3 Tools You Need To Become Your Own Product Advocate

By Marilee Nelson |

3 Tools You Need To Become Your Own Product Advocate

We have many people come to us for advice on how to choose the best products to create 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. The good news is you don’t have to be a chemist or have a scientific background to read labels and evaluate ingredients. In fact, you can vet products very quickly and feel confident about your decisions because we have some great tools at our fingertips.

Our intention is to arm you with the information you need to identify and toss products and foods with harmful ingredients and replace them with truly safe ones. We want to empower you to become your own advocate so you can “TosstheToxins” and Create a Healthy Home!

Here are our top 3 favorite tools to help you choose the best products for your home and family. We trust they’ll be as helpful to you as they are to us.

Tool #1: Label Reading

The Cleaning Industry

Labels are often our first impression of the safety of a product. Fortunately, many labels contain phrases or symbols which are dead-giveaways as to their level of toxicity or safety. This is especially important since the cleaning industry has no safety standards or requirements for listing of ingredients. A red flag on the label means, Toss That Toxin!

Cleaning Product Red Flags

  • No ingredient list - Avoid products with proprietary ingredients that could be harmful.
  • 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.
  • Fragrance - Avoid products that make reference to fragrance on the label such as, “smells fresh as a daisy.” Proprietary synthetic fragrance recipes are a toxic chemical soup.
  • Pesticides - Look out for the word “cide” (mildewicides, fungicides, biocides, etc.) which means there’s a pesticide in that product.
  • Antibacterials - Avoid disinfectants and sanitizers that contain EPA registered pesticides and encourage the spread of superbugs1.
  • Irritants - Look for warnings of eye, skin, or lung irritation. Red flag instructions to wear gloves, goggles, or require ventilation.
  • Safe Disposal - If a product should be disposed of in a hazardous waste facility it doesn’t belong in your home!

Reading labels on cleaning products doesn’t have to be complicated, as a quick scan of the bottle typically reveals words that are toxic red flags. If a product doesn't have an ingredient list, that's a red flag. Non-toxic cleaning products typically do have an ingredient list, but unfortunately “Non-Toxic” on a label is not enough! Skip to Tool #2 to make vetting products quick and easy.

The Personal Care Industry

Labels on personal care products are designed to give customers information about the product. Just remember to watch out for greenwashing strategies. We encourage you to rely on Tool #2 and check individual ingredients with handy apps. However, there are a few red flags to become more aware of that can make choosing safe products quick and easy.

Personal Care Considerations and Red Flags

  • No declaration of safety - this could be a conventional product that has harmful ingredients.
  • Fragrance - Avoid any product that contains “fragrance” or “parfum.”
  • Antibacterial - Avoid “antibacterial” soaps and products. The CDC states that these products are no more effective than non-antibacterial soap and water.
  • All-Natural - Be skeptical of “natural” or “non-toxic” on the label. Investigation of ingredients is essential. See Tool #2.
  • Organic - even organic on the label is not enough. You must look at each ingredient.

The Food Industry

“Organic” and “Healthy” on a food label is not enough. Under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food labeling is required for most prepared foods, such as breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc. Unfortunately, there is no standard or FDA pre-approval of labels for food products and it is up to the consumer to understand what is and what is not healthy. Look for the following food considerations in your refrigerator and pantry:

Food Considerations and Red Flags

  • GMO Foods - we typically avoid corn, soybeans, cotton/cottonseed oil, potatoes, papaya, zucchini, yellow squash, canola, sugar beets/granulated sugar, some apples that are not organic.
      • Be aware that the labeling on GMO crops and ingredients is not regulated, thus you want to look for the “Non GMO Project Verified” symbol from nongmoproject.org, a third-party testing organization, on these crops. If a company makes their own “No GMO” statement or label, it has likely not been third-party tested confirming there is no glyphosate.
      • Non GMO on a label is not enough. Our food should be Non GMO and organic. Note: If a food is certified organic it is also Non GMO.
      • Seeds of Death is a must-watch to learn how to identify GMO foods.
  • Conventional produce - Today the game has changed as we have learned that pesticides in our foods are not only harmful, but also upset our microbiome which is the seat of our immune system. Look for the “certified organic” label.
  • Fortified or enriched - This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, folic acid is  a big red flag.  Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate (Vitamin B 9).  It is often added to bread products. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.  The synthetic form - folic acid should be avoided by all people. Taking supplements and eating foods with folic acid is very problematic for those with the MTHFR genetic variation
  • Gluten-free - Most gluten-free foods are highly processed and contain excitotoxins, unhealthy fats and sugar. We always encourage you to read the ingredient list!
  • Low-fat and Light - Light products are designed to appeal to people who want to lose weight and are typically watered down and processed to reduce either calories or fat. Don’t rely on this label - see Tool #2.
  • Natural - This does not necessarily mean that the food is unprocessed. It simply indicates that it does contain some natural food source.
  • No added sugar - Some products are naturally high in sugar. Refined sugar substitutes may also have been added.
  • Low-carb - Processed foods that are labeled low-carb may contain excitotoxins and other additives.
  • Dirty Dozen - avoid foods on this list and use the Clean 15 list for 2019.

In summary, don’t be fooled by claims on the label and use ingredients as the final word.

Tool #2: Ingredient Lists

Reading labels can be helpful but "Non-Toxic" on a label is not enough as many products, even “natural” ones, use strategies to help themselves appear safer or greener. Reviewing each ingredient in a product is the best way to ensure that the products in your home are safe. It is so simple. You can start right away!

