3 Summer Season and Camping Items That May Contribute to Your Allergy Misery

Three everyday items that many of us use when we go camping, or throughout the summer season, that we would never suspect might be causing or contributing to allergies are:

1. Suntan products: Lotions, Oils, or Sprays
2. Bug Sprays or Repellants
3. Antibacterial Soaps or Hand Sanitizers

Most suntan products are made with chemical sunscreens, many of which have been found to be unsafe or even carcinogenic, and there is continuing debate as to their actual effectiveness in providing adequate protection from the damaging effects of over exposure to the sun. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know I’ve blogged extensively over the past few years on various aspects of this topic. While not much has changed over the years, there is some momentum building around the need to innovate and find safer sunscreen ingredients.

This may well be a hidden source of allergy trouble. Until we see some real change and innovation in this arena your best tactic for choosing sun care products that won’t cause more trouble than they are worth is to eliminate commonly used sunscreen chemicals like Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, and Octocrylene in favor of sunblock products made with naturally occurring minerals like Zinc Oxide and Titanium Oxide. These mineral sunblock products stay on the surface of the skin and reflect sunlight instead of being absorbed into the skin, so they are safer and more effective. And if you use suntan oils stay away from Mineral Oil – a petroleum derivative that has been found to be an endocrine disruptor– and instead, choose a healthy fat like virgin Coconut Oil, which is totally safe and also an excellent skin care oil.

When it comes to bug sprays, there are not a lot of options out there to choose from and unfortunately most commercial bug sprays only disclose the active ingredient so you have no idea what else is in the product that could be creating additional problems. As much as humanly possible you should avoid DEET, which is a highly toxic substance. And because most of the time it comes in a spray form you end up inhaling that substance as well! Don’t be fooled by scent. Just because it doesn’t smell bad doesn’t mean it isn’t bad for you!

Instead opt-in for products made with 100% pure essential oils like Citronella, Lemongrass and Geranium, which are just a few of the many essential oils that are effective bug repellants. These are natural substances that your body can easily metabolize and eliminate so again, there’s no fear of chemical residue being left behind.

Last but not least, when it comes to antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers avoid products made with Triclosan! This ingredient is a derivative of Agent Orange and is considered highly toxic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Product manufacturers would have you believe that because it’s used in diluted amounts it’s ok but it’s NOT! This ingredient is not only harmful to you it’s very harmful to the environment too.

Choose products made with Tea Tree and Lavender essential oils –both are very effective antibacterial agents without the toxic effects. For hand sanitizers look for products with these oils in a base of Aloe Vera, Vegetable Glycerin or Ethanol. For soaps stick to liquid castile soaps made with essential oils.

One last note on this . . . you may be allergic to certain plants and herbs, which would make it difficult or even impossible to use products with the specific essential oils I mentioned above. Don’t let that discourage you. There are a wide variety of essential oils with therapeutic benefits to choose from and being sensitive to one in no way means you will be sensitive to others.

Greening Your Camping: Natural Remedies for First Aid

One of the great things about camping is the ability to re-connect and commune with nature. But every upside has a down side and dealing with mosquitoes and other insects and insect bites, as well as unexpected minor injuries that can come up, is definitely one of the downsides of camping.

Here’s a quick list of natural remedy type items to bring with you to help you cope if you wind up being an unlucky camper.

Essential Oils for First Aid:

Tea Tree [Antiseptic, antibacterial, speeds wound healing and doesn’t need to be diluted before applying. It also acts as an insect repellant and can be used to treat insect bites. A drop in a cup of peppermint or chamomile tea can relief upset stomach and diarrhea.]

Lavender [Excellent for soothing minor breakouts and bug bites, heals minor burns and cuts, relieves muscle tension and headaches and calms your nerves. Can help you get to sleep if you’re feeling restless or anxious. Can be used neat (i.e. without dilution) directly on burns and to soothe insect bites.]

Peppermint [Analgesic –use for pain relief but always dilute it properly first. Can help relieve nausea and upset stomach. It’s cooling and stimulating and can also help decongest a stuffy nose.]

Eucalyptus [Great for sinus trouble –especially congestion– use it instead antihistamines or decongestants. Clears the mind and improves focus and alertness which can come in handy during long drives. It’s also a natural insect repellant but should be diluted accordingly.]

