Tag Archive for toxicity

Washing in the wilderness

Summer is finally here! Where I live, that means cottages, lakes and paddling and, for some, summer camp.

So, what should we be packing for the great summer getaway? And how to keep clean without damaging the environment?

I suspect that the first thing people think about – including those who write camp supply lists – is biodegradability.

All soap – in its pure form – is biodegradable, since it is essentially a detergent (something that grabs onto dirt and loosens it from a surface) that is made from natural sources (traditionally animal fat – now often vegetable fat – and lye, a strong alkali). However, the things that are added to soap, such as fragrance, dye, sudsing agents, etc. may well not be biodegradable. Furthermore, what you think of as liquid soap may in fact be a detergent made from petrochemicals. So biodegradability – or purity in the case of soap – is desirable.

However, biodegradability is not the panacea you might think. A biodegradable product is one that can be broken down by living organisms (usually bacteria). For the process to take place, the product has to come in contact with the bacteria. For soaps, detergents, shampoos, etc. that means they have to meet the soil where the bacteria live…soap will not biodegrade if it remains in water. This is why even biodegradable soaps should be used at least 200 ft away from water sources, to prevent pollution, and why used suds should be buried 6-8 inches deep in soil. This is something that is often overlooked by campers, however environmentally aware.

Another concern is that some biodegradable products contain sudsing agents, etc., that are known skin irritants (such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate) and that we might otherwise choose to avoid. Since ingredient labelling is not compulsory it is hard to make a call on this. My advice is that if companies do not disclose product ingredients, you might want to avoid them.

In fragile, natural environments, for those few fleeting months of summer, why not err on the side of caution and choose products that are as natural as possible? You might not get the lather you expect from your regular products, but maybe you can live without this for short while.

Here are some liquid soap and shampoo suggestions from the Environmental Working Group.

small olivier

I am just about to pick up products from Olivier Soaps, a New Brunswick company which scores a zero (best) on shampoo and soap and which sells both on-line and at a variety of bricks and mortar stores (including at a franchise store in Old Chelsea, Quebec).

Two final pieces of information.

First, a quick note on phosphates and lakes (which are a bad mix). Canada banned phosphates from laundry detergent in the 1970s and in 2010 both Canada and 16 US states banned phosphates in dishwasher detergents. So many of us do not have to worry about that problem any more. (Interestingly, this is an area in which the EU lags North America: it is only this year that the EU banned phosphates in laundry detergents and its ban for dishwasher products will not come into effect before 2015.)

Second a plea NEVER to purchase products containing the anti-microbial agent Triclosan (that means no anti-bacterial soaps, sponges, toothbrushes, baby toys, etc.). Triclosan – which is in up to three quarters of liquid soaps and nearly a third of bar soaps – has numerous harmful effects, including increasing antibiotic resistance, producing highly toxic dioxins and destroying aquatic ecosystems, due to its effects on algae. A very bad choice for the home and an even worse one for the cottage.

Last, but not least, think wash cloth and water when in the wilderness. We do not always need soap to keep clean.

A better way to eliminate static

This is a guest review from Cindy Scott.

Once I found out that regular dryer sheets are laced with animal fat and a cocktail of toxic chemicals, I knew I had to find another way to get rid of the static in the dryer. I looked at a few options, but the one that caught my eye was Static Eliminator Dryer Sheets. Not only are these chemical-free, but they can be reused for 500 loads, so create very little waste. And the fact there is no animal testing is sort of nice too…

Regular dryer sheets eliminate static by coating all items – including the dryer itself – in the same waxy, chemical (and often very fragrant) substance.


This prevents electron transfer and hence static build-up. Static Eliminator Dryer Sheets address the problem by conducting and equalizing any potential charge between different types of items in the dryer. (For more details on the science and the origins of the product, download an explanation here.)

The whole thing is a bit of a miracle as the `sheets’ just look like two pieces of tube-like fabric. But they seem to do the trick.

static small

I have used them with jeans, t-shirts, running gear, towels and bedding and they work perfectly. The only exception I have found has been a pair of cotton Lululemon yoga pants, which came out clingy, even though the rest of the load was fine… (perhaps it is a reaction with the funky seaweed that Lululemon adds to its fabrics?).

The manufacturer suggests that you wash the sheets after the first 3 or 4 uses to remove the build up of “gunk” from years of chemical and animal fat-laced products. Thereafter, a wash is suggested every four months or so.

The sheets are sold at a number of retailers in Canada and the US. They are also available online, direct from the manufacturer at $16.95 for two. As with many eco products, the up-front cost is relatively high, but the savings occur over the product lifetime. Another piece of good news: they are made by a family firm in Canada. And, if you sign up on the website, they will send you an email reminder when you are likely to need to change your sheets!

