How I Limited My Exposure to Chemicals and Found Safe Alternatives to Toxic Consumer Products

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At the end of last week’s blog post about the fragrance loophole and greenwashing, I left you on a little bit of cliffhanger about what to do next. After reading all about the toxic chemicals that fill our everyday products, you might be thinking, “OK Heather, I’m terrified! How do I protect myself?!” So now that I have you scared out of your mind, believe it or not, there are actually several things that you can do to make sure that the products you’re bringing into your life are safe and healthy.

I would like to first add that clearing out all of the dangerous consumer products in our lives is not an easy task. Most people do not have the means or the time to throw out every body product and cleaning agent in their lives and purchase all new things. So I would like to start this post by saying that if you do want to clean up the products in your life, don’t be hard on yourself about it. Don’t feel like it has to happen instantly. Don’t feel like you have to know everything right away. I’m still learning about the fragrance issue and I’m still trying to search for replacements for products that I’ve used for years. So it’s OK if this change takes a few weeks or a few months, as long as you are making the change! That’s why I put together some information for you in this post to make the transition a little bit easier. I wanted to share a few things that I have been doing to limit my exposure to chemicals so you have a place to start.

Second, I wanted to mention that several people I’ve talked to about this issue of fragrance and greenwashing feel overwhelmed and helpless OR want to throw out everything they own immediately. I’ve noticed that some people approach the problem with the thought process of, “Oh well, everything causes cancer. There’s nothing you can do about it.” But that is not at all true. And if you ask me, I think that throwing your hands in the air and saying that you’re helpless when it comes to this issue is both irresponsible and lazy.

Yes, it will take some research, time, money, trial and error, but you will figure it out and you and your family will be much better off! It just takes doing a little bit of research and switching that automatic instinct to buying something, to one of curiosity about the product. It takes training yourself to flip over a product and reading the ingredients before throwing it in a shopping cart! It’s really that simple. With that being said, here are a few things that you should know that will make a difference in your life today.

The Think Dirty App

In this mission to rid myself of chemicals over the last several weeks, I went searching for resources to make it a little bit easier. As I discussed in last week’s post, even if you do read ingredients, you might not always be able to tell how safe a product is unless you’re very familiar with chemicals and their side effects. Plus, you can’t rely on products that appear natural, because most of the “natural products” contain fragrance and use sneaky greenwashing tricks. One of these resources I discovered is a magical little app called “Think Dirty.” I’ve downloaded many different apps to help me discover what’s really in our products, but none of them stack up to Think Dirty!

Think Dirty was started by a woman, Lily Tse, who had a long history of cancer and breast cancer in her family. Due to her own personal journey and research into consumer products she learned all about the fragrance loophole, greenwashing, and the irregulation of our products. Through her own journey, she discovered that finding safer products for herself was very challenging. So she wanted to create a tool for consumers that compares products easily and has transparency about the ingredients in them. That’s how Think Dirty was born.

Think Dirty allows you to search a body or household product and see the potentially dangerous chemicals that are in them. Each product is reviewed and researched so you figure out just how safe or toxic a product is before you make a purchase. Each ingredient listed on the product’s label is evaluated for documented evidence of Carcinogenicity, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, and Allergenicity & Immunotoxicity. This allows the user to see if the product is completely safe or if it could cause short term versus long term health risks.

It shows consumers this by listing every ingredient in the product and then ranks them on a “Dirty Meter” that ranges from 0-10. Products that are in the green are rated as a 0-3 and do not contain any ingredients which have a documented potential negative health impact; products that are in the yellow are rated as a 4-7 and contain ingredients that have a moderate negative long term health effect; and products that are in the red are rated as 8-10 and have potentially serious negative long term health effects.

What’s also great about Think Dirty is if any product is not on the app, you can scan the barcode, type in the product and company information, and it will be reviewed. Currently, there are over 1.1 million products reviewed on the app and it’s still growing!

