I don’t know about you, but when I think ‘healthy living’, I still picture a Prius driver in yoga pants wandering the aisles at Whole Foods. But it’s easy to swap out a few things in your everyday life to start making a difference without compromising your style.
Personally, I’ve always been a little crunchy — from carpooling in school to carrying around trash in my backpack until I could recycle it. But there were three independent realizations in my adult life tipped the scales from casually conscientious to personally proactive. Like any lifestyle change, going green might come across as daunting. But if you’re looking for small steps with big impacts, these are a great place to start.
They were for me.
1. Make your own bottled water.
Never mind that bottled water is one of the biggest environmental offenders today — from their huge share of landfills to the energy needed to schlep that delightful half-liter artesian spring water halfway around the globe — the number-one reason to ditch store-bought water is the water itself. Plastic leeches chemicals that become endocrine disrupters in the body. More specifically, chemicals that behave like synthetic estrogen. That means earlier puberty in girls, increased sex-related cancers like breast and prostate in adults, and inexplicable cravings for romantic comedies with Matthew McConaughey.
Instead, buy glass bottles and keep a bunch of them filled and ready to go in the fridge. (Like the 18-ounce Aquasana.) You can use stainless steel bottles, but make sure they’re not lined with BPA, since many non-plastics still can be. (Klean Kanteen makes a good stainless bottle.)
Now, some of you may be thinking, “But, Crunchy Urbanite, my plastic bottle is BPA-free.” And that’s great, but the only thing plastic manufacturers did differently was move one letter up the alphabet. Your bottle may be BPA-free, but it’s BPB-full. Supposedly safer, but remember: every plastic was safe until we learned otherwise. Best to beat the next recall and ditch plastic altogether.
2. Bring your own reusable bag.
Reusable shopping bags are so ubiquitous nowadays that we almost take them for granted. Which is fine, so long as we still take them. The truth of the matter is that an almost-half century of disposable plastic bags is finally reaching the end of its lifecycle, but as those plastics break down, they’re not disappearing — they’re just getting smaller. And those smaller particles are starting to impact the microscopic ecosystems that are the foundation of our more obvious macro systems. (Heavy stuff, right?)
On the bright side, things are already improving. Cities all over are starting to limit or ban plastic bags, and athletic retailer Puma even unveiled a disposable bag made out of cornstarch that dissolves in warm water. By taking yourself out of the equation, it’s a small action that can help make a big difference.
Want to know more? Check out the award-winning movie Bag It. Jeb Berrier follows a plastic bag down the rabbit hole on a lighthearted journey of discovery to healthier, more holistic living.
3. Clean up your clean-up.
You might not think it, but what you put on your skin goes a lot deeper. After all, your skin is an organ, not a shield. My introduction to savvy label-reading happened when the bottle of shampoo I picked up proudly declared it was sodium lauryl sulfate-free. I had no idea what the hell that meant. Shampoo was shampoo, and the pricier stuff just meant better ingredients, right? So I went home and did a little research. And that was the day I became a label reader.
- Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate.
These bad boys are in next to everything. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES — see what they did there?) are the backbone of most shampoos, soaps, and cleansers; which makes them easy to spot right behind water as a main ingredient. Why? SLS and SLES are what make your cleaning products clean so well — but better yet, work up that satisfying lather. In fact, SLS and SLES are so good at degreasing, they’re not just used as shampoo, they’re used as industrial-grade engine strippers. They’re even added to toothpaste to make it froth. So what’s the problem? SLS and SLES are one of the leading causes of product-related skin irritations, causing hair loss and eye damage. Moreover, they’re readily absorbed by the skin and — just like with plastic water bottles — act like synthetic estrogen inside the body. And, no surprise, have been linked to cancer. Some of the more “organic” brands will oftentimes source SLS or SLES from natural, plant-based materials like coconut, and may try to hide the ingredient as sodium “coco” sulfate or sodium cocofate. Once you learn what to avoid, it’ll be easier to spot — and avoid — cognates.
Just like sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens are everywhere. They’re chemical preservatives that extend shelf-life, combat mold and fungus, and — best of all — are cheap to produce. In fact, they’re even used in processed and fast foods. (There’s a reason that McDonald’s hamburger doesn’t rot.) So why are parabens so bad? Sure, they’re cancer-causing — what isn’t at this point, right? — but they seem particularly fond of reproductive systems. Researchers have found high amounts of parabens in breast cancer tumors, and studies involving newborn male mammals have shown parabens can compromise testosterone production and alter the development of the male reproductive system as a whole. Because parabens are needed in such small quantities, look for them near the bottom of an ingredients list.
Call it what you like — petroleum jelly, petrolatum, Vaseline — it’s in everything from lotion to lip balm and it’s a byproduct of crude oil with a whole slew of negative health effects. For starters, it hinders your body’s natural detoxifying process and the rate at which your cells are renewed. It damages collagen and elastin, which is a fancy way of saying it ages you prematurely. Moreover, it’s commonly used as a moisturizer, but actually destroys your skin’s ability to moisturize itself naturally. If you’re looking to moisturize and care for your skin, try tocopherol (vitamin E) or jojoba oil, which mimics human sebaceous oil. Other great oils and butters include olive, almond, sesame, coconut, and shea — but they’re really up to your personal preference.
- Propylene Glycol.
By far, my favorite of the evil ingredients. Propylene glycol is what’s known as a penetration enhancer. (Clean thoughts, please.) It’s also a skin cell denaturer, because it essentially paralyzes a cell and makes it powerless to defend itself against whatever you’re giving it. That makes propylene glycol perfect for everything from firming creams to deodorant. But it also makes it a little too easy for all the ingredients in your cosmetics to flood into your body and into your bloodstream. And that’s one of the reasons that kidney and liver damage are common health problems attributed to propylene glycol. If it’s not labeled as-is, a few common cognates to look for are 1,2-Dihydroxypropane, 2-Hydroxypropanol, and Methylethy Glycol.