Cleaning and Personal Care Products

  • EWG Skin Deep is our favorite tool to rate cleaning, skin, beauty, and personal care products. In our “Toss the Toxins to Create a Healthy Home” we recommend that products kept in the home should have all ingredients rated a 1 or 2 on EWG Skin Deep (with some exceptions*). Simply, go to EWG Skin Deep’s website and search the ingredients. The ingredients are rated 1-10, with 1 being the safest to 10 being the most toxic. Toss all products with any ingredient rated 3 or more. Hint: To save time, start with the last ingredient on the list. Typically, you will find preservatives here and you may only have to look at one ingredient to find a 3 or above rating. Once you find an ingredient rated 3 or more, look no more and “toss that product”. 
* Exceptions - Know that at this time, products such as toothpaste and makeups will be hard to find with all ingredients rated a 1-2.  Exceptions have to be made until better products are discovered or introduced into the market.
    Note: People trying to heal inflammatory skin conditions, hormone disruption, or chronic illness should also avoid products used on the skin with the following ingredients that can be inflammatory (citric acid, sodium coco sulfate, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, phenoxyethanol, and any ingredient with a quaternary ammonium component like polyquarternium - 11) even though they are rated a 1 or 2 on EWG Skin Deep.  
    • Think Dirty is another great app to rate cleaning, 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.


    Cleaning and Personal Care Ingredient Red Flags

    • Fragrance - Synthetic fragrances have been linked to asthma, allergies, skin irritation, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, cancer, nervous system, respiratory, and endocrine disruption. Look for red flag words –“fragrance,” “parfum” or indications on the label of a “fresh clean smell.” This is a concern with many “non-toxic” cleaners and personal care products.
    • Essential Oils - If not labeled wildcrafted or organic this means it is an inexpensive oil that has been processed with solvents. Testing of “non-toxic” products with essential oils have been shown to contain many toxic chemicals. Look for wildcrafted or organic oils that are processed without solvents.
    • Pesticides - Look out for the word “cide” which means there’s a pesticide in that product. Many disinfectants and sanitizers have EPA registered pesticides.
    • Petroleum Based Ingredients - An ending of “ol” or “ene” is likely an indication of a petroleum-based product or coal tar derivative (i.e. xylol, glycol, phenol, benzene, toluene, xylene).
    • Talc - Skip talc-based powders, 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, oleth, and ceteareth. There is a toxic byproduct 1,4-dioxane that may be created in formulation which is highly carcinogenic.
    • Synthetic Preservatives - Watch out for the following
      • The Isothiazoline family such as MIT (methylisothiazolinone) and BIT (benzisothiazolinone)
      • Parabens
      • Phenoxyethanol
      • Benzalkonium chloride
      • Potassium sorbate
      • Sodium benzoate

    Note: Although preservatives are usually only included in very small amounts, research shows they can actually do more harm on the delicate hormone system than large amounts. The dose does not always make the poison. Phenoxyethanol and parabens are proven endocrine-disruptors3,4.


    Food labels are highly misleading. Reviewing ingredients is the best way to ensure that the food you eat does not contain harmful chemicals. Toss the toxins from your refrigerator and pantry that have the following:

    Food Ingredient Red Flags

    • Excitotoxins - Ditch foods with these chemicals. Found in processed foods and many processed “health foods.” For a more extensive list of excitotoxins, see here.
    • Artificial and 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.

    Our goal is to help you feel educated and empowered by this information. It can be overwhelming when you look at it as lists to avoid, but consider a different perspective! You are now aware of the many chemicals found in cleaning, personal care and food products and you can use this information to choose safer products for yourself and family. We always say, “When you know better, you do better!“

    Tool #3 - Independent Third Party Verification

    Independent third party verification is a quick and easy vetting tool. We chose Made Safe certification because it has the most stringent screening process in the industry. If a product is “Made Safe Verified” it is guaranteed that not only the end product has been investigated, but each raw ingredient used to create the product, the process used, and the entire supply chain has been scrutinized. Therefore, when you see Made Safe Verified on a label you know this is a safe product.  There is no need to go through the ingredient list. Made Safe has done the vetting!

    Made Safe

    Made Safe is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is challenging and evaluating companies on their products' ingredients to make it easier for consumers to find and buy non-toxic products.

    Made Safe Certification investigates each of its products according to general toxicity, sustainability, bioaccumulation potential, aquatic and terrestrial toxicity and environmental concerns.

    Through the certification process, products have to pass ingredient screening for known:

    • Behavioral toxins
    • Carcinogens
    • Developmental toxins
    • Endocrine disruptors
    • Fire retardants
    • Heavy metals
    • Neurotoxins
    • High-risk pesticides
    • Reproductive toxins
    • Toxic solvents
    • Harmful VOCs

    Made Safe also approves products under apparel, baby & child, bedding, cosmetics, feminine care, fragrance-free, household, personal care and sexual health. Branch Basics is so proud to be Made Safe Certified, and we hope they can be another incredible resource as you navigate creating a healthy home!

    Additional Resources

    Consumer Power

    Since we have instant access to these tools and technologies consumers have more power than ever to be an informed driving influence in the marketplace. If we know what is truly safe and what is not, our purchases at the cash register will move industry in the right direction. If we demand higher standards companies will have to listen, make changes or go out of business. We hope you find today’s top 3 tools as empowering, educational, and freeing as we do. Please share them with your loved ones as the more product advocates we have out there, the healthier we’ll all be!

    1. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180619122955.htm
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5610800/
    3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15211609
    4. https://www.ewg.org/release/analysis-finds-hormone-disruptor-used-cosmetics-nearly-50-different-foods


          Marilee Nelson

          Marilee Nelson

          Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.