In the Red

When I first discovered this app, you can probably guess what came next… Matt and I immediately went to the bathroom to look up all of our products and discover what they rated on the Dirty Meter, and what we saw on the screen was so disheartening. All of the common products we both used for years were in the red. Take a look at my favorite products and where they rated:

  • Summer’s Eve Cleansing Wash – 8
  • Dove Sulfate Free Deep Moisture – 8
  • Sensodyne Toothpaste – 6
  • Dove Clinical Protection Deodorant – 8
  • Mary Kay Eye Makeup Remover – 8
  • Soft Soap Hand Soap – 8
  • Burt’s Bees Deep Cleansing Cream – 5
  • Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Hand Cream – 8
  • Gold Bond Body Powder – 8
  • Barbasol Shaving Cream – 8
  • Garnier Fructis Flat Iron Perfector Straightening mist – 8
  • Bore Pore Cleansing Strips – 7
  • Alvera Aloe and Almonds Roll On Deodorant – 8
  • Formula 10.06 Sea Side Glow Skin Hydrating Peel Mask – 8
  • Burt’s Bees Brightening Serum – 8
  • Herbal Essences Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner – 8

So there I was standing in the middle of a huge mess in my bathroom, discovering for the first time the true dangers of the products I had lathered on my skin every day for years! I’m not gonna lie, I was completely overwhelmed. I realized that I had to replace nearly every body product I owned, which was no small task. It all started with a big box to throw away the old stuff, a notepad to write down the products I would have to search for, and several weeks of trying out safer alternatives.

With that being said, here are the six changes that I’ve made to drastically reduce the amount of chemicals I’m exposed to without losing my mind…

How I approached this transition

1. Purging all fragrances

My first order of business was purging every product that had a fragrance listed as an ingredient. This includes all cleaning products, all skincare products, all soaps. Everything. After watching the “Stink” documentary, I was very concerned about the fact that I didn’t know what was in the fragrance ingredient. So I first started removing all of that.

However, after I discovered the Think Dirty app, I realized that several of my products may not have had a fragrance, but that didn’t mean they were necessarily safe either. I also wanted to pull all those old products back out so I could learn if what I had been using in the past causes short term or long term health risks. I put a big box in the bathroom one night, read every single label and searched every item on Think Dirty whether they had fragrance or not.

2. Tossing out the high-risk products

It took about an hour for me to look up every product we owned and realize that 9 out of 10 of our products were in the red. So I decided that rather than try to replace everything overnight, I would concentrate on the products that were an 8 or higher. I would clear out the most dangerous ones first!

This, unfortunately, meant the products I use on a daily basis: the toothpaste, the shampoo, the conditioner, and the deodorant. The things that you use every single day which are more difficult to find a quick and safe replacement for. Some of the products I had to keep for a week before I could get my hands on safer toothpaste or deodorant, but they were my top priority.

3. Using Think Dirty to find new products

The next step required spending a few nights searching for replacements on the app. It also required me to evaluate what types of products I would be willing to use instead. Would I buy products that were only in the green and rated a 3 or lower of the Dirty Meter? Would I buy products that were green and yellow and rated a 7 or lower? What level would I feel comfortable and safe using from now on?

I ultimately decided that the products I would use instead would be a 4 or lower–meaning that they wouldn’t cause any long term health risks. Bumping it up to a 4 also meant that I could give myself some leeway and that I didn’t have to be perfect.

This step required some time on Think Dirty to discover products that were in the green but also were reasonably priced. One of the big issues with going fragrance-free and chemical free is that products that are the healthy replacements can sometimes cost 3 to 5 times as much as what you used to buy.

Another challenge is that the “safe” shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, soaps, etc., don’t work as well. They might not lather or foam up as nicely, or taste as good, or make you feel as fresh or squeaky clean as what we’re used to using, or last for as long. So this step could take you one week, or it could take you months to find a replacement. Stay strong, it will happen! It took me several weeks, but I finally found several replacements that I finally feel are good enough to use on my body every day. See below for my new collection of body products that pose no long term health risks!

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As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Side Note: Keep in mind that when using the Think Dirty App, you’ll have to look up each product individually. Sometimes a shampoo will rank as an 8, but a conditioner will rank as a 3. You’ll also have to look up each variation of the product. A product may be in the same line but have different scents or ingredients, which means that every product will rate differently on the app. You can’t just assume that every hand soap is in the green because you looked up one on Think Dirty.

4. No longer use body lotion

The next change I decided to make was to go natural for some of the products I use all the time rather than purchasing a new product. One of these examples is that I decided to stop using lotion and instead use coconut oil. It works just as well but it doesn’t require me to spend all day searching for something else, it’s inexpensive, and it’s completely natural. I don’t have to worry about a dirty meter at all!

