By Lindsay Cohn
We all tend to hibernate at this chilly time of year, spending more time cozying up indoors. All the more reason to make sure your home environment is as free of harmful toxins as possible. Since there are some lurking where you least expect it, we asked experts where and how it’s most important to clean up.
The dirt: Laundry detergent
As much as you love your scented detergent, it’s hiding a number of risks.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, 95% of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil)—including benzenes, aldehydes, toluene and other toxic ingredients linked to skin irritation, rashes, headaches, dizziness, allergic reactions, respiratory conditions, reproductive issues, central nervous system disorders and even cancer.
According to a 2016 study, 34.7% of the population reported health problems when exposed to fragranced products. “The scent lingers, and even in sunny Florida, where our doors are open year round, I will start coughing like crazy the minute anything washed with a heavily perfumed detergent enters my home,” says Elizabeth Trattner, acupuncturist and integrative medical practitioner. Look out for the simple word “fragrance” on labels. Other nasties to look out for are solvents, sodium lauryl sulfate, 1,4 dioxane, bleach and phosphates. “Not only are these substances bad for you, but—like synthetic fragrance—they also pose an environmental concern. These chemicals run off into our water supply (rivers and oceans) and hurt the ecosystem,” Trattner warns.
Clean it up: Shop for eco-friendly and hypoallergenic formulas such as Mrs. Meyer’s, Nellie’s All-Natural and Seventh Generation.
The dirt: Air fresheners
According a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 86% of air fresheners contain dangerous amounts of phthalates, “the testosterone equivalent of BPA, which disrupts estrogen levels,” says Amanda Frick, lead naturopathic doctor for Harvey Health. “Phthalates interfere with testosterone production and cause issues with decreased sperm count and male infertility.” Another study linked women exposed to phthalates during pregnancy to children with higher rates of asthma. Air fresheners also contain synthetic fragrance, with its myriad adverse health effects (see above).
Clean it up: Purchase a paraben-, phthalate- and synthetic fragrance-free soy candle, or make your own mist by mixing equal parts orange, lavender and geranium essential oils.
The dirt: Dishwasher detergent
“As much as you want sparkling glasses, regular dishwasher liquid and pods can be toxic when heated. The more concentrated and scented, the bigger problems you’re going to have,” says Dr. Trattner. Scan the label for chlorine bleach, phosphates, phthalates, petroleum derivatives, synthetic fragrance and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “Hot water transforms these chemicals into gas, which is particularly problematic if you have allergies, asthma, environmental sensitivities or any autoimmune disease.”
Clean it up: Look for nontoxic alternatives, such as Ecover, at natural food markets and online. Seventh Generation is even available at Target.
The dirt: Shoes
The mess of muddy footprints from your sneakers and boots is a hassle, but that’s not all: Frick warns that wearing shoes inside is the number one thing that’s compromising your healthy home. “You’re dragging in dust, but you’re also bringing in bacteria and tons of chemicals,” she says. “Think about it, you’ve likely walked through pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and host of other toxins.”
Clean it up: Leave your shoes outside the door. (Hint: Give everyone in your household comfy slippers as part of their holiday gift.)
The dirt: Furniture polish
Jaya Jaya Myra, natural lifestyle expert and author of Vibrational Healing, cautions against using chemical-based furniture polish that contains cresols and petroleum distillates, which can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as nervous system damage.
Clean it up: Polish wood furniture and even remove water rings with a DIY combination of olive oil, distilled white vinegar and lemon juice (here’s a recipe), or buy a chemical-free cleaner.
The dirt: Carpet
Did you know that carpet and the padding underneath can give off toxic fumes? “Chemicals like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which have been linked to thyroid problems, cholesterol issues, infertility and cancer, are emitted from carpet, remain in the dust in your air and then you breathe it in,” Frick warns. This risk is heightened if your carpet is more than two years old; in recent years, the industry has begun to phase out many of these toxins from the manufacturing process.
Clean it up: Wood, tile, cement and cork are all safer choices. If ripping out your current flooring isn’t in the cards just yet, take steps to increase ventilation in your home, which will help lower the concentration of toxins in the air. Frick suggests running the fan (without heat or A/C) to circulate air. “You can also use smaller table or stand fans,” she advises. “If it’s in your budget, consider installing an in-window air exchange system, which can pull filtered air in from outside without letting the heat escape. Another great option is to invest in a HEPA filter for your living room and bedrooms.”