Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Choosing a better (and greener) shampoo

Have you ever felt confused trying to find your way among the hundreds of hair care products available in local stores and salons? I have trouble sifting through all of the ginseng-infused, vitamin B-added claims. I often associate hair washing with green washing since these front-of-the-label claims often mask the not-so-great ingredients in many shampoos, conditioners and styling products.

There are many ingredients common to hair care products that are best avoided. “Natural botanicals” or not, if your products contain sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, phthalates (usually labeled “fragrance”) or parabens you should consider looking for another brand.

Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (SLS) is one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in shampoos. It’s the ingredient that causes that nice rich lather you see in ads, but also dries your scalp, stripping oils that are important to a healthy scalp and hair. It has also been known to cause skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, hair loss and follicle damage.

Phthalates are the synthetic fragrances that are known to be hormone disruptors (linked to reproductive problems, allergies and skin problems) and parabens are preservatives that mimic female hormones and have been found in breast tumor samples.

Any sort of product that you spray on is best avoided as well, since you’re bound to inhale what doesn’t land on your hair.

Also, buying health store-type brands doesn’t necessarily guarantee a less toxic product.

Health Canada requires that manufacturers list all ingredients on the product label, which sounds very responsible of them but what ordinary consumer has any clue what is and isn’t a toxic ingredient? Shampoo and styling product ingredient lists are complicated. That’s why I default to the brands that list upfront what isn’t in their product. Kiss My Face, Burt’s Bees and Desert Essence are three that are helpful in this way. Others, like Olivier (New Brunswick-made) have so few ingredients that it’s no problem at all.

The Environmental Working Group Skin Deep database (http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/) is a helpful tool for determining just how safe your hair care products are. They classify products into hazard ratings of low, medium and high based on the know ingredients.

Aubrey Organics score well in this database, as do Kiss My Face products. Burt’s Bees and Desert Essence have a hazard rating of low to low-moderate. Many regular drug store brands score middle of the road but a lot score in the red (high) zone. Shampoo bars score lowest of all. Not in the database but a great choice is Canadian-made Green Beaver shampoo.

One note about SLS-free shampoos, they often get a bad rap because they’re not as sudsy as regular drug store brands but you don’t need a thick lather to end up with clean, manageable hair.

Since all of these products get washed down the drain and into our waterways, be sure to use as little as possible. Chances are you don’t need to “apply generously” to get the job done.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Choose zero-VOC paints for your fall reno projects

Fall has always seemed like a good time to paint. I suspect it’s because we’re suddenly indoors more so can’t ignore scuffed walls, or are in need of a change before settling into winter.

I love the look of a freshly painted room. Slapping on a coat of new paint is one of the simplest and least expensive ways to renovate, a quick and easy way to lift your spirits. But while fresh paint may look wonderful a freshly painted room can be toxic. As long as you can smell fresh paint it is off-gassing VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which are toxic chemicals that can cause everything from headaches and dizziness to respiratory tract irritation, memory loss and visual impairment. Many VOCs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and are suspected of being as dangerous to humans.

The toxicity of these fumes can depend on a few things. Dark coloured paint emits more VOCs, some people are more sensitive to these chemicals, and the ventilation in the area where you’re painting will impact toxicity.

Before you get paranoid about repainting the kitchen there are a number of low or zero-VOC paints available locally that can have you breathing easier in your home.

Last fall we repainted two-thirds of our home’s interior. After doing a little research we chose Home Depot’s Natural line (CIL brand) of water-based latex zero VOC paint for our trim and walls. It’s the base that has no VOCs. Tinting the base will add VOCs so sticking with pale colours is your safest bet. This line of paint is EcoLogo certified.

Another option is Benjamin Moore’s Natura line of zero-VOC paints. These are more expensive (almost twice the price of the Home Depot paint) but according to Benjamin Moore the base and the tints are both zero VOC. If you’re looking for deeper tints this might be your best option.

Although these paints are zero VOC, they can still pollute waterways when washed down the drain. To minimize the impact to the environment when cleaning up after a painting project consider the following:

• Wipe the brushes with newspaper before washing in water.

• If you’re mid-job (or just taking a break) wrap your paint-laden brush in plastic.

• If you’re taking a break for more than a day, wrap your wet brush in plastic and place it in the freezer.

If you have used paint to get rid of, Recycle NB offers a recycling program that sees old paint recycled into new and even the paint cans recycled. This recycled paint (Boomerang is the brand) comes in 16 colours and is available at Kent Building Supplies. To participate in the program just drop off your unwanted paint to one of the Recycle NB depots (visit http://www.recyclenb.com/ for a list of drop-off locations). Old paint cannot go in the garbage.

With little or no paint smell to deal with, zero VOC paints make living through home renos easier than ever.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Reusing is my key to back-to-school sanity

The end of summer is one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, second only to Christmas. It’s a time when people shop for back-to-school clothes and supplies, whether school is part of their life or not. In the rush to get organized for September people often buy more than they need, which leads to an oversized carbon footprint for the season.

I know that back-to-school shopping has been underway since mid-August (earlier for many) but in our household we hardly give it a thought before September 1st. It’s not that we’re disorganized, it’s because there isn’t much that needs buying. We have simplified the whole process using two principles: reduce and reuse.

Last year we turned school supply shopping into a speedy, one-stop exercise simply by reusing school supplies from the previous year. This is our new back-to-school routine: In early September we sift through the pile of duotangs and such that came home from school in June to see what’s salvageable. We sharpen used pencils, gather last year’s erasers and scissors and dig out the few Hilroy notebooks that didn’t get used last year. With luck all we’ll have to buy this year are a few glue sticks, some loose leaf and a couple of packages of Hilroy Notebooks.

Back-to-school clothes shopping is even easier. It involves hauling out all of our children’s fall and winter clothes to see what fits, and then deciding what we need to buy before the snow flies. We’re never rushed to go shopping for fall clothes on warm, sunny August or September days especially since our kids likely won’t wear much of it until cooler weather hits in October.

If you have yet to finish (or start!) your back-to-school shopping, here are a few tips to make it a bit more eco-friendly and healthy:

• Do an at-home inventory before you shop so you can focus on what you actually need. This goes for clothes as well as school supplies.

• Consider second hand stores for your first round of shopping. When our children need pants we always shop at Value Village. They have a good selection of children’s clothes and they’re well-organized on racks, meaning we can be in and out in about fifteen minutes.

• When you buy new clothes wash them at least once before wearing. New clothes can be chemically treated with formaldehyde so they have a wrinkle-resistant sheen. That “new clothes” look you love can be toxic, especially for children. (Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.)

• When buying school or home office supplies look for those made from recycled materials. Staples carries a variety of products, from pens and pencils to duotangs and computer paper made from recycled or reclaimed materials. Naturally for Life – the eco store, carries some too.

• Use this September as a launch pad for packing a litter-less lunch. Use reusable containers, stainless-steel cutlery, cloth napkins and refillable drink containers to eliminate waste from your family’s lunches.

Reducing and reusing can be your keys to shopping sanity throughout the year.