Hitting the Right Bottle: Perfume

I’ve loved perfume since I was a little kid. In chronological order, I wore Love’s Baby Soft, L’Air du Temps, Eternity, Flowers—then, well, then I went wild and crazy and divided my devotion among a collection of dozens of fragrances. I visited perfume blogs and ordered samples, always searching for magic in a bottle. I never left the house without a spritz or dab of something.

So when I learned a few years ago about the dangers that lurked in those bottles—to find out that something that smelled so good could be so, well, bad—it was disheartening. I’m sure a lot of others are feeling as dismayed after reading a report released this week from the fine folks at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance.” In short: the news stinks. Testing shows that popular perfumes are filled with chemicals that can hurt you and/or the environment. Oh, and some of those toxins aren’t even listed on the ingredients labels. (I’ve published a blog post on the topic at the Care2 site.)

So here’s the thing. No one likes to hear that something they enjoy is dangerous. I don’t like to be a Debbie-Downer, but I believe it’s important to be informed and pay attention to this report—and to try to lobby for change in the industry. Loopholes in the law to let companies hide ingredients from labels? Come on—there’s nothing acceptable about that.

But if there’s nothing enjoyable about telling someone that the perfume they love contains hidden toxins, there’s something delightful about talking up the alternatives out there. When I was faced with giving up my own beloved perfumes (ouch, it really hurt), I went on a mission to find scents I could wear without sacrificing my health. I had low expectations and resigned myself to settle for safe but second-best.

Boy, was I wrong. I started with pure essential oils, followed by blends. Then, when I worked at a website about green living, I had the pleasure of writing a story about Mandy Aftel, a perfumer who makes fragrances out of pure essential oils for her Aftelier line; she wrote a book on the subject that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in perfume: Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. Her passion for the art of perfumery is impressive and she is committed to creating only scents from pure sources—nothing artificial, nothing toxic. Spending time with her in her Berkeley studio (pictured, photos of her studio) was an absolute treat. I recall speaking to her about a recent hike and describing the smell of the wet fir when she pulled “Fig” off the shelf for me. Bingo. (It has become my go-to scent.)

I am now devoted to Aftel’s scents, along with others from perfume makers who don’t use nasty chemicals or hide what they use in their creations—so I can smell pretty without worrying about what my skin is absorbing. (Consult the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website for results of personal care products they test, including perfumes.) Best of all, I don’t miss anything I gave up.

7 Ways to Organize Your Closet, the Eco Way

Originally published on Sprig.com

You just spent the weekend cleaning out your closet and have a pile of stuff that either doesn’t fit your body or doesn’t suit your lifestyle. What do you do with the leftovers? These seven ideas will help you save money, save the planet and just feel good about yourself.

1. Repair It.
Paying to have an ill-fitting pair of pants tailored to your size is less expensive than buying a new pair—ditto for stretching a pair of shoes or giving them new soles. Simple fit issues can be fixed by your local tailor or shoemaker. (Don’t know where to go? Ask for a recommendation from your favorite local boutique.) A good tailor can also adjust the style of a piece, updating flare legs to straight or minimizing puffy sleeves on a blouse.

2. Rework It.
If it pains you to part with that XL R.E.M. tee from college, channel your inner crafter. Thread Banger and T-Shirt Surgery are among the resourceful websites that offer do-it-yourself instructions for restyling pieces like jeans and T-shirts that are easy enough for sewing novices (really—some don’t even require a needle and thread).

3. Swap It.
Before you go on a shopping spree to fill in the holes in your newly-clean closet, consider swapping. “Circulating items is definitely a green idea,” says Melanie Charlton Fascitelli of Clos-ette, a New York-based closet organizing company. Host a clothing swap party at home with friends (and friends of friends). Ask each person to bring all of the clothing and accessories she no longer wants. Then either make a big pile in the middle of the room and have a free-for-all or separate clothing into categories for easier “shopping.” You can also swap online from sites such as Clothing SwapSwap Style, and Swap Thing, which allow you to trade clothing with other registrants.

4. Sell It.
Yep, you can make money selling your castoffs! Start by checking with consignment shops in your area. Ask to speak with a manager or buyer about what they’re most interested in acquiring. (Keep in mind that many consignment shops shop sell seasonal clothing, so you won’t have much luck getting rid of a puffy jacket in June.) They do the selling for you and either offer instant store credit or a percentage–usually about half–of the resale price on items that move.

For a more hands-on approach, you can sell on eBay, either with bidding or a simple “buy it now” price. Never done it? It’s really a simple process; just upload a digital photo and description and pay no more than a few bucks per item. Save trips to the post office and lower your carbon footprint by ending each of your auctions on the same day. Items of lesser value are best sold locally on Craig’s List, where you can set up a window of time for potential buyers to shop for and haul away your goods. During fair weather months, you can plan a yard/gate/garage sale or, better yet, arrange a group one with neighbors.

