Friday, June 20, 2014

DIY vs. Chemistry

Queen Composter feels the need to explain that being green doesn't mean one is anti-chemistry.

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Whenever a movement becomes popular there will be people who espouse that way of life without full understanding, and there will be the push back and criticism from others. Such is the case with living a green life and trying to avoid toxic ingredients.

Can We Trust Commercial Products?

One way people try to be more eco-minded is with household cleaners and personal care products. Without a chemistry degree and knowledge of how chemical compounds react and affect the human body, I find it difficult to know the difference between greenwashing products that throw around buzz words like "natural" and "eco", and truly non-toxic products. I am a diligent product ingredient reader, but I may not know what sodium chloride, laurel glucoside, sodium laureth sulfate, ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are. They may or may not have toxic effects on humans, but I cannot trust that they are safe, or assume that they are dangerous, if they are listed in product ingredients.

In case you are wondering, sodium chloride (salt) and laurel glucoside (a surfactant from coconut oil and sugar) are fine, but ethylene oxidesodium laureth sulfate and 1,4-dioxane, which can be found in soaps, are not fine. But I did not know this without doing some reading because I only studied chemistry until grade ten. How many people do this before they go shopping and grab dish soap or shampoo off the shelves? I am, therefore, electing to learn how to make my own products rather than reading about each and every ingredient in the commercial ingredients I purchase.

Is the Eco Movement Uninformed About Basic Chemistry?

The pushback is coming in the form of "science defenders" who feel the need to point out chemicals are not bad, and that everything is made of chemicals. If we make our own cleaning products from vinegar, salt, or baking soda we are idiots because these too are just chemicals. Chemicals and chemical compounds are natural because they are a part of everything and naturally occurring. How silly of people to make natural cleaners that are really just chemical compounds.

I think the issue is when green-minded people speak of wanting to avoid nasty, carcinogenic or hormone disrupting compounds but speak of avoiding nebulous "chemicals". We are not trying to avoid using chemicals. We do not trust the corporate world to have our best interests in mind when they make their products. They use stabilizers to maintain the consistency of their product over time so it does not separate or degrade. They use fragrances to make their product more appealing to consumers. However, it is often these very ingredients that are toxic.

For example, sodium laureth sulfate makes products foam (surfactant), which is a quality that we like in our shampoos, toothpastes and soaps. However, sodium laureth sulfate is also a known human carcinogen. Let me repeat that, a known human carcinogen in toothpaste that we may ingest! Even sodium lauryl sulfate, which is not contaminated with impurities during the manufacturing process as is sodium laureth sulfate, but may be an irritant, is found in natural commercial toothpastes.

Sodium lauryl sulfate in "natural" toothpaste.

Chemicals Do Not Equal Bad

But chemicals are not bad. That is like a classic syllogism of deductive reasoning: sodium laureth sulfate is a chemical compound and a carcinogen, therefore chemicals are carcinogens. I hope that people are more intelligent than falling into the trap of chemicals equal bad.

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I would like people to understand that when I research DIY recipes for hair cleaner, facial cleanser, toothpaste, jewelry cleaner, dishwashing detergent, all purpose cleaner and laundry detergent I am not trying to avoid "chemicals". I am trying to avoid harmful ingredients, such as fragrances, that can cause a  myriad of health concerns.

That is why I am gradually eliminating commercially produced household products from my home. Not because they are "chemicals".

Do you make your own cleaners and personal care products?


Anonymous said...

I make my own laundry detergent and dish detergent. They are pretty easy to make,not expense and I like that I am not contributing more plastic bottles to the recycle bin. Working on making my own shampoo and conditioner next.

Christy said...

Yes, exactly, it helps the environment all the way around! Good for you! I have yet to make my own laundry and dish detergent. That's on my DIY to do list for this summer. I have been focusing on my personal care products so far.

Betsy Escandon said...

Love this thoughtful post!

I think today in common parlance "chemical" = "synthetic manmade chemical." Not even all of those are bad, but they aren't the unadulterated wonder they were once believed to be! Since I took Organic chemistry and chemistry, I am well aware that everything is a chemical, so I try to use the terms synthetic chemical or toxic chemical on my blog when I'm talking about things to avoid. I don't make many household cleaners (I do use vinegar a lot) and just use as few personal products as possible. I am not a super DIYer in those departments currently. I'd rather focus on baking a new snack.

Christy said...

Thanks Betsy. Overcoming my lack of baking mojo is definitely on my to do list. :-)

I feel rather sensitive about this because on top of Facebook posts and on line articles, my own brother, an environmental geochemist, has scoffed at me and said things like, "oh right, chemicals are bad" when I use homemade products.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

My mom is a former chemistry professor, and she'd absolutely agree with you (as do i). In fact, she was the one who alerted me to the chemistry behind why baking soda makes such a great deodorant.

(And if I'd had her in high school, I might have stuck with chemistry a lot longer--she's a great teacher!)

Thank you for writing this! (I think you've just inspired my first non-recipe-related blog post in I don't know how long...:-)

Eco Yogini said...

this is great. I think that there is a balance to be had on both sides.

I have some things I DIY and some that I don't. It all has to do with what I'm comfortable with.

Delora said...

Not to take away from the point of your article (I make a few of my own products for the same reasons you mentioned, plus they're more cost-effective), but do note that the sodium lauryl sulfate you show in the picture is different from the sodium laureth sulfate you discuss in the text:

Christy said...

Delora, thanks. I am aware of the difference but I do not use any toothpastes that use the former described in the text so took a picture of the one I had (as both similar toxicity). I should have made that point clear when I posted it. I will amend it now.


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