My Bookshelf: Silent Spring

The book: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I’ve mentioned this book in another post, but it very much deserves its own spot on the series My Bookshelf. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the ecological and health impacts of toxic chemicals.

This is my old, heavily used copy, printed in 1964.

Written in 1962, Carson was the first person to identify clearly the connection between our own health and our environment’s health. Silent Spring focuses on DDT primarily, but this pesticide is a vehicle for her broader message: the entire contamination of our world caused by an intense drive to control and manipulate nature to suit our immediate needs and accelerate economic growth.

Carson’s writing is unique, because she communicates scientific evidence and data through powerful stories that describe concrete experiences and occurrences in our natural world. Her writing is not fiction, but is intensely descriptive and captivating.

Silent Spring opens with a tale about a town in which the people fall ill, and all the plants and animals around them slowly wither and disappear, leaving a silent wasteland.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the birth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.

The following few chapters give a detailed description of the chemistry and toxicity of several different pesticides including arsenic, DDT, Chlordane, Aldrin, and phosphates.

The next two chapters focus on pesticide contamination in water and soil. This is a primer for the subsequent several chapters, which describe the aerial spraying of pesticides in the United States, and the impacts of pesticides on birds, insects, plants, and humans. Carson cites specific instances of spraying and describes the aftermath that scientists found – dead house pets, birds falling in convulsions from the sky, dead salmon washing up on riverbanks, and lasting impacts on reproductive health in wildlife populations.

By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?

The ending chapters turn their attention to the human health risks of exposure to pesticides, primarily in terms of rising cancer rates. Carson highlights the connections between exposure to toxic chemicals and the development of breast cancer and leukemia.

The final chapter of this book focuses on alternatives to toxic chemicals for pest management. Additionally, Carson argues for a fundamental reworking of our relationship with insects and nature, to foster appreciation and understanding of biological systems and to work in harmony with ecological processes, rather than continually fighting against them for man’s dominion over nature.

The trouble is that we are seldom aware of the protection afforded by natural enemies until it fails. Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.

I will be honest; this book can be a tough and sometimes heartbreaking read. Carson does not sugarcoat the travesties of toxic chemicals. However, I still think this is an incredibly important book.

You can find this book on Amazon, with a range of buying options:

I would also recommend checking any local used booksellers for copies!

Soaps: reading labels and recognizing safe or unsafe soaps

When you’re trying to find safer products, it’s often helpful to understand how the product is made and what ingredients are common or expected to be found in that product. This is true for soaps and soap-related products like body or face wash.

So, in this post, I’m going to go over how soap is made and what ingredients you should look for or avoid in your soapy products.

Soap is made through a process called saponification, which is the chemical reaction of oil/fat, lye, and water. Lye, also called sodium hydroxide, dissolves in water, and is extremely dangerous. It’s capable of causing severe burns within seconds of skin contact. However, during the process of saponification, when the right proportions of ingredients are used, the chemical is neutralized and you’re left with a completely safe substance!
If you’re switching away from toxic chemicals, you want to find a soap that has natural moisturizers, is free of petrochemical fillers, and made from real vegetable/plant oil, not petroleum based surfactants. (Surfactants dissolve oils on your skin).

Petrochemicals in soap
Sodium Lauryl or Laureth Sulfate (SLS or SLES): Surfactants
Propylene/ethylene/butylene/ polyethylene glycol: Solvents to help soap dissolve in water and allow it to penetrate the skin
Di-, Mono-, Tri-, ethanolamines (DEA, MEA, TEA): Foaming agents

Soap that doesn’t have the glycerin removed is best, or at least, one that doesn’t have the glycerin replaced by nasty synthetic chemicals. If you want to learn the more intricate details about glycerin in soap, go to the bottom of this post.