Making (eco-)sense of sunscreen

Prepare yourself for a longer than usual posting here. If sunscreen were a simple topic, I would write in my usual short and sweet way…. but, as you probably know, it is not at all straight-forward. Having said that, I will do my very best to make things as simple as possible and to provide you with some meaningful recommendations (and lots of links for further reading).

In an ideal world, we would all like a sunscreen that protects us from both UVA and UVB rays, is light, non-greasy and easy to apply, non-toxic and, of course, well-priced. If this is what you are looking for, I am afraid I am going to disappoint you. There is no sunscreen that has it all. However, there are a few things you can (and should) avoid, and you might as well be informed about the choices you will need to make, so read on.

Let’s start with a few sunscreen facts.
1. Sunscreens contain either physical sun barriers (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) or chemical barriers (the most common being oxybenzone).

2. Physical sunscreens generally turn your skin white/greenish (you can see the oxides) unless they are formulated with nano particles (so small that they are invisible).

3. The jury is still out on whether nano particles are safe. The EWG finds that they do not increase the amount of zinc/titanium absorbed, and is therefore not alarmed by them. Others, such as Friends of the Earth, campaign against them.

4. What does seem to be beyond dispute is that nanoparticles of zinc are considerably more damaging for the colon and intestinal wall than ‘regular’ zinc particles, so that sunscreens formulated with nanoparticles are more dangerous if accidentally ingested.

5. Oxybenzone – the most common chemical sunblock in north america – is a potential allergen and hormone disruptor which is easily absorbed into the body through the skin. Experts caution against its use, especially by children. This tilts the balance even further towards the use of physical sunblocks, especially those containing zinc oxide (which is a good UVA and UVB blocker).

6. Sunscreen SPF factors refer to protection against UVB rays (the ones that cause visible sun-burn) only. UVA rays cause skin damage and cancers too. UVA protection factors are not, however, recorded and many sunscreens with a high UVB rating have a very poor UVA rating. Indeed, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) approximately 60% of north american sunscreens have inadequate UVA protection. (NB. the EWG’s 2011 Sunscreen Guide gives an assessment of UVA/UVB balance for each product reviewed; products containing zinc oxide generally score well.)

7. In Europe sunscreen manufacturers abide by a voluntary code that ensures that all products provide meaningful UVA protection (is this why sunscreens are so much more expensive in Europe?). It helps that European manufacturers are able to use a wider range of chemical barriers than their north american counterparts. Compounds such as Mexoryl and Tinosorb appear to be safe and effective UVA blockers but are presently not approved (or have only limited approval) in the US.

8. Free radicals are damaging to our skin and our DNA. They are generated by UVA, which is why we need to look for adequate UVA protection. However….many of the ingredients in sunscreen – both physical and chemical – actually release their own free radicals. So we need to make sure that the balance is tipped against free radicals. The ingredient that seems to do the best job here is coated zinc oxide particles.

9. Very high SPF factors cause problems as they are often unproven and tend to lull people into a false sense of security (meaning that they do not reapply sunscreen as often as they should).

10. Many sunscreens contain vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate (a common ingredient of facial creams). This has been shown to be photocarcinogenic (i.e. in the presence of sun it can actually increase the incidence of skin cancer).

11. Sprayed or powdered sunscreens are generally a bad idea as too much product is inhaled.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line from the EWG (which is a mine of information on this topic) is to AVOID: oxybenzone, Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), added insect repellant, sprays/powders and factors greater than SPF50. Instead you should look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. If you prefer a chemical sunscreen, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX (or, in Europe Tinosorb) are the safest options. Cream sunscreens are best, waterproof is good and SPF 30-50 should suit everyone.

If you are not completely exhausted and confused and you still want to know what I do for sunscreen, here goes.
I am a fan of zinc oxide. I don’t mind being a bit white (at least I know I have myself covered), and I certainly don’t mind my kids going white. I do not lose sleep over nano particles, but I don’t quite see the point of them when the downside of the ‘big’ zinc oxide particles is just a little colour (or not, if the coating is right). For kids, especially, who tend to be limited hand washers, and keen ingesters of things on their hands, I would argue against nano-particles.

Apart from the colour, one of the big knocks on zinc-based sunscreens is that they are too viscous. Having tried various sunscreens, I can assure you that some are worse than others.

Aubrey Organics generally make very pure products and their sunscreen is no exception. It tends to separate a bit so you need to shake it before opening, but I like the consistency, once mixed. Badger products are generally good and the company has a very informative website. Heiko is a Canadian company whose sunscreen is nice for being more matte than some. It has a strong, somewhat medicinal smell, which I quite like (it used to rate a 1 (very good) on the Skindeep Database but it is not ranked at all this year: not sure why). Another good – and well-ranked by EWG – product is Loving Naturals (which is one of the cheaper physical block options). All these brands are available – not always widely but through at least one internet retailer – in Canada as well as the US. None contains nano-particles.

