My Chemical Reaction

My initial interest in toxic-free products and foods was fueled by my realization that there were so many potentially harmful chemicals in the foods and products I was consuming on a daily basis.  Have you noticed recently that some products you pick up have a label that say something like, “formulated without sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, artificial dyes and artificial fragrances”?  If you’re wondering what all of those are and why you should be glad your shampoo doesn’t contain them, you’re not alone.  Prior to learning more about this subject, I completely trusted the fact that we live in a first-world country with credible regulatory agencies like the FDA, so it would be impossible that toxic chemicals would be in my deodorant or toothpaste, right?…   Because there is currently a lack of scientific consensus about whether certain chemicals in cosmetics and bath products cause things like cancer and and developmental concerns, U.S. law allows companies to use these chemicals in these consumer products.  In researching this article, almost every credible resource outlines the health concerns these chemicals are believed to cause but also states that there has not yet been overwhelming data to prove it.  The Washington Post ran an interesting article recently with a line that sums it up well, “Should you worry about the chemicals in your makeup, lotion, shaving cream, soap and shampoo? The answer is a clear maybe.”

Here’s a quick guide to some of these chemicals — what they are in and why they are controversial:

Sulfates
Two very common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).  They make products foamy and sudsy, and I’ve noticed it is included in lots of shampoos, toothpastes and soaps.  It is believed by some to cause skin irritation and nervous system disruption.  The National Institutes of Health gives the full scientific lowdown on SLS here.

Parabens
Parabens (like Isopropylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben) are chemicals that are controversial because they are thought to cause endocrine disruption, hormone imbalance, breast cancer, and infertility issues, etc.  According to the FDA, parabens are used in cosmetic products at such low levels that there is no risk in exposure.  You can read the FDA’s full summary on parabens here.  What I found most compelling about the statement is this: “The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) does not authorize FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes. In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.”  So cosmetics companies have the freedom to use chemicals like parabens in their products because there is no law to answer to in the United States.  Comparatively, the European Union has placed a limitation on legal limits of some parabens in cosmetic products, and has prohibited others entirely.

Artificial Dyes
Many of us tend to think of artificial dyes as existing mostly in foods like candy, Jello or Kool-Aid.  But what about the salmon at the fish counter labeled “color-added”?  Or why is your dish soap such a neon blue?  “Chances are, if you take vitamins, use cough syrup, brush your teeth, wash your hands, shampoo your hair, launder your clothing and moisturize your lips on a daily basis — you come into contact with artificial dyes quite frequently,” says Forbes magazine.  Read the full article here for an eye-opening look at artificial coloring which some scientists link to cancer and ADHD.

Artificial fragrances
“The word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate.  Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system,” according to the Environmental Working Group.  So there is a good chance that your favorite designer perfume or scented lotion with citrus or floral notes isn’t actually derived from an actual lemon or lavender plant at all, but is instead is scented by chemicals created in a lab.

 I don’t want to run around claiming that the sky is falling; that using these chemicals on our bodies will be the demise of the human race. Perhaps the reason that the scientific community has yet to convincingly prove the extent of these chemical’s toxicity is because they are indeed harmless.  But I always come back to this basic thought.  There are already misfortunes in life over which we have no control, like disease and infertility.  If it ultimately it is proven true that these chemicals are harmful and can accelerate or exacerbate these conditions, and I could have prevented them by using shampoo or mascara that was $2 more expensive and I chose not to, I’m really going to kick myself later.  So taking an extra minute to read a label and spending a few extra bucks on toxic-free products is worth it to me in the long run.

If you are interested in learning more about chemicals in cosmetics products, here are a few helpful places to start: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics & Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

Also, there are several companies that produce high-quality products without toxic chemicals.  Check out some of these as alternatives to your current products: Tarte, 100% Pure, Honest, Burt’s Bees, and Acure.

