Around the world, more and more people are paying attention to how their actions and the products they use affect the world around them. To respond to the resulting demand, an increasing number of companies are making products which they proudly label as ‘eco-friendly’, but how do you tell which ones are actually better for the environment?
This is a particularly important question when considering personal products like shampoo and shower gel and their effects on the aquatic environment, as the very nature of the products means they are going to get into the water. (Unless you’re talking about dry shampoo, which is a whole different kettle of miscellaneous swimming things1.) It is even more critical to choose carefully when using these products while on a boat, or anywhere else that isn’t connected to the waste water system, as the products can enter the water directly with no filtering.
Most personal cleaning products are basically soap, albeit a liquefied, scented, with-added-ingredients variety of soap. Studies have shown that soap is, in itself, not that harmful to the environment as its ingredients break down before they can do much damage2. It’s the additions – and packaging – that cause the harm.
(The exception to the above statement is any soap or soap-adjacent product which contains things like petroleum jelly, paraffin wax and coal tar, all of which are derived from fossil fuels. These are bad for the environment in many ways, and just about any alternative will be better.)
Some of the most problematic ingredients are:
-Microbeads: designed to exfoliate the skin, these tiny plastic beads wash down the drain and into our rivers and oceans. Plastics don’t decay, just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, which end up pretty much everywhere, from beaches to the deepest parts of the ocean. The Marine Conservation Society calls microplastics “one of the greatest threats to our seas, coasts and wildlife3” and is calling for their use in products to be banned in the UK. The EU is already working on a similar ban.
-UV filters: obviously, sunscreen is A Good Thing, preventing the pain of sunburn and the risks of skin cancer. One type of UV filter used in many sunscreens and sun-protecting moisturisers, oxybenzone, damages coral4 and is banned in Hawaii for the damage it does to coral reefs5. Look instead for suntan lotions which include mineral filters such as zinc oxide.
-PFAs: per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances are a family of highly fluorinated man-made chemicals that don’t occur in nature. They are sometimes referred to as ‘Forever Chemicals’ because they break down so slowly, and are used in everything from sunscreen to greaseproof paper to firefighting foam. PFAs have been found in the environment as far away as the Artic circle, and are linked to problems with foetal development, increased risks of some cancer, and damage to the immune system6.
So do I just give up on washing?!
Luckily there are many products which don’t include these ingredients, so you don’t have to give up on washing to protect the environment.
Good brands include:
–Faith in Nature – a UK-based brand which makes and sells a wide variety of soaps, shampoos, and even clothes detergent, and works with stockists across the country which allow you to refill existing bottles, cutting down on plastic waste.
–Only Naturals – also UK-based, this site sells products from many makers, all of which are free from ‘suspect’ chemicals, including oxybenzone-free sunscreens.
–Ethique – originally from New Zealand but now with a UK base so you can order direct from them, everything is produced in bar form to remove plastic packaging.
There are of course many other manufacturers and sellers: just be sure to check the ingredients list for any chemicals of particular concern, and refill and/or recycling the packaging when you’re finished!