I’ve said it before; I err just a teensy bit on the side of hysteria when it comes to choosing eco-friendly and chemical-free stuff over their conventional counterparts. (For the record: so does Erin).
Actually, hysteria is the wrong word. I don’t spend any time fretting about choosing environmentally safe products over mainstream ones; I just do it. Almost ten years ago, I first read this piece on toxic breast milk in The New York Times, and it’s affected pretty much every consumer choice I’ve made since. (It also contains this excellent sentence: “Human milk is like ice cream, Valium and Ecstasy all wrapped up in two pretty packages.”) Now, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t stock plastic wrap or own upholstered furniture, because I find it’s easier and less neurotic to go cold turkey on questionable household items than to worry about endocrine disruption and bioaccumulation.
Still, having a baby strengthened my chemical boycott. Strangely, modern baby products are full of chemicals: plastics, foams, anti-bacterial agents. And in an ironic twist, many products that are specifically marketed as promoting safety and health—think anti-bacterial soap or foam-stuffed high-chairs—are in fact introducing chemicals in places they don’t need to be. And so I present to you: three super easy switches you can make to reduce your home’s chemical load, whether you’ve got a baby or not.
It takes a little diligence at the beginning, but in the end, replacing conventional products with natural alternatives will make your home and family safer, your impact on the environment gentler, and your wallet fatter.
3 Healthy Alternatives to Chemical Baby Care
1. Opt for wool, wood, stainless steel or glass. Somehow, we’ve been led think that babies can’t hold heavy wooden things, or that they don’t like the smooth coolness of a steel cup or spoon in their mouths. We imagine they need to be mounted like royalty on layers of puffy foam, or that they’ll immediately break any glass put within their reach. I’ve found all of this to be untrue. Oliver revels in lifting a heavy box of wooden blocks (sorry downstairs neighbors!). He takes great delight in banging (and eating with) stainless-steel cups and utensils. He’s obsessed with sitting on the floor matching lids to glass Ball jars. He’s been changed every day of his life on either a pile of blankets or a sheepskin. It gets marketed as snobby or precious, but the truth is that buying non-synthetic baby toys and gear is cheaper, nicer-looking and more durable. And in a lot of cases, looking for natural alternatives also led us to support local businesses, independent craftspeople and the barter economy over corporate monoliths like Babies-R-Us. The fact that you don’t have to think about your kid playing with carcinogens is the cherry on top.
2. Use herbs and essential oils. Let’s be honest: babies produce lots of smells. And conventional baby products are obsessed with masking those smells with artificial fragrances, which companies are not legally compelled to test or disclose. Instead, we use odor-absorbing minerals (like baking soda), aromatic herbs and essential oils when we need to make the air smell a little sweeter. We hang sachets of dried lavender in Oliver’s closet where the diaper pail is kept, and replace it monthly, to keep the closet smelling good even when there are still three days to go until the diaper service comes. Likewise, we sprinkle baking soda in the trash can after certain incidents. In the bath, we use unscented soap and add a few drops of chamomile or rose essential oil to the bathwater. For clean-up on the floor or the bathroom, we stick with a couple of multi-purpose products whose companies are proud to crow about their totally natural ingredients.
3. Watch what you put on yourself. Babies are deeply tactile creatures, and cuddling means literally rolling in whatever creams, detergents, sprays, perfumes or makeup you’re putting on your own body. Also, Biology 101: Our skin is our largest organ! We gotta protect it. I don’t wear a ton of makeup, but the products I do use I check against the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. It catalogues items that run the gamut of body care, from sunscreen and soap to bronzer and pimple cream, and assigns a score for most drugstore brands, so can you see how your usual brands do on the toxicity front. For my part, I find it’s easiest to identify a couple of brands that I trust and stick with those. I like the suite of chemical-free products from 100% Pure and Love & Toast. (Both companies commit to keeping their products vegan and eschewing parabens, pthalates, artificial fragrances, triclosan and petroleum among other hazards.) Sure, my hair doesn’t always ever look like a Pantene Pro-V commercial, but I’ve come to terms with that.
PS. The links in this post were updated after the birth of Erin’s second child (January 2017).
PPS. After publishing this piece, it became apparent that for some readers the use of term chemical struck a nerve. Rest assured, its use here is to connote those chemical compounds known to have toxic side effects. We’re not concerned about H2O (and neither should you be).