We have many people come to us for advice on how to choose the best products for a healthy home and body. This includes cleaning products, natural foods, baby products, personal care products, gardening products, water filters, air purifiers, building materials, etc. And we love to arm readers with the information they need to make the right choices. In fact, our greatest desire when starting Branch Basics, was to empower our customers to become their own advocates.
But, we also realize that not everyone has the time, drive, or desire to become an expert on all-things non-toxic; which is why we’ve put together this article with our top 3 favorite tools to help you become your own product advocate. These are the tools we use regularly to help us choose the best products for our homes and families, and we trust they’ll be as helpful to you as they are to us.
Tool #1: Label Reading
Label reading can be a cumbersome way to go about judging a product, especially when it comes to cleaning products which aren’t required to disclose all their ingredients. Fortunately, many labels contain phrases or symbols which are dead-giveaways as to their level of toxicity or safety. Check out the following tips:
- Symbols or Warning Labels: Avoid products with words or symbols for “poison”, “caution”, “warning”, or “danger”. Note: Many products with the word “caution” may have safe ingredients, but there are common sense usage recommendations.
- Pesticides: Look out for the word “cide” which means there’s a pesticide in that product.
- Antibacterials: Avoid “antibacterial” products (disinfectants and sanitizers), which encourage the spread of superbugs1.
- Pseudo-Natural Labels: Don’t be fooled by the words “organic”, “plant-based” or “non-toxic”, that could mean a product has just one organic or plant-based ingredient, or contains plenty of chemicals that the company considers “non-toxic”.
- Synthetic Preservatives: Avoid products with synthetic preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone, phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, & benzalkonium chloride.
- Surfactants: Choose products with mild, natural surfactants such as: saponified plant oils or alkyl glucosides (Decyl Glucoside, Coco Glucoside, Lauryl Glucoside).
- Irritants: Look for human-safe products that are not “eye-irritants”, “skin irritants”, or “lung irritants”.
- Organics: Look for the “certified organic” label to avoid pesticides
- Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 list for 2019
- GMOs: Look for the “Non GMO Project Verified” label to avoid glyphosate-containing foods. Seeds of Death is a must-watch to learn how to identify GMO foods. The labeling on GMO crops and ingredients is not regulated, thus you want to look for that “Non GMO Project Verified” symbol from nongmoproject.org—a third-party testing organization. If a company makes their own “No GMO” statement or label, it’s likely not been third-party tested.
- Excitotoxins: Ditch foods with these chemicals. Found in processed foods and many processed “health foods.” For a more extensive list of excitotoxins, see here.
- Natural Flavors: A category of excitotoxins popular in processed foods as well as children’s health foods. Don’t let the word natural fool you.
- Additives: Avoid all artificial food colorings/dyes, preservatives, sweeteners.
- Trans Fats: Avoid margarine, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats, soft spreads, and fake butters.
- Inflammatory Fats: Avoid sunflower, canola, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed oil, rice bran oil, safflower, soy, and mixed vegetable oils.
- Refined Sugar: See list to avoid.
Personal Care Product Considerations
- Fragrances: Avoid anything with “fragrance” or “parfum”.
- Talc: Skip talc-based powders for mom and baby, a proven lung irritant that can cause cancer2.
- Hydroquinone: This is a common, yet highly toxic, lightening ingredient in skincare products.
- Ethylene Oxide: This toxic ingredient falls under the names: PPG, PEG, polysorbate and ingredients that end in –eth such as laureth, steareth, and ceteareth.
- 1,4-dioxane: This highly toxic contaminant is not a stand-alone ingredient, rather it is created when several different ingredients are mixed together in personal care products. Thus, avoid sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, and chemicals that include the clauses “xynol”, “ceteareth”, and “oleth”.
- Antibacterial: Avoid “antibacterial” soaps and products.
- All-Natural: Be skeptical of “natural”, “organic”, or “non-toxic” products, just like cleaning products they could contain a boatload of chemicals and 1 or 2 organic ingredients.
- Synthetic Preservatives: While there are many types of preservatives, we especially recommend avoiding phenoxyethanol and parabens which are proven endocrine-disruptors3,4.
- Cheap Essential Oils: If an essential oil is super-inexpensive, it usually means the oil has been processed with a solvent or “cut” with a lesser-grade or synthetic filler or fragrance.
If this seems like a lot to remember, that’s because it is. But the point is to simply become more aware of these sneaky ingredients, and the more you practice label-reading the easier it is to notice red flags fast. Plus, we’re about to share some handy apps that make this whole label-reading business even easier.
Tool #2: ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP
For a one-stop-shop, at-a-glance label-reading companion we highly recommend the Environmental Working Group’s many databases and apps. These allow you to plug in a product and get an instant toxicity “score” to help you make the best choices. You can use them via computer or via their helpful Smartphone apps. Get “EWG’s Healthy Living App” here, which rates over 120,000 food and personal care products. And for more information, check out their databases which contain guides, label decoders, and more:
- Guide to Healthy Cleaning
- Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives
- Food Scores
- Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (includes their newly-released 2019 “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists)
- Guide to Sunscreens
- National Tap Water Database
- Skindeep Guide to Cosmetics
We recommend your cleaning products have ingredients rated a 1 on EWG Skin Deep or an A rating on EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
Tool #3: Think Dirty
This is another of our favorite apps to rate for skin, beauty, and personal care products; just scan your product barcode and Think Dirty will rate it for you on-the-spot. We recommend products rated “0” on this app. Get the Think Dirty app here.
- For advice on choosing the best water filter, click here.
- For advice on choosing the best air purifier, click here.
- For advice on choosing the best vacuum, click here.
- For more advice on personal care products, click here.
We are so fortunate to have these tools and technologies at our fingertips. I remember just a few years ago it was considerably more difficult to help people read a cleaning label, for example, or to ask them to carry a cosmetic ingredient book to the beauty counter to help them choose a safer night cream, let alone researching the safety data of pesticides, surfactants, preservatives, etc. pre-internet. We hope you find today’s top 3 tools as empowering, educational, and freeing as we do (and please share them with your loved ones…the more product advocates we have out there, the healthier we’ll all be!).