Taking Clean Living beyond the Foods You Eat

Chemicals are all around you. Not all are bad or harmful, but many can be, particularly at high doses or if accumulated over time. If you want to reduce your exposure to chemicals, there are many ways to achieve this. Avoiding exposure to every possible toxin is impossible, but you can limit or take steps to greatly reduce your and your family’s exposure, which will help the environment to boot.

Beauty and personal-care products

Beauty and personal-care products are the least regulated products under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The FFDCA doesn’t require safety testing, review, or approval for these products before they hit the market, and hundreds of chemicals used in cosmetics and personal-care products have been reported to be toxic substances.

To avoid exposure to such toxins, some of which are known carcinogens, choose products that contain the fewest ingredients and that indicate they’re natural. To determine the safety risks of your cosmetics and personal-care products and to find the safest ones, search the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

In addition to buying safer products, you can further reduce risk by cutting down on makeup use and the length of time cosmetics remain on the skin. Because skin is highly permeable, the chemicals in cosmetics are easily absorbed. One study showed that users absorbed 13 percent of the cosmetic preservative butylated hydroxytoluene and 49 percent of the carcinogenic pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which is found in some cosmetics containing lanolin.

Always check with your healthcare team before using any cosmetics, even homemade products made from natural ingredients. This is especially important if your skin is compromised in any way. For example, if your skin is irradiated or you’re receiving certain biologic agents, products containing alcohol or that are heavily perfumed can be irritating.

Cleaning products

Natural has become a buzzword in the cleaning-products arena. But as with cosmetics, there is no regulation when it comes to these labeling claims, and many products that say they’re “natural” have been found to contain toxins. If you want to browse the safety of your cleaning products, you can do so at Household Products Database of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If you want to avoid exposing yourself and your family to the potentially carcinogenic chemicals contained in cleaning products altogether, you can easily make your own nontoxic solutions. Most likely, you’ll find all the ingredients you need — vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, and detergent — right in your kitchen.

The only specialty items you need are spray bottles for the all-purpose and window cleaners, but if you don’t have them, you can just use a bowl and dab and wipe in the meantime.

  • All-purpose cleaner: Mix equal parts of white distilled vinegar with hot water in a spray bottle. Shake to mix. Spray on the desired surface and wipe away with a sponge, rag, or paper towel. If you don’t like the smell of vinegar, you can add citrus peels to vinegar for a few weeks, strain the peels, and then make the solution by adding the hot water.

  • Creamy scrubber: Mix 1/2 cup or so of baking soda with enough water to form a paste that has the consistency of frosting. Apply the paste to the desired surface using a damp sponge. When you’re done scrubbing the area, clean off the sponge and then use it to wipe away the remaining baking soda.

  • Furniture polish: Mix 3 tablespoons of olive oil with 1 tablespoon of white distilled vinegar or fresh lemon juice (strained) in a glass jar. Dab a small amount of the solution on a soft cloth and wipe the wood surface. If you want to add fragrance, you can add a drop or two of essential oil (such as lemon, lavender, or pine) to your solution.

  • Window cleaner: Place 1/2 teaspoon of liquid soap or detergent, 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar, and 2 cups of water in a spray bottle, and shake it up to mix. Now you can use this solution as you would any commercial window cleaner: Simply spray and wipe.

Dry cleaning

The concern with dry cleaning is that many dry cleaners use perchloroethylene (perc for short), a chemical solvent, to clean garments and other textiles. In animal studies, perc has been shown to be carcinogenic, and several studies have shown a higher rate of certain cancers among people working in the dry-cleaning industry.

As with all health effects, the potential for an increased risk of cancer depends on several factors, including how much perc exposure there is, how often the exposure occurs, and how long it lasts. So, if you don’t use dry-cleaning services too often, there really is very little concern that your health will be affected.

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers

If you own your own home, you may find yourself applying pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers various times throughout the year. For these agents to cause any adverse health effects, you have to come in direct contact with them, whether through the skin or eyes, by inhalation, or by ingestion.

To avoid these routes of transmission, do the following:

  • Always wear personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, and eye protection when applying these products or, if you can, hire someone else to apply them for you.

  • Make sure to wash your hands after handling these agents, even if you wore gloves.

  • If you eat any produce on which you’ve sprayed a pesticide, be sure to thoroughly wash that produce prior to consumption.

  • Look for more natural products. Those marked “organic” may be a better choice. Alternatively, you can make your own pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Many nontoxic homemade remedies can be found online on gardening websites.

Building materials and home goods

Most building materials and home goods these days have green, environmentally friendly options. You can now find VOC-free paints, chemical-free carpets, formaldehyde-free insulation, and everything else you could imagine.

Although exposure to carcinogens from building materials is very low, particularly if you’re not working with these materials on a daily basis (for example, you’re not a house painter), selecting these products can make you feel like you’re doing something good for the environment.

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