Let’s set the scene: you come home from a long day and want to relax. You walk into your bedroom, take your shoes off so you can feel your soft carpet on your feet as you light a scented candle, fluff your cotton sheets, and climb into bed.
Sounds lovely, right? But lurking in the shadows of this self-care moment are a hidden trove of potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
Your bed, that expensive aromatic candle, your carpet, sheets, and more may be emitting harmful gases and chemicals that can pollute your home and may raise your risk of cancer. In fact, in 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel issued a paper stating that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated… the American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”
Although not all cancers are preventable, with some simple changes, you can lower your risk. Read this special report on the top 15 cancer-causing household items—and recommended safer options—so you can live your happiest and healthiest life.
“Gas” and “rug” are two words you’ve probably never linked together, but in the world of conventional carpets, they’re locked in a dangerous combination. Many carpets are made of synthetic fibers that have been treated with chemicals that “off-gas”—literally, give off gasses into your home. It’s especially concerning because Americans love their wall-to-wall carpeting. According to the Carpet and Rug Institute, ⅔ of all households in the USA have wall-to-wall carpeting—which means a lot of off-gassing is going on. Most conventional carpets are made with chemicals that may cause cancer, like formaldehyde, acetone—along with flame retardants that have already landed on this list.
And you know that “new carpet” smell? While you may associate it with the excitement of a new or renovated home, that smell actually comes from chemical compounds that are linked to eye, nose, and respiratory complications. After exposure to these chemicals—either breathing them in or absorbing them through the skin—can cause headaches, dizziness, or nausea in some people right away.
Recommendation: Steer clear of rugs made of polypropylene, nylon, or acrylic—and go with healthier options like wool, jute, sisal, mohair, or organic cotton.
Bed and Crib Mattress
One-third of your life is spent sleeping, but when you find out what may be lurking in your mattress, you might just lose some shut-eye. It may be chock-full of potentially toxic synthetic materials. In July 2007, a new regulation was passed that all mattresses are required to be flame retardant. In order to meet the flame retardant requirements, a mattress must be able to withstand exposure to a blowtorch for 70 seconds, which necessitates dousing the mattress in potentially toxic flame retardant chemicals.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently issued an emphatic new warning: “Consumers, especially pregnant women and young children, should avoid products containing organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs), a class of chemicals found in children’s toys, mattresses, furniture, and the plastic casings of electronic devices.” Why? Serious health issues like hormone disruption, reproductive problems, immune disorders, cancer, and learning deficits have been linked to the compounds in this chemical group.
Recommendation: Look for a toxin-free, organic or 100% wool or latex mattress for yourself and your child (especially an infant!). Look for labels that say GOTS–Global Organic Textile Standard—or GOLS—Global Organic Latex Standard. GOTS is a rigorous certification, which means at least 95% of the mattress materials are certified organic. Certain substances, like flame retardants and polyurethane (often used to make memory foam mattresses), are prohibited. GOLS is a specific certification that applies to latex mattresses and means only organic latex was used.
Cotton Pillowcases and Sheets
We just talked about your mattress. Now let’s get between the sheets. Conventionally grown cotton is one of the dirtiest, most pesticide-ridden crops in the world. The National Wildlife Federation reports that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “84 million pounds of pesticides were applied to the nation’s 14.4 million acres of cotton in the year 2000, and more than two billion pounds of fertilizers were spread on those same fields.” That’s scary. This is even scarier: according to the same report “7 of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
The impact of conventional, pesticide-laden cotton impacts the environment, but can also impact your health. In fact, health issues from this type of toxic chemical exposure can range from headaches to asthma to cancer. When possible, buy organic cotton clothes, and be aware that your choices have wide-ranging ramifications.
Recommendation: Here’s the great news: there are many excellent alternatives, including bamboo, linen, and organic cotton. Make the switch from conventional bed sheets and sleep tight.
Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets
Ok, we’ve talked about your mattress, we’ve talked about your conventional cotton sheets. Now we have to talk about how you wash those sheets. You may want to stay away from conventional fabric softeners and dryer sheets. Here’s why: both types of products contain chemicals known to be toxic to people after sustained exposure according to Scientific American.
Fabric softeners and dryer sheets are designed to both soften fabric fibers and give clothes a warm, clean-laundry smell—but may be delivering a “bouquet of VOCs” (volatile organic compounds) instead. “Some of the most harmful ingredients include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.”
Recommendation: If you want a non-toxic option, try Seventh Generation’s Natural Lavender Scent Fabric Softener or Ecover’s Natural Fabric Softener. Both are excellent choices because they are made of vegetable products and natural essential oils instead of harsh and potentially toxic chemicals.
Do you sleep with a cell phone next to your bed? Maybe you fall asleep while scrolling through Instagram on your smartphone or you use your phone as an alarm. You’re not alone. In fact, 44% of cell phone owners have snoozed with their mobile phones next to their beds according to the Pew Internet Project. Bad idea: cell phones pump out electromagnetic radiation whenever they’re on—sleeping with one near you boosts your exposure to this radiation—all night long. And proximity matters: exposure is greater the closer the phone is to your body.
