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Shopping Your Way to a Healthier School Year

I love back to school shopping, I always have.  I always look for the cutest and most colorful things for my dorm room, but I never thought about the chemicals that go into my adorable décor. However, after spending almost all of last year sick, thanks to a mold infested AC unit, I started to pay attention to what I was putting in my room. I was shocked to learn that many chemicals that are known to be harmful to humans are abundant in common household items. Scientific studies have proved that many of these chemicals damage internal organs or impede development, and they can accumulate in your system throughout the school year. These chemicals are especially harmful to women, who naturally have more fat than men. Carcinogens such as Bisphenol-A (BPA) bind to the fat and are stored as such in your body.

There is already so much stress in college, you do not want to also have to worry about being sick, or how your air freshener is making you sick! By making a few changes to your College Checklist, you won’t have to. Check out these tips for healthy dorm living, and shop your way to a healthy school year!


a) Sunscreen: The Problem

You have so many options to choose from when it comes to sun protection. The differences between all the products are so slight, that it is difficult to know what is best. There is sunscreen, tanning oil, waterproof, water resistant, SPF 2-100+, UVA and/or UVB protection, and so much more. Sunscreen is so important to your health and beauty that you want to be sure to purchase the right product.

The Danger

Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin cancer, including melanoma, but until recently, most sunscreens only protected against UVB rays. SPF only refers to the degree of protection from UVB rays, which causes sunburns; UVA rays cause the visible damage of wrinkles and other deep skin damage.

The Solution

You want to buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen, meaning that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. When looking at SPF, do not buy into thinking that SPF 75 is worth the extra money over the SPF 45. In fact, SPF 15 blocks 94% of UVB rays, whereas SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 45 blocks 98%, and once you get above 45, the difference is less that 1%. When you are shopping for sunscreen, stick to the 30 and 45, reapply once an hour, and save your money. Try Badger All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30($16.00 for 3 oz, Whole Foods) or my personal favorite, La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 45 Ultra-Light Fluid for Body ($35.50 for 4.2 oz). Both are unscented (see detergents) and offer high protection from both UVA and UVB, so you can work on your tan all day long!

b) Cosmetics: The Problem

Beauty products contain many known carcinogens, and it is allowed because restrictions are not as strict as those for food and drugs. Manufacturers love these synthetic ingredients because of their long shelf life, but they can be extremely dangerous to your health.

The Danger

Phenylenediamine, benzene (see plants), and formaldehyde (see bedding) are all found in cosmetics. Phenylenediamine (PPD) is a common ingredient in hair dye and tinted glaze, and is linked to cancer and irritation. Some studies link PPD to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, acute leukemia, and bladder cancer; while allergy studies found that it can cause throat irritation and asthma.

The Solution

Look for all-natural cosmetics. For hair color, try Palette by Nature ($23.00) try . It is approved by the American Contact Dermatitis Society and the MAYO clinic CARD Database and is free of PPD and 15 other toxins/unethical practices. For make-up, try bareMinerals by Bare Escentuals (products range from $5-$30, ULTA or Sephora).

Try the Sephora Exclusive Get Started Kit  ($60). It includes 2 SPF15 Foundations, All Over Face Color, Mineral Veil, Tinted Mineral Veil, Full Flawless Face Brush, Flawless Application Face Brush, Maximum Coverage Concealer Brush, and Prime Time Foundation Primer. It has everything you need to look beautiful while staying healthy.

c) Nail Polish: The Problem

Many nail lacquers contain formaldehyde, dibutyl phtyhalate(DBP), and toluene; all chemicals that are harmful to your health when breathed in a nail polish fumes.

The Danger

I already spoke of the danger of formaldehyde in the bedding section, but DBP is known to cause learning disabilities, severe ADHD, cognitive and brain and developmental problems, and reproductive dysfunction. Toluene, in low and moderate levels, causes lethargy, confusion, weakness, memory loss, hearing and color vision loss, and loss of appetite.

The Solution


I love the Three Free formula of Butter London. It is free of formaldehyde, DBP, and toluene, and has amazing colors! This past season at Bryant Park, Butter London was seen on the runways shows of Victoria Beckham and Calvin Klein Rachel Zoe, as well as many others. Check out the colors Thames and Teddy Girl. Thames is a beautiful blue green with gold under currents, perfect for anyone who wants to make a bold statement. If you are looking for something soft and sweet, embrace your inner girly girl and opt for Teddy Girl, a pale bubblegum pink. Both can be purchased for $14 at South Moon Under boutiques or Butter London. 


a) Scented Detergents: The Problem

If you have a scented detergent, you are contaminating your clothes with chemicals like phthalates. If your clothes contain chemicals, those chemicals are rubbing on your skin all day long.

