On a daily basis, we are exposed to many chemicals. They are around us – in our food, in staple consumer products, in the air. Let me first briefly explain what I mean by “chemicals”. I have debated whether to use the term “toxins” or “chemicals” and decided for the latter. Obviously, chemicals are everywhere around us. They are tenets of life. But here I am referring to bad chemicals or toxins that can interfere with our health. Especially with the little budding lives of our kids.
Before I continue, I want to make clear that while I do have favorite brands of many products I am not here to promote any specific ones, so I will give general advice and refrain from suggesting specific brands. Finally, as I started writing this blog I kept trying to keep it brief but I thought some things were important to say and I did not want to skip them. Since the blog became very long I decided to divide it in two. In this one, you can read about non-food related tips to reduce your kids’ exposure to chemicals or toxins. Most of these tips also have positive effects on the environment. Next week I will write about the food-related tips.
1. Change Laundry Detergent
Pay attention to the detergent you use. If you carefully listen to detergent ads you will learn that there is hardly anything more important in life than to keep white laundry white and to remove all stains from your kids’ clothes (grass stain from soccer, or mud stains from outdoors activities)? But is that more important than our health?
Landry detergents that remove tough stains or whiten clothes are most often replete with chemicals bad for our health. Many have been labeled as carcinogenic and cause concerns about nervous system effects, endocrine and developmental effects and skin effects among others. I am not saying that if you wash your kids’ clothes in such detergent once or twice she or he will develop and endocrine system disruption. But think about what a lifelong exposure to such chemicals can do to our systems. Kids are more susceptible to these effects because their bodies are still developing.
I have been torn about this – did I really want my kids to go out in stained clothes? People will think they are dirty and neglected… But, hey, I know their clothes are clean (and even ironed). The fact that there are a few stains does not concern me at all.
So, next time you are in the grocery store try to switch the laundry detergent to a safer one. I always go for a soda-based one. It has one ingredient – sodium carbonate that has close to no health concerns, and guess what? It will leave your laundry clean.
2. Never Use Fabric Softener
How should I put this? Fabric softener is your enemy! Loaded with fragrance and “quats” (quaternary ammonium compounds) softeners can trigger asthma, skin irritations and may damage our reproductive systems. They are also terrible for the environment.
Often times I visited newborns whose room, clothes and toys reeked of “baby” fabric softener. To my surprise moms that used the “baby softener” believed it was “gentler” and produced specially for babies. Trust me, nothing can be farther from the truth.
If the water in your home is hard and your clothes come out as cardboard try finding other ways to soften the water or your laundry after it is washed. But, stay away from the fabric softeners.
3. Carefully Choose Shower Gels and Lotions
Let’s talk about your child’s skin care. Many products out there that are labeled for babies and kids contain perfumes and harmful ingredients. Try to stay away from perfumes, parabens (propyl, butyl, isobutyl, methyl, ethyl) and petrolatum (and its derivatives).
Parabens are used as preservatives in many products. In all truth, at this point, I think it is impossible to stay clear of parabens (except maybe in the European Union where they have been banned). Present in over 90% of everyday products, they are really ubiquitous. But trying to reduce exposure to them whenever possible is a good thing. What is of concern about parabens (as with many other chemicals) is the overall cumulative exposure to them, during a lifetime. Parabens have been linked to reproductive, immunological and skin irritation problems and some studies found traces of parabens in breast tumors (though no causal relationship has been drawn).
Petrolatum, also present in products as paraffin is derived from petroleum. When used in cosmetics it is refined and through that process contaminated with PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). PAHs are labeled as possible human carcinogens and pose other health concerns.
4. Read Ingredients Carefully on Sunscreen Lotions
As you probably know, exposure to the sun can lead to skin cancer. Even though it has not been proven that sunscreens can effectively prevent skin cancer it is important to protect your kids’ skin with it every time you expose them to the sun. But not all sunscreens are the same. Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms: chemical and mineral filters.
Sunscreens with chemical filters, when applied to the skin, are quickly soaked in. They contain ingredients that are absorbed into our system and can be detected in people’s blood, urine and mother’s breast milk. Some ingredients block or mimic hormones thus disrupting our endocrine system. Typical active ingredients in these sunscreens include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Spray sunscreens usually belong to this group. Try to avoid these.
Sunscreens with mineral filters are usually based on titanium oxide and zinc oxide as active ingredients. These are the ones that leave you white for a long time after you apply them. In my opinion, they are a bit harder to apply since they are thicker. But they are worth it since their toxicity levels are very low. So, go for these.