5. Donate it.
The possibilities for donations are endless. Start with your local thrift store, homeless shelter or women’s shelter, which accept tax-deductible donations and serve your community. And check out these sites for donating particular items.

Dress for Success: Accepts business-appropriate clothing for female job-hunters. You can also find a local group that does the same (check their directory for more info) here.

Glass Slipper Project: This Chicago-based group re-circulates dresses for girls in need of prom gowns.

Brides Against Breast Cancer: This non-profit collects contemporary wedding gowns to benefit those suffering from metastatic breast cancer.

I Do Foundation: Resells your donated wedding gown then makes a contribution to the charity of your choice with partial proceeds from the sale.

Pick Up Please: Supports Vietnam Veterans with the sale of donated items, including clothing and accessories.

Soles4Souls: Collects shoes for victims of natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina the Thailand Tsunami.

Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe: Recycles materials from worn and donated sneakers for new shoes or for materials used to build playgrounds and sports courts.

6. Give it A New Purpose.
Nothing needs to end up in a landfill. If it’s not worth selling, swapping or donating, you can find new uses for items that would otherwise end up in the trash. Torn cotton shirts become dusting and cleaning rags. Other garments can be used to stuff in handbags or shoes to retain their shape when not in use. The legs of jeans or sweats can be cut and used as covers for packing shoes.

7. Don’t Give Up!
Even old hangers can use a new home! Return excess wire hangers to your local dry cleaner for re-use and donate plastic hangers to your local thrift store. Down to the bottom of the pile? The last of your unwanted items can be distributed free through Freecycle.

Rethinking Pink: Petitioning Estee Lauder

I’ve made a rule about keeping toxins out of my makeup bag and use every opportunity I get to encourage others to choose beauty products made without toxic chemicals. “That’s bad for you” is never a message I like to deliver, but I delight in the fact that I can suggest better-for-you products and I usually end my sermon with the recommendation to visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website for more info and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website for ratings of products. We’re deep in October and I find myself wanting to grab a megaphone, as I spot cosmetics and personal care products that contain carcinogens–on the shelves being marketed for Breast Cancer Awareness month. Slapping a pink ribbon on a product is not enough. Estee Lauder has a big campaign each year to raise money and awareness for the cause and I cheer those efforts, but it’s time they started making safer products. Lauder owns Origins and Aveda, two companies that make products with less-toxic ingredients, but the their other lines (MAC, Clinique…) don’t deserve to be pink-ribboned. What you can do: sign a petition asking them to do the right thing.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Picking the Right Products

Today marks the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and you’ll find all kinds of products on shelves with a pink ribbon to indicate that the company is donating a portion of proceeds to groups that support the cause by helping victims of the disease and/or researchers working for a cure. Here’s my buyer-beware, buzz-kill plea: be mindful of beauty products with the pink ribbon because many of them actually contain carcinogens. Seriously. Of course it’s good to give credit where it’s due and to be grateful for companies with big bucks that are donating money to the cause, but it’s a shame that some of these companies are aware of dangers (or possible dangers) of chemicals in their products and continue to use them, putting the public at risk. Luckily, there are pink-ribboned products made with safer ingredients, like the lip gloss pictured, from one of my favorite beauty lines. Jane Iredale has been in the mineral makeup market for years and formulates products without harsh and hazardous chemicals. You can investigate the safety of other personal are products at the Skin Deep database and, as always, find more no the subject at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website.

Nailing It: Picking the Right Polish

Nailing ItOriginally published on the Care2 website.

I skimmed the L.A. Times story in Sunday’s paper with interest: a new nail salon was opened that sounded like my kinda place. The structure was described as “eco-friendly,” “a completely green structure” and a “safe environment.” Fantastic, I thought. Finally.

But I noted that it was an OPI nail salon and I had long ago stopped using nail products by OPI. When I learned about the dangers of nail polish a few years ago, I began to bring my own toxic-free products with me to nail salons. Then I began to go to salons less frequently because of the fumes I had to inhale while inside those walls (wondering every time I sat in the chair about how the health of the nail technician could be compromised). OPI is a nail salon favorite but I read that the company was reportedly reluctant to remove the big, bad three chemicals found in nail products: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). For several years, experts have identified these three chemicals, commonly used in nail polish, as harmful; formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory irritant, while toluene and DBP are known or suspected reproductive developmental toxins.

The European Union (EU) has banned the use of these three ingredients in nail (and other) products and I had heard that OPI complied with the EU rules for the products they made for overseas sales—but they continued to use the chemicals in U.S. products. Hold on. Now OPI was getting attention for its new eco-friendly salon? This felt like a case of “green-washing” to me, with OPI riding the environmental wave. Fitting a building with solar panels or stocking your bathroom with Seventh Generation toilet paper does not make a company green. What about the nail polish with the toxic chemicals?