The Danger

Phthalates are endocrine disrupters linked to reproductive dysfunction.

The Solution

Cut back in the laundry room. Buy unscented detergents and dryer sheets. I like Seventh Generation Natural 2X Concentrated Laundry Liquid. It’s free of dyes and synthetic fragrances, has a biodegradable formula, and supports sustainable palm oil! Plus it’s available and Target and Whole Foods.  You can visit the product website to learn about the ingredients and download material safety data sheets.

b) Household Bleach: The Problem

Cleaning products that are meant to rid your room of harmful chemicals often contain harmful chemicals themselves. However, if you do not clean, dust will accumulate and mix with these harmful chemicals

The Danger

Chlorine bleach, cleaning spray, and disinfectants can cause eye, skin, and throat irritation as well as asthma if used more than once a week. In a dirty room, harmful chemicals will bind to dust and can then be inhaled.

The Solution

Dust your room at least once a week and take off your shoes at the door to avoid tracking harmful substances in your room. Reserve the bleach for heavy duty cleaning, such as mold and mildew removal. When you must use bleach, always wear gloves, open all windows, and dilute 1 cup of bleach with 10 cups of water. For a safer, less intense cleaner, try Bon Ami All-Purpose Cleaner.
This company has maintained success through the Great Depression and the Great Recession due to its dedication to healthy, all-natural products. They are chlorine and phosphate free and come in recycled and recyclable packaging. Bon Ami even lists and details the origin and purpose of each ingredient in their cleaning products on their website!  At on $3 a bottle, you have to check it out.

c) Hand Sanitizer: The Problem

Triclosan is used to fight germs in hand sanitizers, hand soaps, and toothpastes.

The Danger

The FDA has recognized that there are negatives to using Triclosan. Many studies link the chemical to liver damage and thyroid problems, as well as contributing to drug resistance.

The Solution

Choose an alcohol based gel, my favorite is the 100% naturalAloe and Witch Hazel Hand Sanitizer by Burt’s Bees ($5). It uses a corn-based alcohol to kill 99.9% of germs, while aloe moisturizes your skin and witch hazel soothes it. Witch Hazel can even be used (externally) to calm inflammation and bruises. Click here to learn more and to purchase.


a) Bedding: The Problem

Polyester/cotton blends and permanent press sheets contain formaldehyde.

The Danger

Formaldehyde is possibly one of the most dangerous, widely used chemicals. Its use continues to be widespread even though it is a known carcinogen. The US National Toxicology Program and the National Cancer Institute have declared Formaldehyde as a cancer-causing agent. Besides this danger, it can also irritate your throat and eyes and disrupt you sheets.

The Solution

Look for Organic, untreated cotton sheets. In my ongoing love affair with Pottery Barn, I chose the Cloverfield Organic Sheet Set in Mauve by PB Teen (Twin XL, $59 plus FREE SHIPPING).  These sheets are 200-thread count and are Oeko-Tex certified! You can purchase them or receive more information here.

b) Room Fresheners: The Problem

Air fresheners are simply another form of air pollution. Companies are not required to list the ingredients on their bottle, so there is not a safe alternative available in stores. Many air fresheners use toxins and volatile organic compounds to mask odors while the fragrances can cause headaches and breathing problems as well as trigger asthma attacks.

The Danger

The Natural Resources Defense Council found that common household air fresheners (gel, plug-ins, spray’s, and candles) contain chemicals that can aggravate asthma and damage reproductive development. Their study found phthalates (hormone-disrupting chemicals, see Scented Detergents) in 6 out of 7 air fresheners, even those marked “all-natural.”