Also, try to avoid any perfumed sunscreens. I know they smell like the beach or at least we associate them with it, but perfumes and scents in cosmetics are just bad for you.
5. Reassess Your Household Cleaners
Household cleaners are another way to inadvertently introduce chemicals to your home. The traditional ones that contain bleach, pesticides, perfumes and other chemicals can be harmful to you and your kids’ health. But, finding active ingredients in cleaners can be a tricky business. Many times they are undisclosed or misguiding. Also, the novelty “natural” or “biodegradable” cleaners, for example, can be misleading.
That is why I recommend making your own cleaners. By using simple ingredients such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, lemon, salt and some essential oils (if you care about fragrance) you can make your own solutions that can go a long way. Vinegar, for example, is a natural disinfectant and so is the hydrogen peroxide. If you are not up to it try to research the biodegradable ones or those with more natural ingredients (though there are many fakes in this area, so choose carefully).
Another important aspect about household cleaners is their antibacterial property. You should avoid products that are “antibacterial” because they can increase your kids’ resistance to bacteria. There is really no need to get rid of all the bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere around us, inside of us and on our bodies. There is only a small number of harmful bacteria in our daily lives, and they can be removed by regular hand washing with (not antibacterial) soap and warm water.
6. Minimize the Use of Plastics
Plastics should have a minimum presence in your kids’ life. Some may contain toxic chemicals that can be carcinogenic (bysphenol A, or BPAs) But even those that are BPA free have a substitute that is turning out to be even more damaging. I wrote about this in my last blog. Also, plastics are made of petrochemicals (some from crude oil, and most from natural gas processing). Some of the elements used in the production of plastics can be harmful to our health. Again, I am talking about a cumulative and long-term exposure to plastics. Finally, plastic has become so ubiquitous in the world. Our oceans are replete with particles of plastics that are ingested by fish, marine mammals, seabirds and other marine life. Do you really want to play a part in this pollution? I don’t.
Here are some ways to think about plastic in your life:
- Never store food in plastic containers. Just get rid of them. Instead, buy glass containers or simply save glass jars from other food staples you use.
- Never serve your kids food from plastic cups, plates or let them use plastic utensils. I started my kids on regular dishes pretty early. Yes, I was a bit concerned about them breaking the porcelain or glass dishes and getting cut. They did break a few, luckily not getting hurt, but they quickly learned not to throw them around. If your kids tend to throw dishes when they eat, then just buy paper plates and dispose of them after (granted, this is not the best environmentally-friendly advice).
- Never reheat food in plastic containers (in a microwave for example). When heated plastic containers may leach the BPAs and phthalates into the food.
- Minimize the use of plastic toys. This one was the hardest for me, mostly because plastic toys are so ubiquitous. But, still – try to go for wooden toys instead whenever you can.
- Get rid of the plastic water bottle and switch to a stainless steel one (even if the plastic one says “no BPAs”).
7. Do not Expose Your Kids to Cigarette Smoke
This one may sound like a no-brainer, at least to some of us. But in countries where smokers still believe they have the priority over non-smokers (i.e. Spain and Serbia, countries I lived in), and where the smoking population is large, kids spending time in rooms where adults smoke is a common sight. I was one of those kids. And I hated it.
I do not even know where to begin with describing how bad exposing your kids to cigarette smoke is. First I will say that I am referring to both second and third-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke is obviously being exposed directly to fumes coming from a lit cigarette. But third-hand smoke is an important source of toxins as well. Here are a few examples of the third-hand smoke:
- A loving grandma left the room to smoke and then came back. Her hands, hair, clothes, skin – they are all covered with toxins from smoking. She takes the baby into her hands and kisses her all over, thus exposing her to those toxins.
- Both grandma and grandpa are smokers and their home is their smoking heaven. You take your kids to visit but the entire home – furniture, curtains, walls, floors, carpets, bedding are impregnated with toxins from years of smoking. Your kids are exposed to it every time they touch something in that house.
When I visit friends and family in Serbia I find this to be the hardest thing to achieve. I definitely get faces and comments, not that I care, and I am certain I hurt some feelings too. But, to me, the most important and the ultimate goal is to keep my kids as healthy as possible. To learn how I deal with this on my travels make sure you keep up with my blog since I’ll be writing about it in future.
Next week read about the remaining food-related tips to keep your kids away from toxins.