By Laila Harris, MA, BA (hons.), WHEN Board of Directors
It was early on that I developed an interest and passion for the environment and for living a natural lifestyle. While my mother had always raised us to eat natural foods, use natural products, and moved our family away from Toronto to a forested paradise in Northern Ontario when I was 10 years old, it wasn’t until I went to university that my consciousness about the environment really began to develop.
At this time, my concept of the natural world grew from the enjoyment I had always experienced at being one in the calming beauty of natural landscapes, to a greater reflection on the meaning of nature in our society. In particular, I became interested in the ways in which cultural norms have lead us to mistreat the natural environment (and in turn ourselves), in favor of profit, capitalist gains, and near-sighted greed.
Through my academic research, the frightening things I learned about toxic chemicals and health also encouraged me to eliminate the use of toxic chemical products in my day-to-day life. Since then, I have continued to avoid using cosmetics and personal care products that contribute to the toxic load that most, if not all, of us bear as an inevitable consequence of living in a polluted world. I also attribute this lifestyle change to the natural upbringing I was fortunate enough to have as a result of my mother’s own awareness about living a natural lifestyle and cancer prevention.
My approach to choosing what types of products I will use on my body is actually quite simple and reduces much of the guessing game that can occur when we are trying to determine what ingredients in skin, hair, and body products are either safe or harmful to our health. The simple rule is: don’t put anything on your skin that you can’t eat. Thus, propylparaben, oxybenzone, and fragrance don’t make the cut. You see, as our largest organ, the skin absorbs much of what is applied to it, which then travels directly into our bloodstream and is transmitted throughout or body to be processed and stored. It’s easy to imagine that this can cause significant stress and damage to our organs.
While it may be hard to believe that companies will put extremely toxic and harmful ingredients in their products to increase profits, they do. We can also see that cancer rates continue to rise exponentially and for many, there is a clear connection. Thus, it is time that we take charge of our own well-being, raise our own awareness about the ways in which we can reduce health harms, and make the commitment to use only those products that are safe and nurturing to our bodies, rather than those that are laden with chemicals and other toxic additives.
The following is a list of personal care products that I avoid using, as I believe them to be highly toxic:
1) Hand sanitizer - Soap works just fine.
2) Conventional Shampoo - I clean my hair with a mixture of baking soda water, and essential oils – usually lavender. Though the mixture doesn’t foam, my hair is always left feeling clean and free of residue, while my scalp feels healthy and rejuvenated because of the scrubbing action of the baking soda, as well as its ability to restore PH levels.
3) Conventional Soap - because I’d prefer not to wash my body with toxins, I use only natural soaps
4) Anti-perspirant or deodorant - I use ½ tsp. baking soda mixed with warm water and rub it under my arms (this really works better than any deodorant I have ever tried, as it kills odor-causing bacteria and lasts the full day)
5) Anything antibacterial - Soap works just fine and triclosan, the active ingredient in most antibacterial products, is harmful!
6) Conventional toothpaste - I avoid fluoride and only use natural toothpastes OR baking soda. I should also point out that at 30 yrs. old and have only ever had 1 cavity
7) Conventional skin creams - no fragrance, preservatives, or other chemical additives should be touching your skin. Instead, opt for natural oils and butters – and no, they do not cause acne. (I suggest experimenting with different oils and butters to find out what works best for you and your specific needs. Olive oil, sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil, as well as shea butter are some great natural options that promote healthy skin and/or hair)
8) Conventional cosmetics - this one was tricky because I love makeup, but I’d rather not harm my body for something superficial. Besides, there are tons of natural cosmetics out there that work almost, if not equally, well and give you peace of mind
9) Perfumes and fragrances - while we all have our favorite scents, these products are packed with toxic substances that mess with your hormone levels and are very hazardous to your health.
For me, replacing toxic chemical products with natural alternatives has been a powerful form of practicing cancer prevention in my day-to-day life. With contaminants in the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat, as well as in our workplaces and homes, the use of natural products feels like one way in which I have some control over limiting my toxic exposure and respecting my body. Now that I am pregnant, this journey seems all the more important.
Note: if you are curious to learn more about the toxicity of ingredients in a specific product, I encourage you to visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/), which includes information on over 77, 000 products!