We are big on natural products. Chemical-free, fragrance-free, non-toxic, biodegradable, phosphate-free, sls-free, these are the buzz words on many of the products that we buy. But we don't buy them just for the cutesy buzz words on the labels. We buy them because we have chemical sensitivity, allergies and sensitive baby skin in our family AND we care deeply about the environment, so what goes in and on our bodies matters. We have found over the years that natural products (however you define it) are just better for us. Less sneezes, less headaches, less rashes, less worry if your kid gets some in their mouth and less harm to the environment. LESS IS MORE!
But beware! Many big companies are jumping on the green bandwagon trying to make their products look better than they actually are. What we have learned is that you need to look beyond the front label, be an informed consumer and read your ingredients lists. Know exactly what you are buying. If you care about the environment and want to ensure that what you put down your drain does little harm, then don't buy the soap that just says it is organic. Who cares? If it isn't biodegradable and contains phosphates you just poured a heck of a lot of soap down the drain that will stay in the environment, harming nature, for a long time - organic or not. Don't waste your money on a fancy label. Spend it on a good ingredients list.
What We Look For
OK, I'm no expert on the environment or product labels or chemical names, but I'm a mom who has tried for the past 5 years or so to buy the least harmful products for her family and the environment, so I do know a little about the buzz words and I know enough about the ones that are meaningful to us. But I still had to look some of this stuff up.
Non-Toxic - "Toxicity is the degree to which a substance can damage an organism", but toxicity is dose related. Water can be toxic if too much is ingested too quickly. If something says it is non-toxic then it probably means that if your kid accidentally got some in their mouth it would do no harm. It does not guarantee that if your kid drank the whole bottle that they would not get sick. Things that are non-toxic are better, in general, but still don't let your kid eat it and keep it out of reach.
Biodegradable - I love this one. This is the buzz word that will usually get me to buy (or at least turn the product over to look for the certification stamp). Products that are "capable of decomposing back into its natural elements" are considered biodegradable. But is there a standard for how long this might take? Some products will take 100 years to biodegrade, does that mean it is less biodegradable than the ones that takes a few weeks? Hmmmm. What do you think the company selling the 100 year product would say? They'd tell you it was biodegradable and charge you an extra dollar. So, look for products that are certified biodegradable by a trusted third party. Usually these (or the majority of the product) will biodegrade after 28 days.
Organic - This one is full of controversy. Organic, in general, means that it was made/grown without the use of chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, hormones, etc). But, because Canada does not have a standardized definition of organic, it means whatever a company wants it to mean. Organic to one company may mean no pesticides, but herbicides are ok. Or hormones are ok. Or only one ingredient on the list is organic so they call the whole product organic. If organic matters to you, look for products that identify each ingredient as organic, or a % of their ingredients as organic or even better, certify that the whole product is made of organic ingredients. You could be buying a toxic chemical cleaner that contains some organic fragrance. Does that mean the cleaner is organic? You have to decide. Organic tends to lose its meaning after awhile, so it is not on the top of my list of things I look for in household products. When it comes to our food though, organic really matters.
Phosphates - Phosphate use in household products has been linked to overgrowth of algae in lakes and streams. Phosphates are still in widespread use in dishwasher soap. Do you local stream a favour and buy phosphate free soaps, there are plenty available.
SLS- Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, or Sodium Laureth Sulphate, is a degreaser commonly found in personal care products. It is also a skin irritant. If I'm holding two shampoos and one has SLS and the other doesn't, I put the SLS one back on the shelf. I also stay away from it in hand soaps as I find it gives me an itchy rash. Lovely.
Phthalates - Phthalates are plasticizers, used to make products pliable, they are used as stabilizers, emulsifying agents, binders, and suspension agents. They have been linked to asthma, early puberty and other health issues. Some Phthalates have already been banned in California and Europe and more studies are currently being done to research the effects and make the case for more bans. BPA was recently banned in Canada in baby bottles (but nothing else...). Phthalates are everywhere: "In personal care items, they're used to help lubricate other substances, help lotions penetrate and soften the skin, and help fragrances last longer. They're also used in toys, electronics (such as personal computers), car-care products, insecticides, and many household products, including adhesives, plastic wrap, plastic containers, flooring, furniture, wallpaper, shower curtains, and other things made of vinyl or PVC." (quote from this great BabyCenter.ca article). Note that manufacturers are not required to list Phthalates specifically, but they can be included under the term 'fragrance'. Isn't that great? Ugh. Another great reason to buy fragrance free. Number 3 plastics or those labeled PVC contain Phthalates that can leach into your products, food or environment. If we can avoid Phthalates, we do, as I feel that it is best to err on the side of caution.
So those are the words we look for on labels and ingredients lists for our household products. I also still go by the general rule that if there are 100 things on the list or if I don't know what most of the ingredients are, I don't buy it. Also, not everything in our house is free of ALL of these things. I don't care that my shampoo is not organic. I care that it is biodegradable and SLS-free. I care that my kids' bath gel is Phthalate-free, SLS-free and that I can pronounce and know what all nine of the lovely natural ingredients are on the list. I pick and choose what is best for my family based on what our needs are and what is best for the environment. It is a shame to ever have to choose between them.
Our Favourite Products
These are the brand names of the products that we use at our house. Some we have used for years and years and couldn't live without.
Bar Soap (Grown-Ups) - We have used Druide Pur Soap for 5 years now. This was the bar of soap that got us on the natural living path and we haven't looked back since. I order it in bulk directly from Druide, a lovely Canadian company. You can also find it at many health food stores including the Big Carrot and Grassroots in Toronto. As a side note, the Pur bar soap does not leave any soap residue in your tub/shower. Really. Like, none. Zip. Which was a totally awesome surprise discovery for us because I never liked scrubbing dirty tub rings (who does?). Bonus!