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics targeted the company, along with many others, imploring them to make changes to their products and I went online to find that OPI finally decided to reformulate its products to eliminate these ingredients. The L.A. Times story quoted someone from OPI as saying that because they’re a chemical company, they felt they should give back. I’d never want to fault someone for doing the right thing and I like to give credit to those who see the light, but I’d much rather give my business to companies that don’t make me think twice. Luckily, there are better choices out there—and more every day. Find some of them here.

Toxic Tub Time: Time to Wipe Away the Suds

Originally published on the Care2 website.

I found out this week that a friend is expecting her first child. Kay knows that I’m an enthusiastic “greenie,” and in the last year she’s asked me at various times about what kind of nail products I’d recommend, what kind of deodorant, what kind of shampoo. I am not shy about these opportunities and I always provide the website address for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the organization I counted on when I greened my own makeup bag a few years ago. When Kay complimented me on a fragrance recently, I revealed it was from a perfumer who uses organic essential oils and who advocates against the use of anything artificial and then I went on to tell her about how most commercial fragrances are filled with harmful or potentially harmful ingredients. I will delicately offer unsolicited advice to friends about beauty products on occasion, being careful to not offend choices they’ve made. But when a friend opens the door for me by asking, I take the podium.

Kay’s recent interest in making better personal care choices is particularly encouraging because I now consider the door wide open for me to offer oodles and oodles of advice on the baby products she should choose in the months ahead. Since I’ve greened my life, I’ve had several friends and family members welcome bundles of joy—and I am proud to be the “green girl” at baby showers, offering cute organic cotton onesies and bath products that are gentle and made entirely of pure and truly natural ingredients. I stress the “truly natural” part because the “natural” label has been abused and so many people are unaware of the hidden danger in the products that line the shelves.

Tell someone that lead can still be found in some commercial brands of lipstick and they might be surprised but not necessarily shocked. But toxins in baby products? It’s hard to accept. And, let’s face it, it’s sickening. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics filed a report this week, “No More Toxic Tub: Getting Contaminants Out of Children’s Bath and Personal Care Products,” on what is found in a sampling of dozens of baby products, including bubble bath and baby lotion. They sent the products to be independently tested and found traces of the 1, 4-dioxane and formaldehyde (chemicals the EPA lists as probable carcinogens).

How can it be that Sesame Street Bubble Bath and Huggies Naturally Refreshing Cucumber & Green Tea baby wash contain these toxins? And what about Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo? The cosmetics industry is largely self-regulated and neither of these chemicals are listed on the labels—but they showed up in testing of the products. Now I see “no more tears” on a bottle of kiddie shampoo and think no—no more toxins. Passing off these products as natural and safe is shameful, especially since safer ingredients are readily available for use in these products. You know how soft a baby’s skin is—and how delicate and vulnerable. Splashing around the tubs with a rubber ducky—and harmful chemicals?

Naysayers argue that the level of toxicity is negligible, but just think about the accumulative effect of exposure to numerous “negligible” levels from various sources (the water, the air). We can’t get hysterical about the dangers but we can be aware and take action. At this point, it’s up to the consumer to be educated and make the right choices. Thankfully, alternatives are out there and you can support the companies making the safer products by spending your dollars on their goods (while also sending a message to the companies still peddling poison).

Since I’ve become involved in the green world, the best stories I’ve heard are from new moms who have made deliberate steps to green their lives, who say they discovered that the baby products they were using were not as safe or environmentally friendly as they had been lead to believe—or, expectant moms like Kay, who are beginning to think twice about the products that they use daily. They begin by making safer choices for the sake of their babies and then they take a hard look at the products they’re using on their own bodies and then at the products they’re using to clean their homes, and so on. There’s power in action and also in making your voice heard; you can also take action by contacting your legislators and asking them to support regulations on cosmetics and to help regulate the industry.

Charmed, I’m Sure

I go through fashion phases and one involves wearing a plain black T-shirt or tank with a cardigan or jacket—complimented by a bold necklace. Perfect for this: some fun charms given to me by my mom, which I wear on roped chains or leather cords. Here’s a typewriter charm from mom I recently found at the bottom of my jewelry box. A friend told me that her son saw a typewriter in a shop window and asked about what it was. Before computers, kiddo. I’m sure he’s asked her about record players, too. To add to my collection, I’m searching on eBay for an old record player charm and found some adorable boom box ones. I see a boom box and I think of sitting on the front stoop at my friend Lisa’s house, blasting “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett until Lisa’s mother shouted from inside the house that we needed to turn down the volume. Oh, the good old days. I’m bidding on boom box and jukebox charms now…