Lemon [Antiseptic, refreshing. Add a drop to your dish soap to help cut grease. Add to a drop to your drinking water to purify it. Lemon can help relieve itching from insect bites or unexpected skin eruptions and can bring clarity when there is confusion. Be sure to dilute it properly before applying to the skin –too much can be photo-toxic and lead to sunburn.]

Geranium [Reduces inflammation, bleeding, and infection from wounds. The scent also relieves anxiety, depression, irrational behavior and stress. Mixes well with Lavender and Lemon and is a natural insect repellent.]

In addition to their value as effective healing tools in your first aid kit, the peppermint, lemon and even the lavender oils can be used to enhance your food and beverages while camping. Use very sparingly though.

Other items you should bring on a camping trip include:

Jojoba, Safflower, Coconut or Olive Oil [Use as a carrier oil base for your essential oils (all of these are excellent skin care and moisturizing oils that can double up as sun tan oils and hair conditioner as well). Depending on the length of your stay, you can probably do fine with a 6 or 8 oz bottle. Since coconut oil solidifies in cooler temperatures, you’ll need to put it in a jar if that’s your oil of choice.]

Aloe Vera Gel [For relief from sunburns and other minor burns [Buy a natural version of this in a natural foods store. Hint: If it’s green or neon blue it’s not natural]! Again, anywhere from 4 oz to 8 oz should be plenty for a short camping trip.]

Witch Hazel [Use a carrier for essential oil blends.]

Rescue Remedy Flower Essence [Take a dropper full of this internally to help you cope with any kind of trauma –minor or major. It really works!]

Arnica Gel [For bruises and minor aches and pains.]

Calendula Hand Salve or Cream [Use as a first-aid cream or salve because of its antimicrobial, healing and regenerative properties.]

Cornflower Hydrosol [Use this in place of eye drops for dry and/or itchy allergy eyes. Do a skin patch test before using to ensure you are not allergic [see our post on essential oil safety]. If you have no allergy or reaction, then place hydrosol in a clean well-sterilized glass bottle with a fine mist spray top and spritz once into each eye.]

Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide Sunblock [The safest form of sunscreen on the market today.]

Give Your Bathroom Cabinet a Spring Cleaning: Out with the Old and In with the New!

New year’s is usually a great time to give your bathroom cabinet a makeover. If you didn’t get a chance to do a New Year’s Makeover, it’s not too late to start. You can make it part of your spring-cleaning ritual instead. Start now by taking a closer look at what’s inside your bathroom medicine cabinet as well as what may be lurking under the sink or in an adjacent closet. Even the most seemingly innocuous items can contain a veritable of soup of chemicals that may be doing you more harm than good.

Read the labels and familiarize yourself with the ingredients. Start by sorting products into two bins or groups: products you use daily vs. products that you use occasionally. The ones you use daily are the ones you should be examining very carefully and these typically include but are not limited to, toothpaste, mouthwash, antiperspirants or deodorants, talcum powder, face creams, lotions, cleansers, over-the-counter cold and pain medications, “anti-bacterial” soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hair styling products, and traditional cosmetics.

After all, these are products you routinely apply to your skin or your teeth and gums –both the fastest routes for substances to be absorbed into the bloodstream. When substances are absorbed into the body this way they often by-pass the liver –your body’s principle detoxifying organ– or worse, clog and congest it. That means many toxic substances aren’t properly eliminated and often take up residence in the fatty tissue of our organs where they build up over time, turning into a virtual “thorn in your side” that can compromise your immune system and leave you susceptible to a host of health problems. A congested liver is also one of the fastest routes to inflammation in the body, and inflammation is the foundation for most degenerative diseases.

Ironically, many of the chemical ingredients in personal care products are there to improve the texture and consistency, appearance, or shelf-life stability of the product and have no functional purpose. To add insult to injury, many are primarily there to speed up or enhance the penetration of the other ingredients into the skin; increase the thickness and intensity of the lather (making it harder to rinse off); or make the product more visually appealing.

And while it may seem hard to believe, new evidence has recently surfaced suggesting that exposure to some of these ingredients may even lead to pre-mature childhood obesity! There’s a lot we don’t know yet about how routine and repeated exposures to these substances can affect our health. Given all the alarming information that’s floating around, it seems foolish to wait until there’s proof positive that these substances are indeed harmful. Take a cue from your mom … better safe than sorry!

