I started becoming aware of all the icky chemicals in our home and personal care products over 10 years ago when my husband, Scott, suddenly developed persistent respiratory allergies. His symptoms were mild, but the constant irritation made him more susceptible to colds and bronchitis. Eventually, he ended up being hospitalized with pneumonia. His first question to his GP afterwards: “Why is this suddenly happening to me?” Her answer surprised us.
“Are you using fragranced laundry detergent?” she asked. “Because I’m finding that many of my patients with these symptoms are sensitive to their detergent to the point that they’re getting sick. Why don’t you switch and see what happens?” She then literally handed Scott a prescription for Seventh Generation Free And Clear detergent.
Within a week of going fragrance-free I noticed that the skin on my face was less red and flaky. Before, I had taken it as a fact of life that the skin around the corners of my mouth would occasionally get red, itchy, and bumpy. As a layperson, I didn’t know that those symptoms added up to contact dermatitis, a skin allergy that occurs when the dermis makes contact with an irritant. My symptoms never came back.
As for Scott, his doctor was right! Simply changing our detergent completely eliminated his symptoms. He’s back to experiencing “normal” seasonal allergies for a few days at a time when pollen counts are high, and rarely gets sick.
That got me thinking: if changing a single ingredient in just one product made that big of a difference, what would happen if I changed even more?
Know Your Labels
Shortly after Scott recovered from pneumonia, I was hired by a medical industry publication to report and write about the industrial cleaning chemicals used in hospitals. The editor had the same question I did: could the chemicals being used in homes and hospitals actually make us sick?
That’s when I found out that there are currently no regulations requiring manufacturers of home cleaning products to list ingredients on their labels, or online. And it’s also why, when you look at labels, you often find vague terms like “surfactant” or “preservative” which could mean pretty much anything.
Even more confusingly, some chemicals react with the environment to create volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These contribute to chronic respiratory problems, headaches, and allergies. So what the heck are we as consumers supposed to do?
Three Ways To Choose Safer Cleaning Products:
Look for meaningfu third party certifications. Manufacturers love to “greenwash” their products by inventing bogus terms and certifications. Sadly, words like “natural” or “clean” are largely unregulated and therefore meaningless. Instead, look for Green Seal and Ecologo certifications, both of which require in-depth screening using a set of scientifically derived health and environmental standards. Need a product to sanitize your kitchen countertop or toilet? Choose one that’s certified by the EPA’s Design for the Environment Program to make sure it’s safe.
Not sure if a product’s safe? Plug it into the Environmental Working Group’s database of over 2500 products. Instead of giving you a blanket safety rating, they break it down by individual ingredients so you can make an informed decision based on your personal needs and ethos.
Pin and save the graphic below to use as a cheat sheet while you shop. Then scroll down to learn why I included each item on the list.
Undisclosed fragrances: Like Scott and I, many people have found that fragrances cause skin sensitivities and lung problems. In addition, fragrance has been identified as a major air pollutant, and,even natural fragrances can react with ambient ozone to form formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.
Triclosan: This antimicrobial agent has been linked to increased allergy sensitivities and thyroid problems even at low levels. I also urge you to question whether you really need an antimicrobial cleaner for the specific job you’re using it for. It turns out that a little bit of dirt – and the bacteria it contains – is actually good for us.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: Commonly found in disinfectant wipes, sprays and other household cleaners, this group of chemicals has been associated with asthma, reduced fertility, and birth defects in animals. NYU Langone Medical Center released a paper that explains the risk in detail. It’s worth a read if you’re concerned. (Or if you’re just a nerd like me!)
Ammonia and Bleach: Both chemicals are highly toxic, irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs, and can create dangerous chloramine gas when mixed together.
Ethanolamines: Commonly found in all-purpose cleaners, these chemicals have been linked to asthma.
What I Use Instead
I used the Environmental Working Group’s Guide To Healthy Cleaners to guide my decisions when I switched to safe household cleaning products. I like that I can not only find product recommendations, but also search their database for products I already use to see whether they’re safe.
Bon Ami – A mineral surfactant for scrubbing pots, pans, and grout
Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap – A gentle, all purpose soap for most surfaces
Mrs. Meyers Clean Day All-Purpose Cleaner – While I mostly just use soap and water on my countertops, it’s sometimes nice to have a spray. This one is my favorite.
Seventh Generation Free + Clear Laundry Detergent – I’ve tried others and this is truly the only clean, fragrance-free detergent that removes stains effectively.
CLR Calcium Rust Lime Cleaner – I use this to remove mineral buildup on the inside of my dishwasher
My Journey Into Clean Beauty Products
Interestingly, the same doctor who told us we should be concerned about inhaling fragrances told me I shouldn’t worry about the chemicals in personal care products.