You’ve Got Mail

Every time I check my tiny mailbox, I am amazed at how many retail catalogs the poor postman has to stuff in there every day. When I yank them out, I feel like I’m watching a shtick with a clown car.  They just keep coming and coming!  And I never even requested one of them.  When you order something to be shipped to your home, most companies will continue to send catalogs after acquiring your address.  I decided that no good can come of this.  Firstly, I don’t need to be tempted to buy one more thing.  And secondly, I really don’t need paper catalogs because when I do shop it is always online or in a store.  Yet I keep receiving catalogs from Pottery Barn.  And Land’s End.   And Anthropologie.  And Bed Bath and Beyond. And so on.

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I decided to do a New Years cleanse and rid this unnecessary clutter from my mailbox and my life.  For a couple of weeks, instead of tossing catalogs straight into the recycling bin, I kept them in a stack in a corner of my apartment.  Letting them pile up like that made me more motivated about stopping these mailings because I could see right in front of me just how much paper is wasted by sending these booklets out to people who don’t want them.  On New Year’s Eve I sat down with the stack, my phone, and Dirty Dancing on mute (because nobody puts Baby in a corner).  One by one, I went through the catalogs and called the customer service numbers listed on each.  It took about 5 boring minutes per call to actually get through the phone menu and be placed on hold to speak with a human (hence having a movie on for entertainment).  I asked each service representative I spoke with to remove me completely from all mailings, and inquired how long it would take before I would no longer receive anything.  The typical answer was 6 weeks.  I also specifically asked that no catalogs be sent in the future, even if I ordered from the company again.  Some were very accommodating of this, like Anthropologie.  Some, like Eddie Bauer, reacted like I had just asked them to squeeze a cinder block through a garbage disposal.  For those companies that told me they could not guarantee removal from future mailings, I politely asked that they note on the call record or for their manager that I had requested this. I may be the one squeaky wheel at this point but if others request the same in the future, perhaps these retailers will alter their direct mailing practices.  If you are fed up with an overstuffed mailbox, I encourage you to try doing this.  It’s worth the chunk of time you will spend on hold listening to bad music, just to know that you’re not wasting so much paper every week.

I finally made my way through about 13 catalogs, and next I need to find a way to stop that useless free newspaper of weekly grocery specials that is stuffed into everyone’s inbox.  There’s always something…  But come mid-February, I expect I will have a much less cluttered mailbox and therefore an emptier recycling bin!

 

UPDATE: One of my favorite readers tipped me off that there are some websites that can save you time calling individual companies by stopping them all from one place:
catalogchoice.org (to stop mail from specific companies)
dmachoice.org (manage which mail offers you want and which you don’t)
coxtarget.com/mailsuppression/s/DisplayMailSuppressionForm (stop Valpak)
directmail.com/directory/mail_preference (national do not mail list)
optoutprescreen.com (opt out of pre-screened credit card and insurance offers for 5+ years – but won’t affect your ability to apply for a credit card whenever you choose)
valassis.com/1024/Contact/contact_home.aspx (stop red plum coupon packages/grocery specials).

This is great to know about and I hope it saves you some time.  Thanks!

It’s A Wrap: Why Reusable Gift Bags are Better than Wrapping Paper

With the holiday season here, I’m most of the way through packaging up gifts for my loved ones. At this time of year (and let’s be honest, starting at Halloween) beautiful holiday wrapping paper is on sale everywhere you turn. It’s tempting to buy a few rolls every year. However, by noon on Christmas Day the living room floor looks like a disaster area with discarded wrapper paper piles stacked high.  Stanford University estimates that “If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet. If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.” I’ve seen lots of eco-friendly alternatives to traditional wrapping paper like wrapping gifts in newspaper comics or brown butcher paper.  But ultimately that paper will still end up in the recycling bin (or worse, in the trash) after the gifts are torn open. So personally, I’m drawn to gift boxes and bags. They come in every size anyone could possibly need and in festive colors and designs, just like gift wrap.

