Cleaning Up the New Year
by Sarah G. Sunu -- January 3rd, 2014

Happy New Year! I’m back from many holiday travels and ready to dive into 2014. Last year’s resolution to reduce my shower time (and therefore water consumption) has worked out pretty well–I love my shower timer–so I will continue the practice. My resolution this year is to think more holistically and analytically about my cleaning choices.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! My aunt has nice champagne glasses.


What does that mean? Well, I recently found out that a series of household cleaning products that I’ve been using, which are marketed as biodegradable (good), have a variety of health and environmental concerns associated with the ingredients used (bad).  On a similar note, I was really excited to try out a new shampoo and conditioner a year or two ago (100% natural, vegan, cruelty-free, etc., etc., etc.). After a couple of days of enjoying my sleek shiny hair, I realized that I was horribly itchy all along my neck and around my ears, and my lymph nodes were swelling!  Turns out I am allergic to that all-natural compilation of ingredients (a wry relative commented at the time that “Poison ivy is all-natural too!”). I was just so happy with the claims on the bottles that I didn’t want to acknowledge the ‘darker side’ of the products.

So this year, I’m going to try to look beyond the claims and do some digging of my own. It can be tough to figure out what a product’s actual impacts are over the course of its life cycle (from development, to manufacturing, to use, to disposal). Sometimes the information is even downright contradictory.

For example, looking up the same product on both Good Guide and the Environmental Working Group websites may lead to different ratings of the product–say, an 8.5 (1 is bad, 10 is best) on Good Guide, and an F (A is best, F is worst) on the EWG website. What’s a concerned consumer to do?

Good Guide looks at the product a little more holistically than EWG, considering impacts on society and overall company environmental policies (including materials sourcing) as well as the human health impacts. EWG focuses on human and environmental health impacts of product use, and identifies risk based on the ingredients. Both websites identify data gaps for ingredients, but EWG skews to the precautionary side (where data gaps are weighted against a product and lower its grade) while Good Guide seems more concerned with whether ingredients are disclosed and less with what the ingredients constitute (and a product can still receive a 10 without complete ingredient information).

For my own choices, I’ll be looking at both websites, but will probably rely more on EWG, as I appreciate the breakdown of product composition and the risks associated with the various ingredients. It allows me to decide what concerns me the most and gives me a little more control over the specific kind of risk I’m exposing myself to (I’m less worried about, say, an ingredient that can cause a skin reaction for a product like toilet cleaner if the other ingredients are ecologically sound, since I wear gloves when I’m cleaning the bathroom and don’t plan on sticking my arm in the toilet bowl). On the other hand, since I’m trying to look at the whole lifespan of the product, Good Guide provides more information about how it’s manufactured, which is also important to me.

I’m glad that these resources are available, but it’s clear that there’s more work to be done in making these assessments more comprehensive and in improving our understanding of the impacts and risks involved. In the meantime, I will muddle along as best I can and look for products that are good for me and for the environment. I hear vinegar is tried and true….

What’s your environmental resolution this year?

Tides for Friday, January 3rd, 2014, Beaufort, NC:

Low: 2:38 AM, -0.74 ft.

High: 9:06 AM, 3.99 ft.

Low: 3:23 PM, -0.55 ft.

High: 9:30 PM, 3.27 ft.


  1. Sarah Loftus
    Sarah Loftus
    Jan 3, 2014

    These are important topics and you raise a lot of good points about the challenges of weighing the pros and cons of different choices. I have similar environmental resolutions, especially for personal care products like shampoo. I’ve read that people have had both good and bad experiences with the “no-poo” method (using dissolved baking soda as needed), and I’ll be trying that out as well as some other homemade shampoo recipes in the future. Once our current “green” cleaning supplies run out I hope to try some DIY recipes for cleaning products too (you’re definitely right about vinegar!).

    • Sarah
      Jan 9, 2014

      I tried no-poo a couple of years ago–used a vinegar rinse, but then had to rinse with rosewater for the smell–never quite got the hang of it. And I really missed conditioner. Now I try to compromise by using a product that is 94% biodegradable.

      It’s tough to figure out all the impacts, so my rule of thumb is to try to use less in general and make good choices where I can. Let me know how your no-poo experimentation goes!

  2. Heidi
    Jan 4, 2014

    Glad you like the glasses! 🙂 Happy New Year, sweet Sarah!

    • Sarah
      Jan 9, 2014

      Thanks for hosting all of us! Happy 2014 to you and the menagerie!

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