Home Cleaning and Personal Care Products Guide

Home Cleaning Products Guide

Suppers facilitator Karen Nathan provides some insight, suggestions and recipes for less toxic home cleaning products:

Better Housekeeping: Be Green and Clean

DIY Recipes

Label Reading Advice

The Green Team: Useful Ingredients And Their Properties


Personal Care Products Guide

by Suppers facilitator Amy Frankel

There are many harmful chemicals in products we use every day. It’s hard to know what is safe and what to avoid. Most people who attend Suppers are conscious of the foods purchased in grocery stores or in restaurants, but they may be totally unaware of the effects of the chemicals applied to the body through everyday products. It only takes about 26 seconds for 60% of substances applied to the skin to get absorbed into the bloodstream. If a person is allergic to a certain food, they should generally avoid it in the products they use topically. Experts disagree about whether gluten in skin care products can cause a problem. If you are concerned, you can avoid gluten in your personal care items as well. I have read if you can’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin. Its common sense.

I started my research when I discovered the Environmental Working Group website. They list common chemicals found in hundreds of products and rate them according to toxicity in their Skin Deep Section. According to the EWG, some of the most harmful chemicals are triclocarban in soaps, retinol palmitate or retinol in skin care creams and lotions, triclosan in toothpaste, oxybenzine in sunscreen, fragrance in hair care, PEG’s, ceteareths, polyethyelene, parabens, propyl, isopropyl, butyl, isobutyl, DMDM hydantion, formdehyde and toluene, dibutyl (DBT) in nail polish and remover. There are critics of the Environmental Working Group that say such a small amount is added to products that they don’t cause a health risk. They have also accused EWG of looking to promote products they endorse for profit.  However, I found the site a good starting place to learn what chemicals deserved further investigating.

According to the Environmental Working Group, major safety concerns are in products used in hair straighteners. These chemicals are allegedly linked to cancer, allergies, irritation and hair loss. Loose powders can pose an inhalation risk, perfumes and fragrances can cause allergies, hair dyes are linked to cancer (I have heard there are non-toxic ones on the market labeled PPD-free, but you will need to do some research to find them). Skin lighteners can cause irritation and skin damage.

Other ingredients of concern are nanoparticles used in bronzers, eyeshadows, and sunscreens. These minute particles are not safety tested and do not have to appear on product labels.

Mercury labeled as thimerosal is found in mascara. It functions as a preservative and to make products anti-bacterial. Mercury has been known to damage brain function.

Aluminum Chlorohydrate serves as an astringent in deodorant and has been linked to Alzheimers and cancer.

I would stay away from anything labeled coal tar dye, mineral oil paraffin or petroleum byproducts. They are all carcinogens.

I am going to take you through some of the changes I have made, but you need to do your own research. Switching to more natural products takes work and time. Eventually it can become routine. Keep it simple. Read labels and don’t trust products just because they say “all-natural on the label.” The claim doesn’t mean they have been tested for purity. Be aware of the packaging as well as the product you are purchasing. Glass containers are probably among of the safest, since there is no danger of chemicals from the packaging leaching into the contents. Plastics with the number 1 for recycling have the highest density of polyethylene. Plastics labeled with the number 7 may leach into the product and become an endocrine disrupter. Numbers 2 and 5 are considered safer choices. Look for items that are fragrance-free. Fragrances often contain phalates, which are banned in Europe.

For basic skin care, you only need a basic cleaner, toner, moisturizer and a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Using the correct skin products is all about balance for your own body and can be determined through trial and error. Creating your own products gives you the ability to manage the ingredients you apply to your skin. Determine your skin type and use ingredients that will compliment your skin. When making your own products use caution with potentially harsh or irritating ingredients like lemons or tea tree oil.  Make sure recipes with perishable ingredients are refrigerated.

For people who are gluten-sensitive, it may be wise to look for products listed as gluten-free on the label. When buying products look for the USDA/organic label if you are concerned about pesticides. The symbol is a circle with “USDA” in capital letters and “organic” written underneath. It is the same symbol found on organic foods.  

Let me mention a few ingredients I have use in my own skin-care products.  