Greening Your Cleaning Routine: The Hidden Dangers Lurking Under Your Sink

It is truly amazing how the green revolution has changed our lives. We separate our garbage, carpool to work, and even consider buying hybrid cars just to help save Mother Earth. Ironically, many of the everyday household cleaning products we still use are loaded with dangerous chemicals that are anything but environmentally friendly, and potentially quite toxic for us.

Even your laundry detergent or dish soap can be problematic. Environmental activist Barry Commoner did a study that demonstrated the increase in phosphates found in one city’s wastewater from 20,000 tons in 1940 to 150,000 tons in 1970. Phosphates, though made from naturally occurring minerals can damage the level of oxygen in the water, which in turn has disastrous effects on fish and plants alike. And the extra fragrances that are typically included in both detergents and dryer sheets often contain phthalates –chemicals used by industry to soften plastics. Studies suggest that these toxins can affect brain development in children, among other things.

The good news is that there are now a growing number of safer alternatives that can keep your home sparkling and your mind at ease. But before you run out to the store to find these new innovative products, it helps to know a little about what nasty chemicals may be lurking in the cleaners you have under your sink right now, so you can be sure to pick greener replacements that will also get the job done.

Happy 4th of July & The Other Six Sins of Greenwashing

Happy Independence Day! I’m off to the annual High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA. This is a 4-day, almost non-stop musical event that takes place on the Plumas County Fairgrounds nestled in the beautiful and majestic Sierra mountains of northern California. I love going to this event, not just for the great music it always has but because something happens to me when I’m up in the Sierras surrounded by all those Redwoods. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a feeling of total serenity and contentment that washes over me when I’m up there and it starts during the drive up –when I get to the Feather River Canyon. With its scenic and winding road, it represents the last stretch of the 4+ hour trip and fills me with excitement and anticipation.

I hope you enjoy your holiday this year, whatever you do. Above all, remember to be thankful for all the freedoms you enjoy. That includes the freedom to choose how to spend your hard-earned dollars and use your economic power as a consumer to promote healthy and environmentally sustainable choices.

As a follow up to my last post, I thought I’d leave you with a quick run-down of the original Six Sins of Greenwashing referenced in the market research report by TerraChoice. Here you go:

  1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-off. Committed by suggesting a product is ‘green’ based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues. Paper that comes from a sustainably-harvested forest for example, is not necessarily in and of itself an environmentally-friendly choice. Other important environmental issues in the paper-making process, including energy used, greenhouse gas emissions, and resulting water and air pollution may be equally or more significant.

  2. Sin of No Proof. Committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible information or by reliable third-party certification. Common examples are facial or toilet tissue products that claim various percentages of post-consumer recycled content without providing any evidence.

  3. Sin of Vagueness. Committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring substances, and also poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t always necessarily ‘green’.

  4. Sin of Irrelevance. Committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are now banned by law.

  5. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils. Committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole. Organic cigarettes are an example of this category, as are allegedly fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles.

  6. Sin of Fibbing. This is the least frequent Sin and is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false. The most common examples were products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified or registered.

To download a copy of the complete report: The Seven Sins of Greenwashing go to http://sinsofgreenwashing.org/findings/greenwashing-report-2009/

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: A Candid Review of the State of Things

In November 2008 and January 2009, TerraChoice (a Market Research firm) sent its researchers into leading ‘big box’ retailers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia with instructions to record every product making an environmental claim. For each product, the researchers recorded product details, claim(s) details, any supporting information, and any explanatory detail or offers of additional information or support.

In the United States and Canada, a total of 2,219 products making 4,996 green claims were recorded. These claims were tested against best practices, notably against guidelines provided by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Competition Bureau of Canada, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, and the ISO 14021 standard for environmental labeling.

Of the 2,219 North American products surveyed, over 98% committed at least one of six previously identified “Sins of Greenwashing” and a new Seventh Sin emerged. The following are the highlights of the 2009 Seven Sins of Greenwashing research (from the report’s Executive Summary):

  • The emergence of a seventh Sin – the ‘Sin of Worshiping False Labels’. Some marketers are exploiting consumers’ demand for third-party certification by creating fake labels or false suggestions of third-party endorsement.

