It's no good being an avid environmentalist if you don't treat your own body with the same respect as the planet.
Throughout history, human society has nurtured a tradition of natural beauty and health using indigenous knowledge of plants and herbs to heal and beautify the body. In the modern age, this art has been monopolised by an industry worth £4.5bn(i) a year in the UK alone. The industry has developed complex manufacturing processes, using detergents, preservatives, stabilisers, colourings, artificial fragrances and petroleum by-products.
Traditionally our toiletries and cosmetics were mostly derived from natural, organic materials. We now live in an increasingly toxic world where our needs are usually met by cocktails of chemicals, produced by unethical companies.
Chemicals are in the cleaning products we use to kill germs at home, in the carpets on which our children play and in the food we feed into our bodies daily. The familiar brand names that fill our bathroom cabinets and that are applied directly onto our bodies also contain substances that are a potential threat to our health.
The most conspicuous group of chemicals that have raised concerns with consumer watch-dogs are parabens and phthalates. These chemicals are potentially carcinogenic, disrupt hormones, trigger infertility, cause allergies and damage the liver and kidneys. Phthalates are typically found in hairsprays, perfume, nail polishes, moisturisers and plastics, and were recently banned from use in children's toys. Parabens can be found in deodorants, moisturisers and toothpastes.
The body is very good at excreting harmful substances. Some chemicals however, such as phthalates, are unable to be broken down and accumulate in the body, with the potential to cause long term damage. This process is called bioaccumulation.(ii)
''Pretty Nasty'(iii), a report released in 2002, found that phthalates are a common ingredient in cosmetics on sale in Europe.
Thirty-four leading brands of cosmetics were tested: perfumes, deodorants, hair sprays, hair gels and hair mousses. Twenty seven products (four out of five) contained at least one phthalates, more than half contained two or more, and 14 contained two phthalates which are on a European list of substances which should be treated as if they impair human fertility and/or affect human development.'(iv)
'Phthalates are the most abundant industrial pollutants in the environment and are widely present in air, water, soils and sediments. Some have been measured in virtually all fresh water and marine environments including Antarctic pack ice and deep-sea jellyfish. Phthalates are released into the atmosphere during manufacture, can leach from products that contain them, can contaminate food and can be ingested, breathed or absorbed into the body.' (v)
Due to loose legislation in EU law, manufacturers have been able to continue using these chemicals, despite consumer complaints. Some claim that the quantities used are not significant enough to cause harm. Scientists and campaigners believe this is not necessarily the case. They would like to see more in-depth research into the accumulative effect of long term exposure of these chemicals from multiple sources.
After tireless campaigning from various scientists, charities and individuals across Europe, a new EU directive emerged this year to restrict the use of these chemicals in consumer products. Chemical producers are already dissenting against these laws, claiming such restrictions are detrimental to trade. Women's Environmental Network says 'the proposals are still flawed and contain get-out clauses for industry.’ They are also ‘concerned that the proposals appear to make no reference to the particular and different effects chemicals such as endocrine-disrupters have on women's health, nor require assessment and evaluation to take these factors into account'.(vi)
So what is the solution?
One would imagine that buying natural organic products would be a good solution to the problem. During the 60s and 70s there was a growing awareness in society of impending environmental crisis, resulting in a questioning of humanity's reliance on fossil fuels and a suspicion of the use of chemicals in farming and consumer products.
As a result, 'natural' lifestyle choices came into vogue and have become increasingly popular with the mainstream consumer in the 21st Century. Companies that produce toiletries have cashed in on this growing trend. Our shop shelves are flooded with products claiming to be 'natural', 'organic', or 'herbal.' Peruse your "aloe vera" shampoo from the high street chemist and it is likely to be one ingredient in a soup of synthetic chemicals.
Make Your Own Toiletries and Natural Remedies
Making your own toiletries and herbal remedies is a positive, fun solution to helping to keep a toxic free body. You can cut yourself out of the consumer loop and stop filling the pockets of chemical fat cats who put profits before people and planet.
Many of the products that you buy from your local or high street chemists are tested on animals, or contain ingredients that are derived from animal products. Home-made toiletries can be tested on your own body. Before you fully apply the product, do a simple test by rubbing a small amount of it on a patch of skin and watching over night to ensure your body does not reject it.
Waste is an environmental problem associated with toiletries. Every time you throw a shampoo bottle or old tub of moisturiser into your bin, it ends its life in a landfill site. Home-made products can be stored in re-used tubs and bottles or glass containers that can be re-used and recycled.
Certain foods can be beneficial for the skin. If you are using food as an ingredient buy organic local produce. That way you are not only helping your body and the environment, but the local economy too!
If you have your own herb or vegetable garden, you can use ingredients you have grown yourself. If you don’t have your own herb garden, buy pre-dried herbs and plant extracts from local health food shops, or mail order from natural beauty companies.
Making your own toiletries and natural remedies is a fantastic way to educate yourself in the wonderful properties of plants, flowers, herbs and food and could make you less reliant on synthetic medicines from your doctor and chemist.
(i) Take a Toxic Tour Of Your Bathroom - The Guardian - Tues Feb 2003
(ii) Friends Of The Earth - Press Release - Chemicals Of Concern Named And Shamed - www.foe.co.uk 12/07/2003
(iii) based on the results of tests commissioned by Women's Environmental Network, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Health Care Without Harm
(iv) Press Release - Women's Environmental Network - Fertility-threatening chemicals in cosmetics - November 2002
(v) Women's Environmental Network - Pretty Nasty - Questions & Answers about phthalates - 01/03
(vi) Women's Environmental Network - Campaign Factsheet - Chemicals Under The Spotlight - 06/03
Grab a handful of herbs or flowers (camomile heads or rose petals and elderflowers are strongly recommended), soak over night in cold water, bring to the boil for one minute and leave to infuse for a further 5 - 10 minutes. Strain and add to your bath.
Comfrey, marigold and camomile are all fantastic herbs for your skin. Cold camomile tea can be used as a light cleanser (using the same method recommended for the bath).
Plain Live yoghurt can be used as a cleanser. Dab on with cotton wool to remove dirt before toning and moisturising the face.
Strawberry & Oat exfoliating mask
20g/2 teaspoons of ground oats
3 large ripe strawberries
5ml/1 teaspoon of single light cream
Grind oats into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or blender
Mash up strawberries using a fork and mix with oats. Add enough cream to make a paste.
Apply the pack to your face and leave on for ten minutes
Gently remove with cool water then pat down with a towel