Thursday, July 26, 2012

Make Your Own Hand Soap

Have you noticed that more and more products are no longer antibacterial, but instead are advertising that their product washes away bacteria instead of killing it?  I have, and it kind of irritates me because we never needed the antibacterial chemicals added to our soaps, dishwashing liquid, or what not.  The most common additive to make a product "antibacterial" has been triclosan--a pesticide.  There are still many products out there that have triclosan or some other pesticide in them.

I know I should be grateful that fewer products contain triclosan, instead of grouching about it, but I know it's all about people getting suckered into buying something that's touted as "safer," "improved," "better for the baby," and it's not going to stop now.

There has been a lot of hoopla about these added chemicals, which I expect is causing the removal of them from products.  Some studies claim that the triclosan and similar chemicals can actually make super-bacteria: the bacteria that is not killed off by the pesticide reproduces bacteria that is resistant to pesticide.  Other studies say this is probably not true.  But either way, why should I expose myself needlessly to a pesticide?  Rub my hands in it, for Pete's sake!

There are good bacteria, neutral bacteria, and bad bacteria (pathogens) that cause illness.  But note the good bacteria.  It helps build our immune systems.  It's everywhere.  Stop trying to kill them--they're our own adorable bacteria, and they make us stronger.  Don't be a bacteria bigot!

Just washing our hands with plain soap and water gets rid of most bacteria anyway without help from pesticides. 

If you feel the need for an antibacterial soap, put a few drops of Tea Tree oil in your soap.  The Australian aboriginals have been using it for centuries to heal wounds and clear up infections.  I have not heard of Australian aboriginal men growing breasts from using tea tree oil, but there may be a connection between boys growing excess breast tissue and the use tea tree oil or lavender oil products.  Good grief!  What next?  Will we grow tails for eating too many bananas?

Here's an easy recipe for liquid hand soap:

1/3 cup liquid castile soap
2/3 cup water
5 - 10 drops of your favorite essential oil

If you like foamy soap, put the mixture in a bottle with a foam pump dispenser.  It mixes air with your soap to make the foam.  It's magic.  I bought my bottle at a food cooperative for $2.  You could also reuse one that you already have from another product.

You can buy liquid castile soap in many stores, especially health food stores and cooperatives.  The liquid soap may seem pricey, but it lasts a long time.  Dr. Bronner's soap is more concentrated than some of the others.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Scented Room

I like many different smells.  I love citrus and pine and lavender and any number of scents.  I think they're lovely.  But sometimes room scents are just too much, or they can smell a bit chemical-like.  When you notice that the scent is a bit overwhelming or doesn't quite have a completely natural scent, it probably is not natural.

When I was a teenager, it was the rage to have scented candles and incense in our bedrooms.  I had the little brass incense burners from India and big fat, scented candles.  When I was feeling morose (which was most of my adolescence), I would sit in my room becoming saturated with the smells of whatever I'd chosen to burn.

Today, products to create scent are a hot item for gifts and a little "me" time in the bathtub.  Women are the primary purchasers of these items and all the accessories such as holders for candles, incense sticks and potpourri.  We buy these for aromatherapy, mood-enhancements, covering up unpleasant smells, sometimes for a ceremony, a fashion accent, or event for lighting in the case of candles. The market is so good, there are specialty stores that just sell these items.

So, I used to like these smelly products--especially the berry-scented ones as I recall, but now that I'm older than dirt and I hope a little wiser, I don't like these strong smells anymore.  I pretty much don't want to smell anything unless I know it's truly natural and harmless.  When I go into a home with air fresheners, burning scented candles or incense or even potpourri, I don't find it appealing--I just wonder what I'm breathing.  I don't consider myself a paranoid person (though researching for this blog may lead me in that direction), but I am cautious about my health.

When you can smell it, you're inhaling it into your body.  Something to always keep in mind.

Air Fresheners

According to the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency, air fresheners have four basic ingredients:  formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellents.  They are typically highly flammable and a strong irritant to eyes, skin, and throat.  And they report that the solid versions usually cause death if eaten by humans or pets.   I'm guessing these are young children who are drawn to the pretty colors and smells, and are more susceptible to poisonings.

Prevention magazine reports a study which has shown that more frequent users of air fresheners have an increased link to reduced heart rate variability--which is linked to heart attack and high blood pressure.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did a study of several air fresheners which uncovered that 12 in 14 of the tested air fresheners contain phthalates--this included the unscented varieties and the ones claiming to be "all natural."  Phthalates can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.  A study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-National Institutes of Health determined that a chemical compound found in many air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, and other deodorizing products may be harmful to the lungs.

Those air fresheners are not sounding that good!  So how about a pretty candle?

Scented Candles

The U.S. EPA did a study on candles in 2001.  The conclusion for candles is that many candles used to have lead wicks.  Metal wicks were banned several years ago by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission--but candles with metal wicks can still be found in stores.  Burning lead wicks can generate indoor airborne lead concentrations of "health concern."  Check the wick to make sure there is no metal wire in the middle of it. 