5. Switched to natural tampons

Throughout the last two months of making this change, I knew that I had to focus on the other items I was using that I had also turned a blind eye to for many years, tampons. Our conventional tampons contain fragrance as well! Along with alcohols, additives, and hydrocarbons. Another issue with conventional tampons is that many of them are bleached, which leaves behind other chemicals that we soak up through one of the most absorbent and sensitive areas of the female body. For this reason, one of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to switch to completely organic tampons that I didn’t have to worry about using.

I came across one brand, in particular, that’s inexpensive, can be found at your grocery store or drugstore, and is in the green on Think Dirty! It actually has a little green check next to it instead of a number, that’s how you know it’s super safe! They’re from a brand known at Seventh Generation. The Seventh Generation tampons are BPA-free, fragrance-free, cruelty-free, and are made from 95% plant-based materials. It’s simple changes like this that can drastically improve your long term health.

6. Switched to natural candles with essential oil

Another item that I decided I should be paying equal attention to is the candles that we burn in our home. I no longer trust the Vanilla Bean Marshmallow Whatever candles that I used to buy on sale at Marshalls or Bath and Body Works. Instead, Matt and I are using candles that are natural-made with essential oils instead of a man-made fragrance.

7. Saying goodbye to the Amazon shopping sprees

The last two changes that I wanted to share are about the clothing that we wear. Because it’s not just our lotions and potions that are filled with chemicals. It’s actually on our clothes too. I mentioned this in the previous post about fragrance on clothing that gave me horrible allergic reactions and caused massive hives on my whole body. In my high school and college years when I was obsessed with online shopping, I used to buy so many blouses and graphic tees from Amazon.

It wasn’t just Amazon. I shopped on many online stores that you would see in the mall, but the majority of the time when I had a serious allergic reaction, it was caused by something that I bought on Amazon. Like a big, cozy scarf, or a pretty new blouse, or a sweater, or sports bra, or tank top. Many times I would open a box of clothing from Amazon and immediately smell the chemicals on them. These were the products that would cause the hives and the burning sensations on my skin. Because, as I mentioned last week, America doesn’t regulate chemicals as strongly as other countries too. Oftentimes a company will ship products to America where they can get away with selling it.

For this reason, I no longer splurge on online shopping sprees and fall victim to the “Buy Now With One Click” button. I make sure that I want and need something, and I shop around to find things that I know are not coming to me directly from a factory in China.

8.  I wash it before I wear it

This last piece of advice also relates to clothing. When you do buy a product, make sure you wash it before you wear it! One of my worst allergic reactions was from a headband from Forever 21. Even if it’s something so small, if it’s made out of fabric, it’s best to wash it. Remember the children’s pajamas in the “Stink” documentary I mentioned that were covered in DNA-altering chemicals? You can use all the sustainable fashion apps out there, but you never know what a product came in contact with before you owned it. Always take the time to do research and clean it before you drape it over your body.

Remember: These are just mostly suggestions on how to eliminate chemicals in body products, but there are so many other things to be conscious of including the clothing your purchasing, the cleaning products you use, and food you buy. Of course, it’s impossible to tackle these issues in one day or one blog post, but remember to start making changes in those areas as well. Our consumerist and capitalist culture has left us with so many challenges that hinder our health and well being. But I would like to help make it easier for you in any way that I can, one post at a time.

Let’s Be Honest!

Several weeks later I still have a few things that need to be replaced but I’m feeling much better than I was before I started this journey. It really just takes time. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by this change, maybe just make it a point to throw out one toxic product and buy a replacement each week.

Just so we’re on the same page, I’m not claiming to be an expert on this issue. I’m just starting to learn about it now. I’m simply a young woman who doesn’t want to get breast cancer, or have a heart attack, or become infertile… all because I live in a country where the profit of companies like Forever 21, Jergens, Bath and Body Works, Marshalls, Target, and Amazon are valued over the health and well being of all of our citizens. I have had many relatives who have died of cancer, and I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to limit my exposure to chemicals as much as I can and try my best to be a conscious consumer. But I’m not perfect and I still haven’t begun to figure out what I’ll use to replace the cleaning products we’re using currently.

I encourage you to do your own research on this topic and find ways to protect yourself as well. And when you do, please please please share your knowledge in the comments section below. Let me know the lifestyle changes that you’ve made to protect yourself and what your experience has been. Our government, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and our very own companies are not helping us. It’s up to us to help and protect each other.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments! Are you currently trying to go fragrance-free? What inspired the change? Have you had any bad experiences that made you switch your products? What steps did you take to protect yourself? Were there any resources that helped?

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Photo by Ray Reyes @rocketsciencephoto.

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