In my effort to make our lives simpler, I’ve started down the path to reduce (and ideally eliminate) the harsh chemicals that my family is in contact with on daily basis. To be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the contents of household cleaners, detergents, and even personal care products that I used until we had our first child. Like most first-time parents, I was very concerned with everything my baby came in contact with. This concern created a desire to better understand the impact of the products we used in our home, their costs, and finding viable alternatives.
I feel sort of silly saying this, but I assumed that if household cleaners were being widely sold in stores that they were “safe”. However, the reality is a whole lot less definitive.
One sidebar to know about me, I’m a bit of a nerd, so when something sparks my curiosity, I start reading, keep reading, and …oh yes, read some more until I answer all my questions.
So… FYI I’m getting ready to nerd out for a minute.
There are a number of governmental organizations that regulate the products that are sold in the US. When it comes to consumer safety, organizations that can come into play are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission). The FDA focuses on food & drugs (obviously) and cosmetics, essentially any product that is designed for human ingestion or applied directly to the skin. The EPA focuses on pesticides and disinfectants (aka antimicrobial pesticides) primarily based on their impact to the surrounding environment. The CPSC is a more complicated organization in that the lines of their jurisdiction get a little blurry to me. From what I’ve found the CPSC regulates products that are designed for consumer use and not regulated by any other agency. The CPSC does regulate the labelling and packaging of products that are regulated by other agencies, but these package requirements typically are designed to protect children (i.e. child safety caps) or add specific warning labels. The labeling requirements do not necessarily force companies to list the ingredients of their products but rather indicate that a product is flammable, toxic, or poisonous. The CPSC does regulate laundry detergents, fabric softeners and carpet cleaners, but beyond that clears containing “disinfectants” are regulated by the EPA and products that are “antibacterial” can be considered a drug and are regulated by the FDA and if a product is labeled as “soap” but contains a cleaning agent other than lye, it’s considered a cosmetic and also regulated by the FDA.
With the regulation in place, that means the products on the shelves are “safe” right?
Well, not exactly…
For example, in the case of cosmetics it’s the burden of the manufacturer, not the FDA, to ensure their product is safe for consumers to use. The FDA is primarily concerned with color additives for these products.
In the case of disinfectants and cleaners regulated by the EPA, there’s a big gap. In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substance Control Act that essentially enlisted the EPA to regulate chemicals both new and already in production. Essentially, this law requires that the EPA maintain an inventory of “approved” chemicals to be manufactured, processed or imported in the US. When the law was first put into place all existing chemicals were considered safe and acceptable under this law and were grandfathered into the inventory of “approved” chemicals. This list had more than 60,000 chemicals on it!
Let me say that again….over 60,000 chemicals!
These chemicals were never tested by the EPA and what’s more the EPA had very little recourse to remove the “approved” chemicals from the inventory list. In June of 2016, congress approved an amendment to this Act that now requires the EPA to evaluate the safety of these existing chemicals. However, the details of this Act, the timelines for testing each of these previously non-test chemicals, and the priority/order in which those chemicals are to be tested, is (at the time of writing this post) yet to be defined. There are key deadlines for the EPA to put together test plans, timelines etc., but let’s face it even if there was a plan in place today putting 60,000 chemicals through rigorous testing will take years. So in the short run, it’s still up to us to determine what is safe to use in our own homes.
Determining if a product is safe to use, is easier said than done. One of my biggest frustrations with many of the chemicals we use in our home, is that the labels don’t provide a list of ingredients. Trying to find material data sheets on these products is also very difficult as most of these companies believe their formula is proprietary and they don’t want to make it available to competitors. As a businesswoman, I can understand this perspective but as a consumer, it makes me very wary of using these products.
Dollars and Sense
When I decided to try to start removing chemicals from our home, the first thing that I focused on was laundry detergent. I’d had my own negative experience with dryer sheets (my skin was covered in hives after wearing freshly dried clothes), so using “baby approved” detergent made sense to me right away. I started using specially formulated detergent for the never-ending baby laundry but, I kept asking myself how I knew this product was safe? I mean, I didn’t know what ingredients were in these products. The ingredients certainly weren’t listed on the packaging. I had to trust the labels that claiming the product is “hypoallergenic” and “recommended by pediatricians”. What does “hypoallergenic” actually mean? What are the requirements that must be met to call a product “
I started looking at the cost of the household products I was using. If I stuck with the “trusted brands”, from companies that claim to do rigorous testing beyond what is required by law, these products get expensive. The special baby detergent that I was using, cost around $0.25 per load, whereas my homemade laundry detergent costs me about $.01 per load. (I’ve been using it for over 5 years and I love it! I’ll post my recipe soon!) Further, a lot of my household cleaners, are in liquid form, which means they are mostly water. Yep, that’s right plain ole water. On Clorox’s website, they state that “Clorox® Regular-Bleach is 90% water”. Now, I’m not saying that all of my household products have this large of a percentage of water, but if my baby laundry detergent was 90% water that would mean that I was paying over $0.22 per load for water!
As I seek viable alternatives for the products I use in my home, I use the following criteria to evaluate replacements: 1) Simple Ingredients – I want to know and understand all of the individual ingredients that I’m using in my home no mystery ingredients please; 2) Cost Effective – while the health and safety of my family is of utmost importance, let’s be real here if the alternative is more expensive then it may not be a realistic option; 3) Easy to Make – Again, the alternative products need to be able to fit in our lifestyle. In order for us to realistically continue down this path, I’ve got to be able to easily fit these products into our lifestyle as spending hours and hours making household cleaners is probably not realistic for most of us; and finally 4) Effective – this is the most important item for me, if it is simple, cheap and easy to make but it simply doesn’t work to effectively clean and disinfect, then it’s simply not worth the trouble.
Our journey towards removing the number of chemicals in our home is a work in progress (as are we J). If you’re interested in joining us on this journey, I recommend starting slowly. Unless cleaning is your super power and sole purpose of your life, replacing the chemicals in your home and changing your cleaning habits can be a bit daunting at first. Changing to more natural cleaning methods can also be time consuming as you research various cleaning recipes and experiment to find out what works best in your homes. Through this series of blog posts, I plan to share recipes of products I use in my own home as well as my experiences with these products, their cost, and ultimately their effectiveness.