Bath Soap (Kiddies) - Butterfly Weed Herbal Hug Baby Wash is the most wonderful bath soap for babies and children. It is handmade in Canada, natural and the bottle lasts for 6 months! We have used it since Liam was born three years ago and it is far superior to any other we've tried. We can only find this at the Big Carrot and Grassroots in Toronto so we buy a lot when we visit.
Shampoo (Grown-Ups) - I'm always trying out different brands and Green Beaver is the front runner and still my favourite (another Canadian company!), I would recommend this for sure. Most health food stores carry this.
Shampoo (Kiddies) - Recently, we started using Bert's Bee's for Liam's hair. It is pretty good, especially for a kid who HATES getting his hair washed. If you know of another good, safe brand that is also tear-free I'd be very interested to try it out.
Deodorant - Earth Science makes a great unscented deodorant that we've used for many years. Love it.
Face Moisturizer - I used to use expensive brands that made a lot of big promises, cost $40 a jar and would occasionally make me breakout. Never mind the fact that I didn't know what those long chemical names were in the ingredients list (if I could find one). So I tried Green Beaver moisturizer and found it to be just wonderful on my skin, not chock full of strange chemicals and much less expensive in comparison. Job done. Skin is moisturized.
Also, if you get a chance, it is very eye opening to look up some of your beauty products, soaps, deodorants, etc. here on the Cosmetic Safety database. Your skin absorbs 60% of what you put ON it. What you put ON goes IN. Scary eh?
Laundry Soap - Charlie's and Nellie's are our favourites. I bulk order Charlie's online from the Canadian distributor and it lasts us forever. Excellent for baby clothes and cloth diapers too. Nellie's is available at Lyn-Dys in London and Charlies is carried at Cheeky Monkey kids store in London too.
Fabric Softener - None. We don't use it. Fabric softener is a chemical with fragrance that is purposely left ON your clothes to make them feel soft and give off a scent. Which really sucks if you have allergies and chemical sensitivities. Fabric softener also makes water initially bead off fabrics instead of getting sucked in quickly. Ever wonder why when you go to dry your dishes using a fresh tea towel it just wipes the water around and doesn't actually absorb any? Yeah, that's fabric softener. We use cloth diapers, so not only are we concerned with keeping chemicals off our kids' skin, we need to make sure that the diapers can quickly absorb pee. Having it bead off the diaper and your kid sit in a puddle for a few minutes kinda defeats the purpose. So instead of fabric softener we use dryer balls (there are two kinds in that link). These are plastic (or sometimes wool) nubbly balls that roll around in your dryer, fluffing up and softening your clothes. Will your clothes be as fluffy/slimy soft as if you used fabric softener? No. But they wont be stiff as a board either. And they won't smell like some old lady's perfume bottle. We have used them for three years now and are completely satisfied and would never go back to fabric softener. It was an easy change. You can get dryer balls at any department store and health food store.
Dish Soap - We have tried many brands but Nature Clean, and Method are the main go-to brands for us. Really we are just looking for one that is biodegradable and phosphate free. There seem to be more available out there recently so that's pretty good! PS I love Method brand so much I once wrote them a letter telling them how fabulous their product was and how grateful I was to them for making good options available. Method is available at Shoppers Drug Mart and Nature Clean is widely carried by health food stores as well as in the natural food section of Loblaws stores.
Dishwasher Soap - Same as the dish soap - must be biodegradable and phosphate free. We are currently using Nature Clean, and often use Seventh Generation, but any brand will do as long as they meet those two criteria. I know Cost-co carries one brand that comes in a big bucket. Just seek and you shall find.
Hand Soap - Nature Clean makes a great unscented hand soap that is good for your hands and the environment. We love it. It also comes in a big refill bottle so we don't buy brand new dispensers each time.
Cleaners - Long ago, I would clean the bathroom with three different cleaning products (vim, windex and lysol). When I had a baby I wanted to rid our house of as many toxic chemicals as I could. Turns out it was quite easy to replace all three with one simple (and edible) product. Vinegar. For most of the cleaning in our house we just use vinegar - countertops, mirrors, windows. For antibacterial properties I've added about 20 drops of tea tree oil to a spray bottle full of vinegar. Works like a charm on faucets and toilets. When we need to do sinks and tubs and the toilet bowl I sprinkle baking soda on top of the vinegar I just sprayed on and then give it a scrub. Completely clean without the lingering smell of harsh chemicals. But it does make me hungry for french fries every time. And if Liam ever decides to climb up into my cleaning products shelf and drink some I won't need to call poison control. "My son just drank some salad dressing!" Also, if we're talking cost savings it is super super ridiculously cheap in comparison.What we save on cleaning products alone would make up for the small increases in price of the other things.
I'm always up for trying a new brand of natural product. If you have a favourite please let me know! I am currently seeking the following as we have not yet found our favourite:
Where to Shop
Look! Explore! Try just one new thing each time. You might just find something you really like!!!
The Big Carrot (OMG this is the best store) www.thebigcarrot.ca
The Sweet Potato www.thesweetpotato.ca
London & Area
The Healthy Lifestyle Store www.thehealthylifestylestore.com
Covent Garden Market www.coventmarket.com
Everywhere in Ontario
The Natural Foods section of Loblaws Stores (Superstore, Loblaws, Your Independent Grocer) or other grocery stores.
Your local health food store
The Healthy Lifestyle Store www.thehealthylifestylestore.com
Charlie's Soap www.charliesoap.ca