  • More products are making environmental claims. The total number of ‘green’ products increased by an average of 79% (a range between 40% and 176%) in stores that were visited in both 2007 and 2008.

  • Greenwashing is still rampant, with more than 98% of ‘green’ products committing at least one of the Sins. Compared to the 2007 study, there appears to be a small decline in the frequency of greenwashing, but it is not statistically significant. Of 2,219 products making green claims in the United States and Canada, only 25 products were found to be Sin-free.

  • Eco-labeling is on the rise. Legitimate eco-labeling is nearly twice as common as it was last year, increasing from 13.7% to 23.4% on all ‘green’ products in the report.

  • Kids (toys and baby products), cosmetics, and cleaning products are three categories in which green claims – and greenwashing – are most common. These products, among the most common products in most households, deserve particular scrutiny from consumers.

  • Greenwashing is an international challenge, with very similar patterns in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The most significant differences between these countries are the environmental issues associated with the claims made on products. Water conservation was more common in Australia for example, and recyclability in the United States.

Greenwashing: The Reliability of Certification Seals or Social & Ethical Claims

In addition to nebulous and unverifiable product label or advertising claims, there’s the whole tangled world of product certification seals, and to a certain extent, social and ethical claims. The most significant of these are Organic claims.

  • Organic Claims

    Market research clearly indicates that this claim doesn’t currently hold much authority with the average consumer, but the increased use of organic and especially certified organic ingredients plays a critical and often overlooked part in the environmental sustainability movement. Most consumers understand the importance of buying food products that are organically grown or produced, but many have not yet made the connection to their importance in personal care products. Because most of these products are either applied directly to the skin or consumed orally, it makes perfect sense that they should also be free of pesticides. The only way to know if the claims are legitimate, is through some form of certification.

    The waters surrounding organic certification are a little murky right now. The USDA NOP (National Organic Program) seal is the only legitimate seal currently recognized by consumers, however the standards for that seal were designed specifically for agriculture, and as such present problems with respect to its application to many personal care products. In the absence of clearly defined standards for personal care, various industry alliances have formed to come up with their own standards to fill the void. There are a lot of competing (and possibly conflicting) standards to navigate, so your mileage may vary …

    Another thing to consider is whether a product that is ‘100% Certified Organic’ (and very few are because of how difficult it is to achieve this with most personal care products) is actually better or more effective than one that is merely ‘Made with organic ingredients’ and if the extra hoops that the manufacturer jumped through to earn actually translate into a bigger benefit for you or for the environment.

  • Social and Ethical Claims

    The most common of these are Fair Trade and Cruelty-Free or Not Tested on Animals. At the moment Fair Trade claims on personal care products are rare as the specifics of that type of certification typically apply to agricultural products like coffee or chocolate, or products (like clothing) made from cotton or other natural fibers that are grown and harvested by farmers in poor countries.

    The Cruelty-Free and animal testing claims typically apply more to cosmetics (make up) than to personal care, but often get slapped onto the latter for marketing purposes. The best way to validate this sort of claim is to look for either the Leaping Bunny seal (a program of the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics) or a Friends of PETA endorsement –either on the product itself or on the company’s web site and marketing collateral. You can also verify by going directly to these sites, and searching their list of participating companies.

    While certifications and endorsements play an important part in helping consumers identify products that are legitimately green and safe, we still have a ways to go before they become truly reliable. It’s also important to remember that the absence of such seals doesn’t mean that a product is not green or doesn’t live up to its claims. Certification can often be quite costly and out of the reach of smaller companies whose whole purpose (ironically) revolves around providing truly green or natural products. In the absence of a reliable eco-label or seal, your best bet is to choose the products and companies that offer transparency, information, and education.

Two Common Product Label Claims That Might Indicate Greenwashing

Here’s a summary of some of the claims you should look out for when evaluating a product that is packaged in a way that makes it appear to be either “Natural” “Eco-Friendly” or “Green”:

  • Natural Claims

    This is the most common and the most nebulous of claims on personal care products. Since there are no regulatory standards here, you have to educate yourself as much as possible on the difference between natural and not-so-natural ingredients to decipher the claims. The main things to consider are a company or brand’s track record, and hidden trade-offs with respect to the product’s ingredients.