The best places I’ve found in the DC area for stocking up on gift bags are Homegoods and World Market. Both usually have a great selection and bargain prices. After all the presents are opened, you can round up the gift bags, ribbons, and bows and store them away for next year.  364 days after being tucked away in a box in the back of a closet, and I promise they will seem new and exciting again. This year, I added handmade personal gift tags to each bag that I’d made from scrapbook paper.  You’ll be doing something nice for your loved one and for the planet.

Whatever kind of gift wrap you use, I wish you and your loved ones a happy and healthy holiday!

Recipe: Homemade Chex Mix

I could probably live without sugar and sweet desserts, but I definitely COULD NOT give up salty snacks.  A movie theater trip without popcorn is hardly worth it.  And if I feel the urge to binge on horrible, processed junk food it’s Cheetos or Doritos that call to me.  Because I know this about myself I try to keep some healthier, savory options around for snacking and one of my favorites is Chex mix.  The store bought kind is full of additives like malt syrup, trisodium phosphate, and “color added” (can you even call that an ingredient?!) so I adapted this homemade Chex mix recipe from Delish.com with some slight changes.  I hope you like it too!

Ingredients

4 cups cereal like Chex (I like Nature’s Path Heritage Bites)
1 cup Cheerios
1 cup pretzel sticks
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup cheddar crackers (I like Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies)
2 whole wheat bagels
2 teaspoons seasoning salt
½ teaspoon onion powder + 1 pinch
1 teaspoon garlic powder + 1 pinch
1 pinch dried basil
4 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons butter, melted
⅓ cup + 2 tablespoons olive oil

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Preheat the oven to 350°

Make homemade bagel chips:
Cut two whole wheat bagels into ⅛ inch slices.  In  mixing bowl, toss the bagel slices with ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil.  Add a sprinkling of garlic powder, onion powder, and dried basil.  Mix well and spread the bagel slices out on a nonstick or parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake for 10-20 minutes, checking often.  The chips will be done when they are golden and crispy.  Remove them from the oven to cool and set aside.  Lower the oven to 250°.

Meanwhile add all other dry ingredients in a large bowl.  In a smaller bowl, mix together the wet ingredients.  Pour this over the dry ingredients in the large bowl and mix until everything is distributed evenly.  Pour into two non-stick or parchment-lined baking sheets, making sure the mix is evenly spread.  Bake for 1 hour, mixing every 15 minutes.  Remove the mix from the oven and add in the bagel chips.  Allow to cool completely before storing in airtight containers.

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The Plastic Problem

Learning more about toxic-free living has heightened my awareness of how much plastic I use and waste every day.  It’s in everything from Metro transit cards to sandwich baggies to bottles of soap and beauty products.  So I’m trying to cut back on plastic for two main reasons…

BPA
It wasn’t until I started seeing products being marketed as “BPA free” several years ago that I began to wonder what the heck BPA was and why should I be free of it.  Recently I researched more about BPA, which the National Institutes of Healh (NIH) define as, “Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical produced in large quantities for use primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.”  Not only is BPA found in products that we would probably guess like water bottles, take-out food containers, and food packaging but also things like the linings of cooking pots and pans, and reusable metal drink cups, for example.

Even though consumer awareness of BPA has risen in recent years,  detectable levels of BPA were found in 93% of participants ages 6+ in a 2003-2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study.  This data is “considered representative of exposures in the United States. Another reason for concern [about BPA], especially for parents, may be because some animal studies report effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.”

I have become very stringent about using glass food storage containers knowing that almost daily I re-heat leftovers for lunch at work.  I also am moving over to metal and ceramic reusable to-go cups for my morning tea and smoothies.  These containers are a bit heavier and bulkier on the go, but that’s a small burden compared to the potential effect of these chemicals on my body and maybe future Hilary Jrs!

Environment
Another reason that I want to try to decrease my “plastic footprint” is to help out poor planet Earth a bit.  A few months ago I heard about something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), which sounded horrifying.  A bit of quick, unreliable Google Image research brought me to this photo:

Manila Harbor

Thankfully, this is not accurate despite looking exactly how I would have pictured a garbage patch.  That is actually a widely-spread photo of Manila harbor.  (Although, it’s still sad that this does exist at all).  The GPGP isn’t a huge floating mass of large pieces of trash that we might imagine from its name but actually a plethora of tiny pieces of plastic that have broken down over time. According to National Geographic, “The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.  About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year.”  So it’s very possible that a plastic Deer Park water bottle that was in my possession for about 20 minutes more than 6 years ago is now floating in tiny pieces in the ocean.