When you’re looking for a good soap, you want to avoid petrochemicals that are harsh surfactants and detergents. The box to the right here shows some of these types of ingredients that are good to avoid. So what should you look for? Think about these questions when evaluating soap:

  • Is the soap made from natural oils like coconut oil or olive oil?
  • If there are colors or fragrances, are they artificial or derived from natural sources?
  • Are the extra ingredients lots of petrochemicals or naturally derived substances?

Additionally, it’s helpful to know what ingredients are common in safe soaps. You may find any of these following things listed on the label:

  • Sodium hydroxide (or potassium hydroxide): Lye
  • Saponified [oils]: This is another way of expressing oils/butters that have been through the soap making process
  • Sodium palmate/ sodium palm kernelate: Saponified palm oils
  • Sodium cocoate: Saponified coconut oil
  • Citric acid: Natural preservative that comes from citrus fruits
  • Tocopherol: This is a form of Vitamin E
  • Oils/butters, honey, glycerin: Natural moisturizers
  • Botanicals, extracts, essential oils:  Natural sources for fragrance and color
  • Sea salt, clay, mud, sea kelp: Usually used for exfoliating or mineral content
  • Sodium chloride: AKA table salt; used to remove glycerin from soap or to make the bar harder

Check out my post Tips for Evaluating Product Safety and Reading Ingredient Labels for more comprehensive information on spotting and avoiding petrochemicals in products.

I recommend checking out soaps at local natural stores, craft fairs, or farmers markets. There’s a world of difference between a good handmade soap and Dove or Lever soap. My sister makes her own soap, so I’m pretty lucky to get awesome handmade soap from her. She sells her soap once a year at a holiday craft fair in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle. You can check out her website here: Anna’s Homemade Soap. She may eventually start selling online, but for now you need to contact her directly about purchasing her soap.

To start, I would suggest checking out these companies:

*Palm oil has a significant ecological impact: its cultivation requires clearing large patches of land, making it a significant contributor to deforestation in the regions its grown. Desert Essence uses only certified sustainable palm oil, which isn’t perfect, but it’s probably better than conventional.

A note about glycerin

One byproduct of the soap making process is glycerin, which is a humectant. This means it draws moisture from the air and helps the skin retain moisture. Many companies choose to remove glycerin from soap, because they can make more money by selling it as a separate product. Glycerin itself has a wide range of applications from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. I have a big bottle of vegetable glycerin I use in many DIY projects.

In commercial soaps, the glycerin is usually replaced with petrochemical emollients or “moisturizers”, which is why these soaps often dry out your skin. Thus, the connection between dry skin and soap became ingrained into our culture and our perception of personal care. Soap is not inherently drying though, and handmade, or non-petroleum soaps, are actually very moisturizing and great for shaving and washing your face.

I’ve noticed the many non-toxic or “natural” soaps also have glycerin removed. I think the ingredient “sodium chloride” is how you spot this practice, especially when it’s listed in conjunction with glycerin, indicating they had to add glycerin back into the product. However, sodium chloride is sometimes used to just increase the hardness of the soap bar. Sodium chloride, or table salt, is used to separate the glycerin from the soap – but what I’ve noticed is that when salt is added for mineral or exfoliating purposes, it’s listed as salt or sea salt, not sodium chloride. My deduction is that salt referred to by its chemical name in an ingredient label indicates its use in a chemical process. With these soaps though, the replacements are plant-based moisturizers like shea butter or olive oil, so you don’t have the problem of dry skin. I don’t know why these companies do this, especially if they just add glycerin back into the product.

Soaps labeled as “glycerin soaps” are ones with significantly high glycerin content, specially designed to be moisturizing.

I would advise caution when it comes to commercially made soaps, even if they contain glycerin and saponified palm/coconut oil. Synthetic glycerin from petroleum could be used as a replacement for naturally created glycerin, and I don’t think there are requirements for labelling where it comes from. If you’re vegan, this is also an issue because many companies use a mix of vegetable and animal derived glycerin; unless the product is vegan, or is clearly made from saponified plant oils, or the glycerin is listed as vegetable glycerin, it might be difficult to tell its source.