    The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database enables you to see how both companies and their individual products rank in terms of health and safety. Products with higher rankings (i.e. 7-10) generally contain a higher amount of potentially toxic chemicals and questionable ingredients. Companies whose products rank in the middle to high range should be scrutinized more carefully. Their claims of being “natural” likely involve trade-offs –meaning they may contain natural ingredients but they also contain harmful ingredients. Keep in mind that the term “natural” does not speak directly to the environmental benefits of the product or the manufacturer’s environmental practices.

  • Free From Claims

    Beware of “free from” claims –ones that tend to emphasize what’s not in the product at the expense of what is. These can be highly misleading because they either imply that the free from ingredient is in some way undesirable when that may not be the case, or worse, the free from ingredient is one that has no relevance to either the safety of the product or its environmental impact. These types of claims can also be another way of re-directing attention from the hidden trade-offs mentioned earlier. And oftentimes, there’s no way to verify the legitimacy of the claim.

    For example, a company that makes scented products using “fragrance” may put a “free from phthalates” claim on its label. Since the term “fragrance” is not regulated, how can you know that this claim is true? What proof is being offered to validate the claim either on the label or elsewhere? In this example the only way you can judge is if the product is still scented with “fragrance” as opposed to pure essential oils. At the end of the day, you have to know how to read and understand ingredient panels to determine if there are in fact hidden trade-offs that are being masked by the more prominent claims or so-called seals on the product labels.

Magnesium & Vitamin B: Supplements for Easing Stress-Related Insomnia

Experts say magnesium helps ward off sleeping problems at the cellular level by regulating and balancing the flow of calcium in and out of cells. A diet deficient in magnesium can cause a lot of symptoms like stress, low energy, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, cramps, irritability, and the inability to sleep. This is partly due to the fact that Magnesium controls the channels that allow calcium to flow in and out of a cell (which, in turn, controls the cell’s movement from active to resting state). Without sufficient nutritional magnesium, the cells cannot fully close the channels and calcium leaks into the cells. This is much like leaving a light switch half on. The current is still flowing, but the light is never fully off. In the body, with the cells never fully able to rest, this results in stress.

Most of us (75%) don’t consume enough daily amounts of this vital mineral. But You can address this problem by eating foods naturally high in magnesium like raw almonds and cashews, dates, brown rice, sardines, steamed shrimp, cheddar cheese, and roasted turkey. For a variety of reasons, including foods grown in mineral depleted soils, farming methods that don’t create nutrient-dense produce, and our consumption of processed foods, we simply don’t get enough magnesium in our diets, so taking it in supplement form can really help.

Increasing your consumption of B-complex vitamins and various antioxidants can also ward off stress and sleepless nights. Another supplement you can try is Lactium – a milk-derived protein that’s been clinically shown to promote restful sleep in individuals with moderate anxiety or depression, or who show high reactions to stress-related events.

Olive Oil: One of Mother Nature’s Biggest Beauty Secrets

Among all the natural lipids, olive oil has the most similar chemical composition to sebum, which gives it a strong affinity to human skin. Completely safe and easily absorbed, it has exceptional penetrating ability, and is high in well-documented antioxidant properties including tocopherols (vitamin E), beta-carotene (vitamin A), phytosterols, flavonoids (including quercetin and squalene), and phenolic compounds.

There’s as much as 5 mg of antioxidant polyphenols in every 10 grams of olive oil, and 1.6 mg or 2.3 IU (International Units) of Vitamin E per tablespoon. This potent combination of antioxidants works to neutralize free radicals (unstable molecules created by exposure to things like cigarette smoke, pollution, alcohol, radiation, and oxidation of trans fats) and repair cell membranes – including sun damaged skin.

In addition, olive oil has the natural ability to target the skin cells in the top layer of your epidermis and can stimulate the synthesis of collagen and elastin – encouraging firmer and healthier skin. The rich emollients in olive oil allow just a little to go a long way.

Most commercial skin care products in the United States today are made from polyunsaturated oils, which oxidize and turn rancid very quickly causing free radical damage in the skin. So choose your oils wisely.

For optimal safety and efficacy, the oils you use on your skin, whether they are main ingredients in your products or applied alone, should be certified organic, raw, expeller-pressed and unprocessed, or subject to minimal processing as the latter can destroy much of the oil’s nutritive value and increase the likelihood of rancidity. This applies whether the oils are for internal consumption, topical application, or both.