Coconut oil is an antioxidant. It protects skin from free radical damage and is a wonderful moisturizer.

Witch hazel is derived from a plant. It’s great as an astringent. It doesn’t have the drying, tightening effect of alcohol. Just be sure to use a good-quality brand.  When applied with a cotton ball, witch hazel removes traces of makeup and residues from other cleaning agents.

Castile soap comes in both bar form and liquid, and both can be used for bathing. I like Kurt’s bar soap for the shower. It doesn’t have a strong scent. My favorite liquid castile soap is Dr. Bronner’s.  It comes in both scented and unscented versions.

Apple Cider Vinegar is fermented with yeast and acts as a prebiotic. It removes product build up from shampoos and conditioners to restore skin and hair to their natural PH balance. It contains alpha hydroxyl acids is anti-fungal. If you make your own shampoo, your hair may need to go through an adjustment period while your scalp regains its natural oils that have been stripped by harsh chemicals. I like to apply apple cider vinegar as a rinse between shampooing and conditioning.

Honey is sticky and can feel strange on the skin. However, it’s a great moisturizer, is antibacterial and may fade scars. (I haven’t used it long enough to back this last assertion up.) I have also read that it can unclog pores and sooth irritation.

Bentonite Clay comes in a powder form. It’s made from volcanic ash and when used as a mask can draw out impurities in the skin.

Shea Butter comes from the seed of the shea tree. Pure unrefined shea butter acts as a moisturizer and has healing properties. It contains vitamin A, vitamin E, and cinnamic acid. It can help with a wide variety of minor skin issues including itching, small wounds, wrinkles, insect bites, and sunburn. The vitamin A acts as an anti-free radical agent. The benefits from vitamin E are not entirely understood, but it is thought to increase microcirculation to the skin to increase blood supply. Only the highest quality of shea butter will provide healing due to its high nutrient properties. Its healing qualities break down over time and lose its effectiveness. Pure shea butter should be used within 18 months. When purchasing shea butter look for the ASBI label. (Go on line to find the symbol). However, lesser quality shea butter will moisturize the skin with the same properties as coco or mango butter.   

Coco Butter is an emollient which means it has the quality of softening and smooths the skin. It contains a fatty acid which aids in retaining moisture and building elasticity.

Jojoba oil is similar to the oil that is in our skin.  It is light and silky and has a long shelf life.  Jojoba oil naturally seals in moisture, creating a barrier against external elements. It hydrates penetrates the skin to deeply cleanse by unclogging pores and removing impurities. It works well in products for both skin and hair.

Sweet Almond Oil is also an emollient. It smooths and softens more than it hydrates. It contains vitamin E and acts as an anti-oxidant. It’s good for healing and absorbs easily into the skin without being greasy.

Oat flour soothes, moisturizes the skin and calms irritation and inflammation. Just be sure it is made from gluten-free oats if you are concerned about gluten absorption. Or skip products made with oats.

Aloe Vera gel hydrates and adds nutrients and minerals to the skin.

Vitamin E oil acts as a preservative when added to homemade products to extend the shelf life.

Bees Wax is a natural byproduct made from honeybees. When used in skin care products it acts as a humectant, drawing moisture into the skin. Bees wax forms a barrier on the surface of the skin and protects against irritants, while still allowing the skin to breath. It also has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Bees wax contains vitamin A and has non-allergic properties, unless you are allergic to honey. It’s also a natural substitute for mineral oil. Bees wax comes in white, yellow or absolute yellow. The white form has been bleached, yellow is the crude form and absolute yellow has been treated with alcohol. It is important to use the organic form, since this fat-soluble substance will accumulate pesticides. Bees wax is found in lip balms, moisturizers, cosmetics and hair care products. It has a low melting point when heated and brittle when cold. It makes an excellent thickener.