Natural Exfoliating Scrubs: DIY Options and Professional Products

Exfoliating is an important step in any healthy skin care routine, especially for individuals who suffer from psoriasis or similar conditions. Exfoliating lifts up and sloughs away dead skin cells, unclogging pores and allowing the new skin cells to develop unencumbered. It also improves the effectiveness of moisturizers, because there isn’t a layer of dead cells blocking off access to active skin cells. (Also, it’s generally a good idea to moisturize after exfoliating.)

Exfoliating scrubs often work by using a combination of physical abrasion and chemical substances that dissolve skin cells or break apart the “glue” holding them on. However, this is not a requirement. People with sensitive skin usually have better luck with non-abrasive exfoliating – it gets the job done, but doesn’t aggravate the skin.

Many natural exfoliating substances contain forms of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which is a chemical substance that breaks apart dead skin cells and helps them slough off. AHA is water-soluble and it’s great for sun damaged or dry skin.

Milk/yogurt, citrus fruits, and sugar all contain AHAs.  Sugar contains glycolic acid, which you may recognize as the popular chemical peel offered at salons or spas. Additionally, AHA is found in other fruits like apples, pears, and grapes.

Additionally, beta hydroxyl acid (BHA) is an oil-soluble acid that also helps slough off dead skin cells. BHA can penetrate deeper than AHA, and is usually better for individuals dealing with lots of acne and blackheads. Salicylic acid, which is popular in many name brand face washes, is a form of BHA that comes from Willow Bark Tree. Citric acid can also be a BHA.

Besides these acids, there are other natural exfoliants. Papaya and pineapple both contain enzymes that help dissolve dead skin cells.

All of these chemicals are great for helping the exfoliating process, but not all of them are practical for making your own scrub. And if you’re going to make any personal care product yourself, I highly suggest exfoliating scrubs.

What are some natural ingredients for a DIY exfoliating scrub?

  • Sugar (AHA)
  • Salt
  • Almond flour, coarsely ground
  • Oats
  • Coffee grounds
  • Citrus (AHA/BHA)
  • Yogurt/milk (AHA)
  • Baking soda
  • Papaya/pineapple (enzymes papain and bromelain)

My go-to from this list for an in-shower body scrub is sugar. The base recipe I use is:

  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 ½ tsp shea butter

You can substitute these oils for others if you prefer. And you can add other ingredients to enhance it, like lemon juice, coffee grounds, or essential oils. I like doing the mix of coconut oil and shea butter because it makes the scrub a little thicker than if I were only using liquid oils (like olive oil).

You can also add grapeseed oil, which I think has AHA. Grapes have AHA, so I believe the oil should still have it too.

Simple sugar scrubs, like the one above, are nice because they’re easy to make and don’t spoil quickly. If you find regular sugar too abrasive, I suggest using baker’s sugar, which has a finer grain.

For a special treat, I really enjoy making a papaya-exfoliating mask for my face. To make this, simply mash up some fresh papaya in a bowl with a little milk. Spread onto your face and massage it around. You can let it sit for a few minutes and then wash off with warm water.

If you prefer to just buy…

While it’s really easy to do homemade sugar scrubs/exfoliating scrubs, I know that DIY is not for everyone and for some purposes the professional product might be what you need. Below are some suggestions for body and face exfoliating products:

Ones I have tried and liked:

Deep Steep Grapefruit Bergamot sugar scrub
Giovanni sugar scrub hot chocolate
Gabriel Organics red seaweed gentle exfoliator

I haven’t tried these, but the ingredients look legit:

Andalou Naturals clarifying facial scrub lemon sugar
Zum body scrub sea salt
Deep Steep fresh honey sugar scrub
Shea Moisture dragon’s blood & coffee cherry rebound & revive coffee scrub
Shea Moisture sheagirl coconut sugar & vanilla orchid body polish

Shea Moisture facial wash & scrubs:

Coconut & hibiscus
Raw shea butter
African black soap
Superfruit multi-vitamin renewal



Homemade Shimmer Body Spray

For a little extra sparkle, you can create your own shimmery body mist with just a few ingredients.

