It’s been about 20 years since I’ve been focused on improving the quality of the food I eat – optimizing it for how it makes me feel, using it to manage various symptoms, and working to minimize toxins that I take in through my mouth. This is all very important!
But over the past few years, I’ve realized that food-related toxins are only a portion of the total toxic load we’re exposed to, and there are so many other non-food things I can focus on to minimize the toxins going into my body overall. There are often hundreds, if not thousands, of toxins lurking throughout our homes, and believe it or not, the things we breathe in and absorb through our skin do impact our health! It’s easy to think, “I’d never eat my laundry detergent, so I’m fine” … but you do breathe the fumes from it, and its residue and fragrances are on the clothes that are touching (and absorbed through) your skin constantly!
While I still know a lot more about food toxins than non-food toxins, and I’m still certainly on my journey alongside you all, I’m eager to share a few places we can all keep our eyes open for toxins at home. It’s not about throwing everything away today and never exposing yourself to a toxin again (that’s impossible) … it’s just about being aware and making gradual changes as you are ready. The good news is that our bodies are remarkably resilient, and one exposure (or dozens) will not cause a serious health issue. It’s all about the accumulation of exposures over time, and doing what we can to reduce that.
As I said, I’m on the journey with you – the products in my home probably look 70% different than they did a few years ago, but I’m still working and improving constantly! I hope you’ll join me after reading today’s blog post!
Are these toxins at home really dangerous?
When I talk to clients about reducing their toxic load, I frequently hear something like, “aren’t these things approved by the FDA?” And the answer is, like most things, “it’s complicated.” The FDA (food, water, drugs, cosmetics, and consumer products) and the EPA (chemicals in consumer products) both help out, but they both operate with several major limits:
- Chemicals are considered “safe” until proven otherwise (vs. in many other developed countries, where the chemicals have to be proven safe to be allowed on the market)
- Chemicals are tested in isolation, so when a limited exposure to one chemical is proven safe, that’s great … but it doesn’t consider the accumulation of the hundreds of toxins we get exposed to each day, all of which need to get processed by our liver, and the repeated usage of those chemicals over many years
- The government agencies count on product manufacturers to be self-policing and oftentimes leave the burden of responsibility on manufacturers, whose first priority is not always our overall toxic burden
The Environmental Working Group says bluntly, “U.S. law allows manufacturers of cleaning products to use almost any ingredient they wish, including known carcinogens and substances that can harm fetal and infant development. And the government doesn’t review the safety of products before they’re sold.”. Some of these substances are carcinogens (meaning they are linked to cancer development), endocrine disruptors (meaning they can disrupt hormone balance in the body), gut irritants (I talk a bit about the impact of toxins on our gut health here) and cite them as a reason we increasingly need probiotics here), and neurological irritants (meaning they can cause attention, memory, and behavior problems), among many others.
How to find toxins at home
A simple way to begin is to start reading the ingredient lists on products you regularly keep in your home! You might be shocked to see the dozens of chemical-sounding words that are in various items you buy without much thought.
It’s impossible to list out everything to look for on ingredient lists, but here are 4 very simplified guidelines I try to follow:
- The shorter the ingredient list, the better. Just like food, right? If there are tons of ingredients I don’t recognize, I prefer opting for a bottle that contains more ingredients I do
- Try to avoid “fragrance.” There’s a loophole in the FDA’s law on fragrance that allows the company to include almost any chemical it wants under this heading. And even when we do know what’s included, fragrances are often linked to asthma, allergies, breathing issues, hormone disruption, and more. For bonus points, also try to avoid “parfum,” which can be another word for fragrance.
- Try to avoid parabens. These are endocrine disruptors that have even been linked to cancer, insulin resistance, and more. When looking at ingredients, any word that ends in “paraben” (like “methylparaben” or “propylparaben”) is a paraben.
- Try to avoid phthalates. These have been linked to allergies, asthma, infertility, hormone imbalance, and abnormal reproductive development in babies. It can be tough to identify phthalates (here’s more on that), but many products are now labeled as “phthalate-free,” which is great.