The World Health Organization warned in 2011 that cell phone usage “may be possibly carcinogenic to humans, especially in children, whose scalps and skulls are thinner than adults’, and more vulnerable to radiation.” So what to do?
Recommendation: Going to bed? Consider putting your phone on airplane mode (which prevents the device from sending or receiving calls or messages) or just turn it off. If you need to use your phone as an alarm, or have to be able to hear it ring, place your device at least three feet away from your bed. You’ll improve the quality of your sleep and reduce your electromagnetic frequency or EMF exposure.
Cosmetics and Beauty Products
Yes—cosmetics and personal products make us look and feel and smell better, but would you still use the same items if you knew they could negatively impact your health? BreastCancer.org reports that some chemicals commonly found in makeup and beauty products may contribute to the development of cancer—parabens are of particular concern.
A common preservative used in foundations, body moisturizers, anti-aging creams, shaving cream/gels, shampoos, conditioners, and more—parabens help prevent bacterial growth from forming in your fave products. But beware… parabens can act as endocrine disruptors by mimicking estrogen, which is of particular concern because excess estrogen can drive tumor growth. To be safe, be paraben-free.
Recommendation: Scan ingredient lists of products to make sure what you’re purchasing, parabens commonly show up on ingredient lists as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. Breast Cancer Action has a great resource that lists paraben-free, non-toxic beauty, and personal product options to make living healthy easier!
Air fresheners are everywhere: bedrooms, bathrooms, cars, and more. Designed to impart a pleasing aroma to indoor environments (or to mask odors—hello bathroom!), air fresheners are typically made with synthetic fragrances that have a not-so-sweet impact on our bodies. We are going to share a smelly secret: air freshener ingredients go largely undisclosed due regulatory protections on consumer product ingredients and fragrance formulations—with potentially hazardous chemicals hiding behind a black box of catch-all terms like ‘fragrance,’ ‘perfume’ or ‘scent’ or ‘parfum’.
Science Direct reports that this also allows companies to hide harmful ingredients like phthalates, formaldehyde, and many other preservatives (many of which are known carcinogens) in their products–without the consumer knowing. Phthalates are of particular concern as they may be disruptive to the endocrine system. Studies in animals have shown harmful effects, though no conclusive link has been demonstrated in humans.
Recommendation: For a more natural and non-toxic alternative, try Grow Fragrance, made with 100% plant-based materials. Or perhaps, instead of using air fresheners, get rid of the real source of the smell (we’re looking at you kitty litter!) or open a window and turn on a fan. Last, not least—our favorite stink vanquisher at The Remedy? A box of baking soda–a smart, safe, and effective way to reduce odors!
They may be an essential part of your self-care routine, but experts say your love of scented candles may be causing you to breathe in dangerous toxins. One of the main culprits? Added fragrance. The National Institute of Health (NIH) released a survey of selected scented consumer goods that showed the products emitted more than 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some which are classified as toxic or hazardous by federal laws.
Paraffin is a problem too. Most candles are made with paraffin wax, which comes from petroleum—and petroleum-based candles emit varying levels of cancer-causing chemical compounds like toluene and benzene.
Recommendation: Here’s how to set the mood in a healthier way: opt for natural wax candles that use soy. They are considered the cleanest because they only produce about a tenth of the soot typically created by paraffin candles!
Baby Bottles and Plastic Water Bottles
Plastic fantastic, or maybe not so much. Most of us are exposed to many plastic products every day—from baby bottles to toys to spatulas. But not all plastics are created equal. Research suggests that while all plastics may leach chemicals if scratched, degraded, or heated, some plastic by-products are particularly dangerous, like BPA (bisphenol A)—that may cause cancer in humans among a host of other serious issues with accumulated build up in the body. BPA is found in many plastic products, the linings of food and formula cans, dental sealants, and on paper cashier receipts to stabilize the ink. In other words, it’s more prevalent in our lives than we’d like.
This is the problem with BPA: it’s an estrogen-mimicking industrial chemical that can be a potent hormone disruptor. It’s of particular concern for women because estrogen can increase the risk of developing breast cancer—and for babies and children because they are far more susceptible to the adverse effects of chemical exposure than adults, even at far lower doses. The good news? In July of 2012, The Food and Drug Administration or FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups. The bad news? The prohibition does not apply to the use of BPA in other plastic containers.
Recommendation: Want to limit BPA in your life? Here are some tips: carry your own glass, steel, or ceramic water bottle; only use baby bottles and other children’s food products that clearly state that they are BPA-free, and reduce how much canned food you consume.