Most candles are made from paraffin unless they state otherwise.  Paraffin wax is a petroleum by-product created when crude oil is refined into gasoline. It is a white, odorless solid that is formed into slabs, and it is the most commonly used wax for candle making.  Burning paraffin candles causes indoor air pollution.  A study by the University of South Carolina showed that paraffin candles emit toxic chemicals like benzene and toluene.  The study mentioned that soy candles do not emit these nasty by-products, but bees wax was not mentioned.  (I could not find the full study on-line for a look.)  An associate professor from the New York University School of Medicine advices to use caution burning any candles in enclosed spaces. 

Scents in candles are also mostly made from petroleum.  These oils can make the candle burn inefficiently so that black soot results.  This soot has particulate matter that can be breathed in to the lungs.

If you want to set a mood, burn unscented natural candles.  My favorite candles are made from bees wax.  I love the smell even when they're not lit.  I do have some soy-based candles scented with essential oils, but some of them have put soot on my slanted wall--I'm guessing because of the oils.


A study of temple workers in Asia showed that sustained exposure to incense smoke can result in damage to DNA and greater susceptibility to cancer.

A respiratory tract cancer study in 2008 showed an association of substantial incense use with respiratory tract cancer including nasal/sinus, tongue, mouth, laryngeal and other cancers, but not lung cancer.

Most people in North American are not exposed to incense on a frequent basis, but it's something to keep in mind, especially for people who smoke.  The combination of the two could cause more irritation to the respiratory tract and increase chances of various cancers.

Bouquet of dried lavender

Potpourri often consists of any decoratively shaped dried plant material (not necessarily from scented plants) with strong natural and synthetic perfumes (and often colored dyes) added.  Other vegetative materials with no scent may be added for bulk and a pretty mixture.   There are spray scents to use in potpourri--these are typically synthetic.

If you want to know what is in your potpourri (and thus what you are inhaling), you can make your own.  If you dry flowers or buy dried flowers, herbs, and spices and the fragrance is not strong enough, just add a few drops of essential oils.  There are many recipes available on-line if you do a search. Many health food stores sell dried flowers such as roses or lavender in bulk as well as many herbs and spices (including orris root which is used as a scent fixative).

Safer Alternatives for Freshening the Air

soy candle from
If you can improve your ventilation for more fresh air when it's reasonable, then that's a start.  Instead of covering up a smell, get rid of it, if you can, by cleaning.  If you still want some scent in your home, consider the following:

-  Use a natural air freshener that provides all ingredients on the label for you to check and does not have aerosol propellents
-  Make an air freshener spritzer with vodka, white vinegar, or just plain water and several drops of essential oils
-  Use pure bees wax or soy candles with cotton wicks
-  If someone stinks up the bathroom (not you, of course), just light a match and hold it in the air for a few seconds
electric Aroma Stone
-  Make your own potpourri so you have control of what's in it
-  Buy an electric or clay diffuser for essential oils

Don't let anyone else tell you what smells best.  Use your head as well as your nose.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Stinky Shower Curtain

When I moved into my apartment about 12 years ago, I bought a new shower curtain.  Since I only have a shower stall, I cut the curtain in half length-wise to save the second half for when the first half wore out.  (I am a frugal New Englander, afterall!)  The curtain had a strong smell in my bathroom for a long time.

After eight years, the first half was ripping off the shower curtain rings, so I discarded it, and pulled the second half out of the original plastic packaging.  The smell was intense.  After all those years, the shower curtain was still outgassing its chemicals because it had been folded up and stored in plastic holding in the toxic fumes--only to be released when I removed it from the package.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study in 2002 said the toxic fumes could be smelled in a house for over a month.  In 2008, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice performed another study which confirmed the approximate length of time the fumes remain in the home.

Key findings of the Center's report include that PVC shower curtains:

-   release over 100 chemicals into the air
-   contain high levels of phthalates
-   contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
-   contain organotins
-   contain lead, cadmium, and other metals
-   release an increase of chemicals with the rise of heat and humidity
-   are being phased out by retailers

Recommendations for consumers:

-   Avoid shower curtains made with PVC, as well as other PVC products, especially those that are flexible. These products are not always labeled although some may be labeled as “vinyl” or “PVC.”   This includes toys!!
-   Do not buy shower curtains that are not labeled.
-   Purchase PVC-free shower curtains made out of safer materials including organic cotton.

It can be confusing to know the difference in types of plastics since the name "vinyl" is often used for more than one kind of plastic.  The universal recycling symbol for PVC is the number "3."  (Note that very little recycling of PVC goes on.)  And when you're only given acronyms for plastic materials, it's the "C" for chlorine that should clue you in that it will be outgassing in your home.  When is "vinyl" not PVC?  The Healthy Building Network provides a quick primer on plastics.

I know more about this PVC plastic now, and I'd never buy a PVC curtain again! I figure I've got another four years to use the PVC curtain I already have.  It's already outgassed into my apartment a few years ago.  I like the idea of a fabric option as I could toss it into the wash and then hang it to dry.

And when my PVC curtain is worn out as a shower curtain, I won't throw it into the trash right away this time, I'll use it as a tarp for something else--like hauling autumn leaves into the woods.