Thursday, July 24, 2014

Saying Goodbye To Chemicals

About two years ago, I made the decision to get rid of all the chemical cleaners we had in the house and start cleaning using natural, toxin-free ingredients. Before that, I've always heard people rave about the cleaning power of chemical-free ingredients that most of us already have in our homes, such as vinegar and baking soda, but I never felt the urge or the need to switch. I loved my citrus scented all-surface cleaner, my foaming action Scrubbing Bubbles, my never-fail streak-free Windex, and my occasional Febreze when I wanted our living room to smell like "Linen and Sky" (if you're wondering what sky smells like, it smells like wonderful.)

I was always aware that commercial household cleaners are toxic; the labels on the backs of those bottles often had extensive warnings about skin contact, eye irritation, and fumes. When I would clean, I'd usually have to leave the kitchen and bathroom fans running so I wouldn't get a headache. I would move everything off of all the surfaces before I'd even start cleaning so that the chemicals wouldn't get on the kitchen utensils or our toothbrushes (the mist from the sprays gets everywhere, even if it's not clearly visible to eyes.) But all these were relatively minor inconveniences, the real impetus for me to go chemical-free was that my body was starting to protest.

Not everyone is allergy-prone or sensitive to chemicals. I'm just not one of those lucky people (although, just because you don't have a sensitivity doesn't mean you're not still being affected.) I had developed eczema in my early twenties and it had progressively gotten worse. Around the same time, I had also developed seasonal allergies, allergies to pets, an egg allergy, and a developing allergy to watermelon. That last one was particularly devastating to me because I loooove watermelon. A battery of skin tests and a blood test confirmed my "condition" but there was little I could do aside from simply resigning to my fate. What was I supposed to do? Give away my dogs, stop eating eggs benedict, and swear off watermelon?! Impossible.

While I adapted to living with my regular allergy symptoms--sneezing, itchy throat, and a sinus that never clears up--my worsening eczema symptoms were more difficult to cope with. In the earlier days, my eczema would flare up occasionally, maybe in the middle of the winter when my skin is more dry or when I've been stressed out about work and not getting enough sleep. But now my eczema was always flaring up, seemingly nonstop and non-circumstantial. I would be scratching myself in my sleep so vigorously that Ethan said he would be woken up by it. I would then discover little cuts and scabs on my skin that testified to what he said. The worst area was my neck, where it would just continuously cycle through the stages of being red, swollen, itchy, flaky and then finally leaving my skin in darkened, discolored patches. No lotions or creams provided a lasting remedy, and the only prescribed topical medication that worked was one that came with a side effect warning of cancer (no thanks! I think I'll just stick with the eczema!)

There had to be a remedy, I had to figure out something. Thinking back to my childhood in China, I never had any allergies. My allergies developed after I've been in the U.S. for 10 years (coincidentally, my mom also developed allergies after being in the States for the same amount of time.) Could it be in the food? Back then in China, our food was locally grown before the use of pesticides and growth hormones became the norm. Once in the States, our diet changed to mostly industrially farmed and processed foods. Could it be the prevalent use of household chemicals? Back in the day, we just used natural, regular ol' soap for everything. Now, we have a different chemical solution for every cleaning task in the home: dish detergent, laundry detergent, surface cleaner, glass cleaner, wood cleaner, shower cleaner, floor cleaner, on and on.

I knew that despite any genetic predisposition, lifestyle and dietary choices can have a significant impact on one's health. More and more studies are finding correlations between chemical toxins and chronic health problems, such as links between pesticides and allergies, and chemical cleaners and respiratory illnesses. I had to try and see whether any of these changes in my life would make a difference, and the results were astounding.

To start, I immediately went organic when it came to meat, eggs, and dairy. These are the foods in our diet that would have the most antibiotics and growth hormones. To be honest, it's hard to pinpoint major visible effects, but one fact is that I've never had an allergic reaction to eggs since. Next, I replaced all of our chemical cleaners with just vinegar and baking soda. All the rumors are true: vinegar and baking soda can, and effectively, clean everything! Vinegar cuts through build up and baking soda gives you that scrubbing power, together they can get rid of the toughest of any kitchen grease or shower scum. And you can do your laundry with vinegar (no, your clothes won't smell like it!) Amazing.

Within the past six months, I also switched to a organic and natural moisturizer (this one from Origins) and we replaced our hand soaps, body washes, and dish detergents with castile soap. To go into all the uses of castile soap (it boasts 18) will require a whole separate post, but in short, this famous soap made with natural, organic essential oils and ingredients is gentle yet just as powerful as any chemical cleaner.

The truly amazing thing since all these changes? My eczema hasn't flared up once since. This past spring, I also didn't experience any seasonal allergy symptoms. While I can't conduct a controlled scientific experiment to prove it, I do wholeheartedly believe that eliminating those chemicals from my home and my diet, however partial, was what improved my health. The truth is, we cannot completely escape the toxins that are so prevalent in our modern world. It's likely that I will never go 100% chemical-free, nor is it my goal (because I do love my shampoos). But when it comes to our health, and life in general, it's all about the choices that we make, in whatever capacity we can, for the better of our well-being.

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