Before I get too far into posting safer cleaner and toiletry recipes, it’s important to talk about just what we’re getting into by stepping away from brand name products. Lots of people post natural “alternatives,” but very few talk about how your life will change. There’s a reason that companies make big profits selling us detergents with all sorts of fragrances, additives, biocides and more: They do what they claim to do, and they often do it well.
From the time of pure soap made from tallow or vegetable oils, each new product put onto the market has provided one step up in terms of ease of use, scent, or effectiveness. Today, most people use detergents to wash their body, mostly in the form of body washes. Detergents are man-made cleaners that work well in both acid and basic conditions, in hard and soft water. They don’t leave scum. We have come to expect a certain level of performance from our products, and when they don’t function the same way as the chemical-laden ones do, many people can’t handle the transition.
The downside to this progress is that each step up brings with it new chemicals, most of which are not tested for long-term safety. Many of them are toxic to produce or harm the environment and animal life when we’re done with them. Even the plastic used to package them takes large amounts of fossil fuels to recycle at best, and contains toxins that leach out and contaminate our bodies and the environment at worst.
The greatest benefit in cleaning is not to achieve 100% disinfection, but to wash away enough bacteria, viruses, and germs that anything remaining on the surface is reduced to low enough levels that they won’t cause harm. Commercial disinfectants can reduce levels to almost nothing, but the cost is that these same chemicals fill the environment around us, interacting with the beneficial and harmful microbes in and on our bodies, and also causing sensitivity. Exposure to microbes in the world around us helps to build and strengthen our immune systems, and chemically eliminating them from our environment not only weakens our ability to fight off infection, but also creates chemical resistance in those microbes.
The result is that we have to make a conscious choice to alter our expectations. We choose to walk into this with our eyes wide open, knowing that not every product we can make ourselves will work the same way the one we’re giving up did, and that sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes we have to change how we do things, like how we wash dishes. Sometimes we just clean more often, such as washing soap scum from the shower and sink. Sometimes it requires a transition, such as switching to alternate methods of cleansing our hair or wearing deodorant. Sometimes it takes more work, such as composting and reducing garbage bag use.
Whether we are making the choice because we have to or because we want to make the world a better place, we need to know that life will change. Sometimes the small wins, such as paying far less for a bar of soap than a bottle of body wash, can help keep us going and add up to bigger wins over time. As these benefits add up, they help us move past the changes and continue forward at peace with our decision.