Overall, customers in the US have many more choices than we do in Canada and customers in Europe are better off still (at least in terms of efficiency, though prices are high).


A new product on the market this year is by the Canadian company, Green Beaver. It is the only Canadian product on the EWG’s top sunscreen list. It contains non-nano zinc oxide particles but is also non-whitening (due to the proprietary coating they use, so they tell me). The downsides? It is a bit greasy for me and it is not cheap at about $19 for 90ml (3oz). FYI the kids’ and adults’ versions are exactly the same formulations, just different packaging.

natures gate

This brings me back, at last, to the issue of price. You will not find a good physical sun-block that is cheap. Zinc oxide must be expensive! This makes summer an costly proposition if you live in a sunny area (which I don’t seem to these days) and have a large family (which I certainly do). One product you might want to try if you – like me – are cost-conscious is Nature’s Gate aqua block very water resistant (SPF 50). I used this on my family during a winter sun vacation and nobody burnt at all, despite being in and out of the water. The lotion applies nicely and is clear (those nano particles again: it contains 10% zinc oxide). Last year’s formulation contained oxybenzone but this year the nasty ingredient has been eliminated. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the new formula but I do like the price, around $10 or less for 118ml (4oz).

Phew, I hope that has been helpful. Sorry for the length. And please do send me your thoughts on sunscreens.

More green cleaning choices

I thought everyone out there had much more lofty concerns than me….but it seems that I am not alone in my search for good, green cleaning products.

My recommendation this week is a stainless and copper cleaner marketed under the Lagostina brandname in Canada and under Steel Glo (or sometimes Kleen King) in the US.

I bought this cleaner to clean my stainless saucepans (which it does extremely well), but I now use it more widely: it does a great job on cutlery but is also a stand-by as a mildly abrasive cleaner for pyrex, the cooktop and even my sink (which is Corian).


Just shake a little powder into a damp pot, scrub with a brush or pad and, hey presto, it is all clean. Even stubborn burnt-on food stains and those strange white marks that appear on stainless are easily removed. I hate to admit it, but this is a cleaning task I secretly enjoy.

I have always had my concerns about what might be in this loose, white powder which is marketed as non-toxic and biodegradable. Is it just baking soda? Or something far more noxious? I did a little research and discovered that the main ingredient (80-90%) is a mysterious-sounding substance called nepheline syenite. This appears to be a benign volcanic rock (non-toxic, non-carcinogenous, etc.) that is mined in Canada, amongst other places. The fact that it is mined does give some cause for concern, but I have not been able to find anything really damning.


So, if you cook in stainless or copper, or simply like a shiny kitchen, do give it a try. And if you know anything that I don’t about nepheline syenite, do let me know.

The product is made in the USA. In Canada it is available at Sears, Canadian Tire (in the pots and pans section, rather than the cleaning section), the Bay and Home Outfitters at a price of between $4-5 (one can lasts a while). In the US, Steel Glo is available here (only $8.95 for 3 cans). The Amazon price for Kleen King is three times higher and the product is the same.

Taking the litter out of lunches (part 2)

So now you have the right lunch bag, what should you put inside?

The next thing you have to worry about are containers for all the drinks, fruits, veg, sandwiches, etc.

Stainless and aluminium water bottles are now ubiquitous. They are much more healthy and long lasting than plastic alternatives. Generally, stainless seems to be safer that aluminium, because aluminium is lined and it is hard to be sure about the chemical content of the liner. But stainless bottles are heavier.

Pretty much all bottles are made in China, but some are longer-lasting than others and have tops and stoppers that can be replaced independently, which is a good thing as the plastic is more likely to leak over time than the metal. Overall, though, once we are rid of plastic bottles, we should be better off. Juice cartons (mini tetra-paks) are something else to avoid in lunch bags. Although they can be recycled in a few facilities, they are one of the most energy absorbing and complex things to recycle.

If you are buying a flask for hot food, look for the ones with metal inside. These impart less taste to the food (who wants to taste plastic or yesterday’s soup?) and are easier to clean. They aren’t fabulous insulators, but they are robust. Food will stay hotter if you remember to pre-warm the flask (fill it with boiling water and let it sit for a while).

Air tight (and mess-proof) stainless containers are non-breakable, easy to clean, very long-lasting and don’t stain or retain food odours. They come in many sizes and shapes, including an oval that works well for sandwiches and split compartment containers that can take many separate items. The downside is that they are expensive to buy. Most are in the $15 range but will last as long as your child does not lose them, especially if you keep them out of the dishwasher. I will post a full review review of stainless containers in the near future. Not surprisingly, they are not all created equal.

Petunias small

My favourite bit of lunch kit is the snack pouch (largely because these come in many pretty fabrics). I get mine from an Etsy store called Petunias. They are nylon-lined and have velcro closures. They can be wiped out easily and wash well. What more could you want? (OK, you could make your own from recycled fabrics, but I’ll leave that up to you).

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