7 Potential Sources of Toxins in your Home
Now we know how to check labels, but as I said before, you can’t replace every single item in your home right now. So let me give you a few places you might consider starting – these are the most common sources of toxins at home:
- Cleaning products. As we clean, we’re breathing in the fumes of these constantly – so if you’ve ever noticed a headache or “funny feeling” after cleaning, this could be it. The EWG tested 21 commonly used household cleaners and found that they emitted 450 chemicals (collectively) into the air – some of which were linked with asthma, developmental or reproductive harm, and even cancer. One of the main culprits is butoxyethanol, which the CDC links with breathing problems, low blood pressure, lowered hemoglobin, and increased acid in the body. The EWG’s “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” has great options and guidelines. I also like Branch Basics and Tee’s Organics.
- Water. We are lucky to live in a country with access to “clean” drinking water, which is largely free from harmful bacteria. That said, the standard filtration of most municipal water supplies leaves room for improvement. According to the EWG’s water ranking, Dallas has 74x the acceptable amount of arsenic, and 14 contaminants at levels higher than EWG recommends. You can check your own city’s water ranking here. I’ve also done independent water tests (where I test the water from my faucet and send it into a company) but haven’t found much difference from the Dallas city reports.My top recommendation for a water filter is the Berkey (see this post for more), but anything that filters out heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other contaminants without filtering out minerals is ideal!
- Non-stick pans. The non-stick feature that was so popular in years past actually contains perfluorinated chemicals which can linger in our bodies and the environment and can cause damage to many of the body’s systems, including liver, thyroid, immune, developmental, and reproductive systems. Healthier options include glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or cast iron.These are expensive changes, so breathe, and transition at a rate that makes sense for your family. Stress and urgency harm the body as much as the chemicals, likely! I love my Greenlife pans and my Always pan.
- Beauty and personal care products. This one is TOUGH! The average woman uses 12 beauty products per day according to Harvard Health, and honestly, this seems like a low number, even for a low maintenance woman like me! Just think about each product you use, from shampoo and conditioner to soap to makeup to sunscreen to lotion to ChapStick and so much more. They all add up, and they all contain a unique set of chemicals that our bodies need to detoxify!Again, take it step by step. The EWG has a cosmetics database called “Skin Deep” that allows you to search for your favorite products and see how they rank, and the Think Dirty app allows you to scan various barcodes. As you run out of a product, check out how it stacks up, and see if you can search for a cleaner option next. This blog post also gives great information about how to buy beauty products.
- Plastic food containers. The plastic from food containers (like Ziploc bags and Tupperware) can leach into our food, especially when heated. National Geographic reported that the average person consumes 39,000-52,000 microplastic particles per year, and inhales tens of thousands more!To combat this, I have gradually switched over most of my food storage containers to glass (I like this snapware), and I use Stasher bags instead of Ziploc most times. I still do have plastic containers and Ziploc in my house, but my usage has probably decreased by 90% – I’ll take it!
- Laundry detergent. All commercial detergents that I’ve seen contain artificial fragrances that we breathe in all day, every day (and all night, from our sheets). If you look at the ingredients in your detergent, I’ll bet you’ll be amazed by all the chemical substances that you don’t recognize. This adds up! The EWG has several approved laundry detergents that are healthier.I’ll be totally honest, this one is a sticking point in my household. Mainly because several years ago, I switched over detergents, and Kevin got an itchy rash on his legs, which he attributed to the detergent change. I believed him and felt terrible, so we reverted to our classic Tide. (Since then, we’ve realized he had poison ivy! But the guilt has scarred me from switching again, until this point! Before I hit publish on this post, I purchased Branch Basics, and I’m committed to switching over again!).
- Air fresheners, candles, and perfumes. These all can contain phthalates, which we discussed above. This article is a great write-up of why these can be harmful. Instead of traditional air fresheners, consider using essential oils, candles made with only essential oils as fragrances (check the ingredients to be sure), or keeping plants in the house – I find that plants really help, even with dogs around!
Want even more? Be sure you’ve listened to my Wellness Your Way podcast interview with Dr. Wendie Trubow, or seen the highlights here, for her take on toxins!
Now it’s your turn … Which of these surprise you most? Do you have any non-toxic products to recommend?