Essential oils are a way to boost the effectiveness in homemade recipes and add a pleasant scent to your concoction. They are a plant-based, concentrated, powerful and have many potential health benefits. A little goes a long way and the oils must be diluted in a carrier oil.  Make sure they are organic and food-grade for purity. They should always be sold in a colored glass bottle to preserve the life of the oil. The plants should be grown in regions that are native to the area. When the plants are made into oils they should be processed at a low temperature to be effective. Poor-quality essential oils are not effective. Oils that say they are for aromatherapy or therapeutic grade are not effective. These are just marketing terms. The essential oil should have the Latin name as well as the plant name listed on the bottle. Stay away from perfume or fragrance oils. They are not the same as essential oils.  Some of the companies I am personally thinking about trying are DoTerra, Mountain Rose and Young Living.

Sugar and salt added to oils make excellent body scrubs and helps the skin stay soft and supple. As we age, layers of dead skin along with products build up block pores. Scrub a mixture of salt or sugar in oil using a circular motion help to remove some of the dead skin cells. This can also increases circulation by activating the lymphatic system to draw out toxins. However, be aware that exfoliated skin is slightly injured. Afterwards, be careful about sun exposure. Be sure to use a fine grade of sugar or salt for the face. A courser grade of sugar or salt can be used on less sensitive areas.

Bath teas are simple to make. Just boil water, add tea leaves and  steep for 10-15 minutes. Add the steeped tea with some herbs to the bath water to relax, calm or nourish the skin. Different herbs will give you different results. For example chamomile is anti-inflammatory, lavender is calming, green or white tea is stimulating.

To make facial cleansers begin with a gentle sudzing base such as castile soap. Add water or brewed teas like chamomile for anti-inflammatory benefits or green tea as an anti-oxidant.

You can create facials using tea. Boil water, open up the tea bags and add herbs or citrus peels. Cover your head with a towel and breathe in the steam. Make sure to cleanse the face first and moisturize afterwards.

Masks can clear up congestion while hydrating and adding minerals. Use Bentonite clay or activated charcoal (made from lava) to form a clay mud mask. You can also add things like coconut milk, mashed avocado, aloe Vera, papaya puree, apple cider vinegar or baking soda. For a stimulating mask add some peppermint extract or an essential oil. The length of time the mask remains on the skin is individual. Once the skin feels tight and dry you need to wash it off.

Add Epson salts to the bath water to calm sore muscles and lavender oil for relaxation.

Moisturizers can be very light and refreshing or heavy, thick and hydrating. Use fatty butters like coconut, shea, or mango for deep hydrating. Use semi-fatty oils like apricot or avocado for faster absorbtion. You can make body butter by combining one part coconut oil with two parts shea butter. Melt the butters together, but be careful not to burn them. Mix them together and put in the freezer until the oils are semi-solid but not hard. Then use a hand mixer to whip it up into a rich moisturizing cream. You can also add essential oils for pleasing scents or to improve the moisturizing properties of the butter. Add some vitamin E oil to extend the shelf life.

Many of my recipes ideas come from Pinterest. You can find out how to make different variations of body scrubs, moisturizing creams, shampoo, hair conditioners even makeup. I have tried some recipes that work wonderfully and others that need a lot of tweaking.

I found the following factoids gathered from The Economist, Campaign for Safer Cosmetics and The Environmental Working Group to be interesting:

  • The average women ingests 4 pounds of lipstick over her lifetime.
  • 11% of 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products in the US have been documented and publicly assed for safety.
  • 10 ingredients have been banned in the US cosmetic industry.
  • There are 600 companies in the US that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
  • 20% of all cosmetics contain at least 1 chemical linked to cancer.
  • The US spends $160 billion annually on skin, hair care, makeup, cosmetic surgery, fragrances, health clubs and diet programs.

Recently, the Senate approved an overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act. This  40-year-old law governs the use of toxic chemicals. The new bill will require new testing and regulations on thousands of chemicals. Under the current law, about 64,000 chemicals are not subject to environmental testing or regulation. However, the EPA will only examine about 20 chemicals at a time. Each chemical can take up to7 years to be evaluated. That’s a little too long for my comfort level!

Currently the EPA does not regulate the cosmetic industry. Individual companies are left to self-regulate.

Here is a list of books I recommend on the topics:

  • Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan
  • The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel
  • Natural Beauty at Home by Janice Coy
  • Organic Body Care Recipes by Stephanie Tourles

You can download the following apps that rate various products for toxicity: Think Dirty, Good Guide.

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