Your Closet (Specifically Your Dry Cleaned Clothes)
Dry cleaning is dirtier than you think. According to The Guardian, most Americans are unaware, despite a 2012 EPA report, that dry cleaning is a toxic—and likely carcinogenic—process. Despite its name, dry cleaning isn’t dry at all: in lieu of water, cleaners use a liquid solvent to dissolve stains and grime on garments. The most commonly used chemical for this process is called PERC, or perchloroethylene, used by up to 70% of all dry cleaners according to Popular Science.
While effective as a stain and grease remover, it’s also a known neurotoxin, carcinogen, and environmental hazard. Studies of workers who are regularly exposed to PERC show increased rates of various cancers, including lymphomas and esophagus, kidney, and bladder cancers. Despite the EPA ruling, the only state to pass legislation outright banning PERC has been California. So what to do if you need clothes dry cleaned and want it done non-toxically?
Recommendation: Look for green dry cleaners in your area or try washing your clothing at home. We will let you in on a little secret: according to some fashion experts, many dry clean only labels are not accurate, meaning that the clothing item may actually be able to be washed by machine (gentle cycle) or by hand. If you want to learn more about how you can become your own “dry cleaner” check out this guide.
Couch and Loveseat
Sigh. This is a story about a safety measure gone awry. In 1975, California passed a law called technical bulletin 117, or “TB117” requiring furniture manufacturers to treat their products with flame retardants to, well, protect against fires (at that time often caused by lackadaisical cigarette smoking). Soon all American furniture included flame retardants. But later it was found that these chemicals could migrate from the products into the people using them, causing endocrine disruption and neurotoxic effects, particularly for pregnant women and kids. Yikes…
But here’s some good news: Time Magazine reports that: “California updated TB117 in 2013 and again in 2014; the new regulations make it less likely that flame-retardant chemicals will be added to the filling materials of sofas and other household furniture items.” What this means is that manufacturers are phasing out the use of these chemicals.
Recommendation: If you are making a couch (or other upholstered furniture) purchase and want your new piece to be non-toxic, pay attention to labeling and be sure to check the brand so that you know for certain. The store or website may not have all the information.
We love a good kitchen renovation, but don’t think radon is very rad. Let me explain: granite countertops are prized for their durability and beautiful appearance, but they can give off radon gas that could potentially be higher than the levels considered safe. Radon is “a cancer-causing natural radioactive gas that you can’t see, smell or taste,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “Its presence in your home can pose a danger to your family’s health. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in America, and claims about 20,000 lives annually.” Some granite countertop colors may be more problematic than others. According to the New York Times, higher radon results have been found in more exotic and veined striated varieties of granite, often pink, red, or purple-hued.
Most experts say that the amount of radon emitted from your average granite countertop is not enough to impact health, but the only way to know for sure is to get your granite countertop tested. And note that the EPA advises that all homes be tested for radon – regardless of countertop material. If significant levels are found, action must be taken to protect your family’s health.
Recommendation: Knowledge is power. For more EPA information on radon, go to this page. And if you’re renovating your kitchen, consider quartz or Corian countertops.
If you love to paint your nails–this warning is for you: several chemicals commonly found in nail polish and nail products are known carcinogens. Many nail polishes contain formaldehyde, a nail-hardening agent, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says can raise cancer risks, along with butyl acetate, a solvent, and ethyl methacrylate, the main ingredient in acrylic nails. Exposure to these carcinogenic chemicals can also lead to central nervous system damage and reproductive problems.
Recommendation: Nail polish lovers, fear not, there are some fantastic non-toxic nail polish options free of formaldehyde and other carcinogenic chemicals. Check out this shopping guide from the Sierra Club to find the right one for you!
Plastic-Wrapped Processed Food
It’s designed to please your taste buds and wait patiently for your cravings on your pantry or refrigerator shelves, but there’s an inconvenient truth lurking in your processed food: If it can stand the test of time (3 to 6 months at least) without going bad, it may also raise your risk of cancer. A French study found a link between people who consume more processed foods and risk of developing cancer.
Another study published by BMJ also showed a correlation between consuming ultra-processed foods and a number of health disorders, including cardiovascular, coronary heart disease, as well as cancer. Further research needs to be done, but the study results seem to indicate that rapidly increasing consumption rates of highly processed foods, “may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades,” warn the researchers.
Recommendation: The great news? You don’t have to give up all of the processed food. Check these 15 Homemade Swaps for the Worst Ultra-Processed Foods and use real ingredients you can find in your kitchen to make them.
Love the smell of a freshly painted home? You’re not alone. But that new-paint smell comes with a hidden cost to your health. House paint is one of the most common sources of volatile organic compounds or VOCs—which are known carcinogens. Here’s why that matters: paint continues to release low levels of these toxic chemicals into the air for years after application. And as you might imagine, exposure is most potent when indoors. The Environmental Protection Agency states that “studies have found that levels of several organics average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.” VOCs were once essential to the performance of house paint and finishes—but times have changed—you have now have access to a variety of non-toxic, low or no VOC paint options!
Recommendation: Water-based paints tend to be safer than solvent-based paints. Here are some of the best eco-friendly paint options so you can spruce your home up safely!