In a spray bottle, add the following ingredients:

  • Water
  • Almond oil (or any light oil)
  • Vegetable glycerin
  • Witch hazel
  • Micas of your choice (I’ve done silver and gold so far)

You can also add essential oils or aloe Vera gel to your mist.

I recommend messing around with the ratios to find what you like best. However, I do have a few tips –

Only use about 1-2 tsp glycerin (for a 4 oz bottle), adding too much of the glycerin makes it bead up on the skin, rather than being a fine and light mist. Combine the liquid ingredients and test on your arm to ensure the consistency is right, then add the mica.

You need to shake the product a lot, because you’re suspending the micas in a liquid support structure, and combining oil and water.

Depending on your skin tone, you can try different colors and types of micas. The particle size of the mica can change how it looks; smaller sized micas with more shimmer create a frostier look, whereas larger glitter particle sizes will create stronger and more prominent sparkles.

When I made my silver body spray I used a combination of silver glitter (bigger particles) and ultra-fine silver mica (smaller particles). This creates an overall undertone of shimmer with some prominent sparkles mixed in there.

Sometimes the spray bottle nozzle can clog, so I recommend having a couple spare spray tops on hand to switch if need be. You can also try different types of spray tops, or ones from different manufacturers, to find one that works best.

Where can you get supplies?

There are many online shops to get supplies at, but here are some suggestions of places I’ve found.

Micas and glitter:

Glycerin and witch hazel (and other DIY ingredients):

You can also look on Amazon for supplies, or check for any local soap making stores in your area. If you live in Seattle, Zenith Supplies on Roosevelt carries all this stuff too.

Good luck and happy DIYing!

Toxicology Corner: Artificial Dyes & Coal Tar

I’ve always had a crazy sweet tooth. You might remember those tubes of disgustingly sweet and insanely colored goo that was supposed to be like fake toothpaste? I ate that. Yup, I was that kid. I didn’t think about what was in my candy, I only cared if it was sweet and delicious. So almost all of that candy was brightly colored with artificial dyes.

These dyes, now ubiquitous in our consumer products, are petrochemicals. They are made from coal tar, the thick brownish liquid that is a by-product of processing coal.

So, what are coal tar dyes exactly?

Coal tar color additives are dyes made by combining a number of chemicals produced from distilling bituminous coal; these include compounds like toluene, xylene, or benzene. Nowadays, they’re also made from petroleum, although still referred to as coal tar dyes.

History fact: Mauve was the first color created from coal tar, although not purposefully, just an accidental discovery by a British chemist in 1856.

Widespread use of coal tar dyes started in the early 1900s, and like other chemicals, there was no requirement for testing or safety evaluation before they were released onto the market. This changed after Halloween in 1950, when children all over the US became sick from ingesting candy with Orange No. 1 dye. Further study revealed the dye to be toxic – causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, even death (in animal studies). Testing of other coal tar dyes produced similar results, prompting the US government to start regulating and restricting the use of these food dyes. The set of coal tar dyes we use today emerged as those considered safe by the FDA after thorough testing in the early 1960s.

What are the health risks of dyes and coal tar?

Despite approval from the FDA, there has been intermittent concern since the 1970s over the actual safety of any coal tar dyes (and coal tar itself), primarily in terms of links to childhood behavioral problems and cancer.