The Solution

Store bought air fresheners will not be safe until companies are required to put ingredients on the labels. For a healthy alternative, try mixing vodka with a drop or two of essential oil. Ethyl alcohol is the main ingredient in most air fresheners and it is also found in vodka. Choosing vodka will allow you to remove odors from the air, furniture, and fabric (like your futon, couch or carpet) without the added chemicals and synthetic fragrances. Vodka will leave no odor when it dries, so add a bit of your favorite essential oil. I like the Travel by Design Apothecary Spray Bottle from Target, Smirnoff or Svedka Vodka, and Organic Lavender (40-42) Essential Oil from Mountain Rose Herbs.

c) Plants: The Problem

You cannot examine every single item put in your room. You have roommates, open windows, friends; it is a wasted of time to look this closely at everything that comes through your door. That is where plants come in; they keep you safe from the chemicals you do not regulate.

The Danger

Household items can contain many harmful ingredients.Trichloroethylene is found in correction fluid, spot remover, furniture varnish, and carpet cleaners. Even in low levels, exposure to trichloroethylene can affect the nervous system, cause liver and lung damage, lead to abnormal heartbeat. Another worrisome chemical is benzene, which is released through wax, glue, and tobacco smoke. Benzene can cause drowsiness, headaches, tremors, and confusion.

The Solution

Peace lilies, Gerbera daisies, and bamboo palm are three excellent filter plants that can clear the air of both trichloroethylene and benzene. All three can also filter formaldehyde, a very dangerous, cancer-causing chemical.  Personally, I love peace lilies. Keeping a plant alive can seem like a daunting task, but I have a system that makes it almostfoolproof. First, use the Glazed Ceramic Self-Watering Planter($9.98, Home Depot), fill the bottom with water and you will only need to water once a week. Next, plant the lily withMiracle-Gro Moisture Control Garden Soil ($7.28, Home Depot), you won’t have to worry about over or under watering with this soil. I filled the bottom of the planter, and watered the plant so the soil was completely saturated, and my plant was fine for all of winter break! Buy a planter or soil here!


a) Canned Food and Beverages: The Problem

Bisphenol-A, or BPA, is found in the lining of most food and beverage cans. It does not matter if what is inside the container is organic, BPAs can leech into your food and drink, causing you to ingest it. 93% of Americans show levels of BPAs, with women showing higher levels than men.

 The Danger

BPA is a synthetic estrogen linked to cancer and abnormal brain development. Because it binds to fat, it is hard to remove from your body, and can be passed on to children through their mother’s breast milk.

The Solution

You don’t have to completely eliminate cans from your shopping list, but you should regulate it. Try buying a 2-liter bottle of diet coke instead of a 24 pack of the cans. Or if you want to be extremely healthy and green, try the Soda Stream, you can choose how much syrup to put in your soda and make your own flavors as well. Click here to find a location where you can buy one.

b) Non-Organic Food: The Problem

57% of all food (fresh or canned, baked or raw, vegetarian or meat) contains traces of one or more pesticide. They are much easier to rid from your body than BPAs, a 1-week all-organic diet can completely rid your body of pesticides.

The Danger

Pesticides can adversely affect your health in many ways, ranging from scratchy eyes to various cancers. A study completed in 2007 showed a positive relationship between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia and pesticide exposure. There are also strong links between pesticides and birth defects, miscarriages, and neurodevelopmental disorder.

The Solution

Organic food can be expensive. While opting for an all-organic diet is healthy, it is not practical, especially for a college student. Instead, choose to go organic on the 12 most heavily contaminated items. By switching to organic on these 12 items, you can eliminate 80% of the pesticides in your system. These 12 items are (starting with the most contaminated): apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, and kale. Don’t let having to buy organic stop you from buying these produce items- kale, for instance, can help prevent macular degeneration and cataracts.


c) Fast/Instant Food: The Problem

The wrappers in many fast and instant food packages are designed to repel water and oil.

The Danger

Pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and fast food wrappers contain many chemicals meant to preserve the food. These chemicals can attach to your food, and, once digested and metabolized, form carcinogens in your body.

The Solution

While the science of these chemicals’ transformation in the body is still developing, there are already so many reasons to skip out on that midnight Taco Bell run. I say eliminate these unhealthy habits from your diet and opt for healthier option when you are hit with a snack attack. Try 479? Organic Popcorn. Go for The Globetrotter Sampler Pack, you get 1 box (5 boxes total) of Chipotle Caramel & Almonds, Ginger Sesame Caramel, Pimentòn de La Vera, Black Truffle & White Cheddar, and Madras Curry Coconut & Cashews for $35.00. Click here to see other flavors or to purchase.


Shape Magazine, August and July 2011

Self Magazine, August 2011

Daily Mail

Environmental Working Group

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