPA are any better. Most companies are vague as to what they have replaced BPA with, the exception of Eden Organics.
Personally, I have significant reduced my consumption of canned foods. Alternatives to traditional BPA lined canned foods include fresh, dried, frozen, jarred (glass) and BPA free cans. What is in the can also make a difference. If it is something such as beans that sit in a liquid that is eventually rinsed off, the level of contamination is likely lower than something like tomatoes which are not rinsed and are also quite acidic.
For years, possibly decades, we have heard "Teflon is bad," " Teflon causes cancer," "stay away from non-stick cookware," yet most of us have kitchens full of it. Despite all of the research demonstrating that the chemicals used in non-stick cookware (under various names with Teflon being just one) are likely carcinogens and can leech into food, pans containing these chemicals are still legally allowed to be sold to consumers.
Once you have cooked with something non-stick it feels wrong to go back to something that both your meal sticks to and is time-consuming to clean. For a long time, I was skeptical that anything could match the convenience of non-stick, however, I have been pleasantly surprised. Even my husband can vouch for how easy it is to cook with a cast iron pan and to clean it. There are a number of other less toxic alternatives that are just as easy to use and don't come with a hefty dose of cancer-causing chemicals.
If you have non-stick pans and plan to keep using them for now, make sure you are not overheating them or using them if they are scratched. Baking pans can easily be lined with unbleached parchment paper to avoid contamination (as long as you are not overheating them). When the time comes to replace them, consider a less toxic option. Stay tuned for a post on less toxic cookware options.
PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS
We don't consume our moisturizer, makeup or deodorant so the ingredients shouldn't matter. . . right?
Our skin is our largest organ. We apply moisturizer for the sole reason to have it absorb into our skin. Think about nicotine and birth control patches . . . the chemicals are absorbed into our bloodstream via our skin. Our skin can and will absorb what it comes in contact with. It is not selective. Government regulations surrounding the ingredients of products we apply to our skin don't quite get it . . . or choose to ignore it. According to Beautycounter, there are 1400 different chemicals permitted in beauty and personal care products in the United States (and for the most part Canada) that have been restricted in the European Union. 1400! Don't leave it up to the government to decide what you should and should not put on your skin, as they clearly don't care. Do your own research into what your products contain.
What about cleaning products? If you wear gloves and open a window it shouldn't matter what you use?
It matters for many reasons. Regardless of gloves and ventilation, it is pretty hard not to inhale some of the toxic fumes. You will also leave residue on what you are cleaning, and most importantly these chemicals end up in our waterways and are terrible for the environment. Natural cleaners are often cheaper, are safer to use, better for the environment and can work as well, if not better. There is really no reason not to switch.
if you haven't watched "Stink" on Netflix I urge you to do so now. If you think chemicals in personal care products are poorly regulated, fragrance is a whole new ball game. The term "fragrance" or "parfum" generally includes a long list of additional chemicals which by law don't need to be disclosed. The fragrance industry is self-regulated which is not very reassuring. In my opinion the costs of having scented laundry, using air fresheners, wearing perfume or having yummy smelling hair or skin FAR outweigh the benefits. There are heaps of natural options available for all of these, either unscented or scented naturally with essential oils. Read the label. If the ingredient list includes "fragrance" or "parfum" there are up to a couple hundred additional toxic chemicals not listed.
Flame retardants have been around since the 70s when smoking was more prevalent and a majority of house fires were caused by cigarettes. Needless to say, the Tobacco industry had something to do with the invention of flame retardants.
Flame retardants are a group of chemicals that were developed to reduce flammability. They are used predominantly in the manufacturing of common household items such as furniture, carpets, bedding, and electronics. Some clothing even contains flame retardants, however not to the degree it did a few decades ago.
Unfortunately, most flame retardants are toxic and known to cause cancer and other health implications. Flame retardants are still legal and widely used, however gradually companies are realizing that consumers would rather not have these chemicals in their homes and are eliminating them from their products. A few companies that have done so include IKEA, Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel. If companies are doing this on their own they must be bad . . . so why are they still legal and widely used?
Purchasing GOTS certified organic textiles is a sure way to know they do not contain flame retardants or a long list of other chemicals used on and to make different fabrics. Terms such as "keep away from fire" or "ensure snug fitting" generally imply that flame retardants have not been used, and are commonly stated on kids' pajamas. Otherwise, doing your own research and contacting the company is the best way to determine if a product contains flame retardants.
The Reality . . .
These are just a handful of the ways we are exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals every day. Chemicals that are carcinogenic and/or known to cause other adverse health effects, but somehow remain legal.
This reinforces the reality that we need to be mindful of our own exposure to toxins as no one is looking out for us. Regulations are far too lax given strong evidence of the health implications of thousands of chemicals we are exposed to daily.
It would be impossible and unreasonable to eliminate them all (hence why the name of this post is "less-toxic living" and not "non-toxic living"), however, there are so many ways we can easily reduce our exposure.
Cancer is currently the leading cause of death in Canada, despite survival rates increasing. More and more people are diagnosed with cancer each year. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 1 in 2 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 Canadians will die from cancer.
Those numbers are shocking. Taking steps to eliminate as many toxins as we can from our homes is one of the relatively simple things we can do to help prevent becoming part of this statistic. We are healthy until we are not.
So where should you start?
If you are starting from square one, think about what will impact your health the most. What potential toxins do you consume or use the most? Make a list. Check the ingredients. Look them up. Determine the risk. Find healthier alternatives you don't need to worry about.
Check out my post A Beginners Guide to Reducing Everyday Toxins to help guide you.