The garbage patch is a huge problem because it blocks out sunlight that is vital to sea life and therefore the food chain, not to mention that many marine creatures ingest the garbage.  Recycling is a great start but 1) think of all the events or outdoor activities that only provide a garbage can and no recycling option, and 2) we would be naive to think that ALL the products we throw in a recycling bin actually make it to a recycling processing plant rather than a landfill.

To keep my consumption plastic in check, I try to patronize companies with greener shipping policies like Honest.com when shopping online. Keeping my canvas totes in my car helps to remind me to always bring them into the grocery store.   I ask my dry cleaner not to use plastic bags to separate my garments and if I forget to ask, I knot the hanger holes and reuse the covers as garbage bags.  And I’ll keep trying to think of ways to diminish plastic from my life.  Planet Earth, I got yo back.

Recipe: Cranberry Orange Smoothie

Even before I realized that smoothies were trendy, I was making smoothies. In my parents’ kitchen after school I would pull bags of frozen fruit out of the freezer and drop handfuls into the Cuisinart mixer together with milk to make a sweet, frozen snack.  My  M.O. hasn’t changed much since then. But I have come up with a few tricks and healthier options. Every couple of weeks, I buy a few bananas, peel them, cut them in half, and freeze them in a Tupperware container.  They make any smoothie creamy and substantial.  I also keep on hand organic frozen fruit, either bought in the bag in the freezer section of the grocery store, or I use fresh fruit that I’ve frozen and stored myself. I keep a stash of mini containers of unsweentened almond milk, and I almost always have organic spinach in my fridge.  A handful of the leaves adds a vegetable serving to any smoothie without overpowering the taste.  With those ingredients, I always have the option to make a quick smoothie for breakfast or a snack.  A nice blender is probably ideal, but my kitchen is tiny so right now I use a multi-purpose Cuisinart mini-prep  and it does the job.  I’ve been using this recipe lately since cranberries are readily available in the produce section of the market.

Ingredients

1 banana, frozen
½ cup frozen whole cranberries
½ orange, peeled and cut into chunks
½ cup cold filtered water

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Cut bananas into 1-inch pieces and put in blender. Add the frozen cranberries and the orange chunks.  Pulse until coarsely chopped.  Add ½ cup cold water and blend until smooth.

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Detoxing My Daily Routine

Have you ever thought about your daily routine and how much of it exposes you to some sort of chemical?  Think about waking up in the morning and getting ready for the day.  What are the ingredients in your shampoo, soap, lotion and toothpaste?  What about in your make-up?  Do you prepare coffee or tea in a plastic to-go cup? Do you microwave leftovers in plastic containers for lunch or dinner?  The fruits, vegetables and meats that you eat throughout the day –where did they come from and how were they grown/fed?  How about lighting a candle to relax after a long day?

I’ve thought about these things a lot recently; they are all actions that are part of my every day. But I was shocked as I read more about the harmful chemicals in my personal products like lotion and make-up.  I was saddened to learn about how much plastic we use and waste.  And I was surprised at how many antibiotics, pesticides, and chemicals enter into our food supply chain.  But what choice do we all have, move to wooden lean-tos in the woods and live on wild game and berries, and never shower?

Um, no.

So since I’m somewhat of a material girl living in a material world,  I’ve decided to skip the lean-to and instead make small, slow changes in my daily routine — the products I purchase, the way I cook and eat, and reducing my overall product consumption.  I enjoy the constant challenge of being faced with options and choosing those that will help me and hopefully the planet in the long-run.

I’ll be sharing some of the great natural products I’ve found and the healthy recipes that have become favorites of mine as I try to detox my routine.  I hope you like them, too!