In the early 1970s, a doctor from California proposed the idea that artificial dyes and flavors were causing or exacerbating hyperactivity in children (ADHD), although he didn’t have much evidence to support this theory. The possible link was studied, but any connection was deemed statistically insignificant. However, in the early 2000s, two studies confirmed a small, but significant influence of artificial dye on behavior in British children. The EU decided this was enough to warrant a warning label on foods, but the FDA dismissed the idea of a warning due to a lack of overwhelming evidence. However, many consumers, and parents especially, are choosing products that are free of artificial dyes. Over the years, we have gathered anecdotal evidence of behavioral changes in children from consuming artificial dyes. So at what point do these personal accounts become solid evidence, not just anecdotes?

Scientists have discovered that Blue No. 1 is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, but there is no research on the health impacts of this occurrence. This barrier is supposed to protect us from toxins, so if some petrochemicals can cross it, how might that affect our brains and biological functions?

Coal tar itself is a known carcinogen and can be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic chemicals; the EWG gives it a score of 10, with ample data for support. The EWG scale is 0-10 with 10 being extremely hazardous. It’s also a skin allergen and irritant. Ironically, coal tar is used in many treatments for eczema and psoriasis; it does not cure these conditions, it merely temporarily relieves symptoms and masks the underlying problem.

There is insufficient data to say whether topically applied coal tar and its dyes are linked to cancer, but this is where the precautionary principle comes into play. Given what we know about coal tar and petrochemicals, it just seems unsafe to use them at all.

On a personal note, I used a prescription eczema cream when I was in my late teens/early 20s and my symptoms just spread and worsened over the years. As I learned about toxic chemicals, I realized my medicated cream contained petrochemicals linked to skin irritation. I stopped using it and eliminated all skin products with petrochemicals – it was a world of difference. My eczema subsided and quickly vanished. I haven’t had any flare ups of my eczema in about 7 years.

How to spot coal tar and dyes

Coal tar and its distillates have many names. Look for any of these on ingredient labels:

Coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin.

Color additives are usually towards the bottom of an ingredient list. Look for these:

FD&C: Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, Red No. 3 and Red No. 40. Orange B and Citrus Red No. 2 (allowed, but with restricted use).

D&C: Black No. 2, Black No. 3, Green No. 5, Orange No. 5, Red No. 6, Red No. 7, Red No. 21, Red No. 22, Red No. 27, Red No. 28, Red No. 30, Red No. 33, Red No. 36, and Yellow No. 10.

Lakes: These dyes are made from FD&C colors and then prepared using metal salts as binders to prevent color bleeding.

Additionally, P-phenylenediamine is a specific coal tar dye that is approved for use in hair dyes, although a warning label that it can irritate the skin must accompany it. There is strong epidemiological evidence linking this chemical to tumor growth and cancer.

Note on ingredient labels: Color additives may also include a CI (Color Index) number, which is the European Union method of identification. This applies to all color additives, including non-petrochemicals like titanium dioxide and Annatto.

Status on this issue?

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), the FDA does regulate color additives in food and cosmetic products. All food-coloring additives must be labeled, with the exception of dyes that come from vegetables, minerals, or animals. The ambiguous “natural color” is most likely not some crafty way of hiding toxic chemicals.

FD&C dyes are approved for food, whereas D&C colors are allowed in “non-food” items, like personal care products or medicine/drugs. This situation is an example of how ridiculously weak citizen health protection is – we still absorb chemicals through our skin that can cause bodily harm and why would an ingredient be unsafe in food, yet acceptable for medicine that’s ingested?

If you want to learn more about the specific dyes and their usage, see the FDA’s Additive Status List.

So, I do have some good news! A handful of companies are starting to remove artificial dyes from their products regardless of laws or regulations. They’re switching to natural sources of dyes, including turmeric, beets, paprika, and annatto.

Companies switching include Nestlé USA, General Mills, Kraft, Frito-Lay, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, and Mondelez International (Oreos/Sour Patch Kids). Black Forest Gummies are another candy that does not contain artificial dye. The list of foods available without toxic dyes is certainly growing! Just keep checking those labels to find safe products, support or encourage companies that are eliminating toxic dyes, and keep demanding safer ingredients from all companies!