“The dermis is a one-way street,” she said.
Other physicians echoed this sentiment throughout the years – including two dermatologists who prescribed me topical antibiotics and Retin-A despite the fact that the skin was supposedly an impermeable barrier. When I asked about this apparent contradiction, they offered blanket reassurances that anything questionable would penetrate at such a low level that I just shouldn’t worry about it.
Then I got pregnant.
At my very first appointment, my OB handed me a list of skincare ingredients that could potentially harm my baby. The journalist in me smelled BS.
“But wait, I thought you said the chemicals in skincare weren’t a problem.”
“Well,” she said. “There’s a lot that we don’t know about how these things could affect a developing fetus, and for some of them – like phthalates – there appears to be some impact the reproductive system. So…better safe than sorry.”
I believe that my doctors are good people who have their patients’ best interest in mind. But in that moment, it became clear to me that the information they’d been given was limiting their ability to carry out their mission. Much of that information had been bought and paid for by chemical companies and big pharma. I was going to have to do the legwork myself.
I started by simply avoiding the chemicals listed on the sheet my OB had given me, fully expecting my sensitive skin to become a hormonal pizza of cystic acne. Instead, the opposite happened: it be came clearer and less inflamed. As my journey into motherhood progressed, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Instead, the deeper I delved into clean beauty products, the better my skin got – even despite major hormonal shifts like breastfeeding and perimenopause!
My son, James, was about 18 months old when a friend invited me to check out the GOOP pop-up in San Francisco. While I the GOOP mission resonated with me, I wasn’t onboard with what I viewed as its exclusivity. Everything was just so expensive. Mainly, I went because I wanted to see the inside of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building that housed the store. Also they were apparently giving out samples, and yay for free stuff.
It was in the beauty section that day that I first discovered Beautycounter. I tested the Brightening Oil on the back of my hand and watched my skin greedily suck it up and immediately begin to glow. Intrigued, I checked the price, fully expecting it to be a $200 product. (I was, after all, at the GOOP store.) I was stunned to discover it was less than $70.
I asked a sales associate with poreless, glowing skin whether that was the right price. She told me that it was not only correct, but that was her favorite beauty product. I didn’t buy it that day, and instead went home with some helpful literature about the chemicals in beauty products.
What’s In tHere, Anyway?
That information served as a springboard into my own deeper dive into clean beauty products. I quickly discovered that personal care product manufacturers are not required to list all of their ingredients. (Sound familiar?) The fragrance category is especially problematic, as fragrance blends are considered trade secrets. That makes it even easier for manufacturers to use just about anything they please.
In addition, the United States has not passed any law governing these products since 1938. Stop and think about that for a moment: how many new chemicals and compounds have been invented in the last 80-plus years? By contrast, European Union has identified and restricted the use of 1,400 ingredients in personal care products. Here in the US, it’s just 30. Thanks for watching my back, Uncle Sam.
Making The Clean Swap: Three Tips
Beauty products – especially skincare – can be expensive. So when it comes to cleaning up your family’s personal care routine, you’ll want to be strategic. Here’s what I recommend:
Focus on the products that stay on your skin the longest. Think about it: you rinse off your soap after about a minute, but deodorant sticks around until your next shower. That means your skin has more time to absorb the chemicals in your deodorant than the ones in your soap. So start your personal care cleanup by focusing on products that stay on your skin for a longer period of time.
Consider surface area. While we only use a dab of eye cream every day, we spread lotion all over our bodies. That’s a lot of surface area that can absorb that particular product! Using a clean body lotion will therefore have a more significant impact than a clean eye cream.
Ditch the nastiest chemicals first. I shared the six ingredients that never touch my skin in an earlier post. That’s a great place to start! Once you’ve digested that info, head over to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website for a deeper dive into individual ingredients, and to see how the products you’re using stack up!
What We Use Instead
I’ve shared some of my favorite clean beauty products with you in the past, but as a skincare junkie, my routine is always changing. The list below is exactly what my family is currently using. You’ll notice there’s a ton of Beauty counter, and that’s not just because I’m a consultant and I’m hoping you’ll click and buy. I started working with them because I was totally hooked on their products once I finally bought the oil I tried at the GOOP store. The more I experienced the line, the more I came to appreciate and believe in their mission and products….to the point that I wanted to share them as an official representative. My family uses Beautycounter products not only because they’re safer, but because they work. Shoot me an email if you’d like to learn more about why I believe in this company.
Kids’ Body + Hair: Beautycounter Kids Bath Collection