11/28/2012 03:15 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Five Easy Ways to Detoxify Your Home Without Freaking Out

A week after giving birth to my son, Felix, I was in crisis. Beyond the run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation, I also was still using a donut pillow thanks to what I can only guess was the most gruesome labor ever (which, by the way, my OB called "textbook" and my doula called "beautiful"). Plus, thanks to "latch issues," I was suffering from what could only be described as a semi-detached nipple.

Then there was the small matter of my shopping paralysis. Trying to figure out which products -- from teethers to bubble bath to dish soap -- were truly safe and nontoxic was becoming a source of constant stress. I'd become familiar with this type of anxiety since becoming pregnant -- I felt it when I realized that the pickled ginger I ate by the gallon to stave off nausea may have contained MSG; when, after my tenth ultrasound, I read that ultrasounds on pregnant mice resulted in neural differences among the offspring. And while I ate mostly healthy and usually organic foods, I was beginning to realize -- with the help of my good friend Google -- how little I'd thought about the ingredients in all the other stuff I was buying for my new baby. As I looked for more info, I couldn't even figure out how to spell phthalates, let alone understand what they were and how they might be affecting Felix's endocrine system, whatever the hell that was.

I became an obsessive researcher. Nothing seemed safe: from the BPA-free plastic bottles that came with my breast pump, to the mattress where Felix slept, to the lanolin cream I applied regularly to preserve that dangling nipple -- potential danger lurked everywhere. I began compiling all the information I found in a Word document, with lists of "good," "bad," and "sneaky" stuff (which is what I called all that stuff at the health food store that you think is natural but turns out to be toxic).

As you may have noticed if you live here on planet Earth, lots of companies have jumped on the green/eco/natural bandwagon and sell products with misleading labels. I used sites like the Environmental Working Group's cosmetics database and cleaning products guide to learn more than I ever wanted to know about the safety profile of the ingredients in everything I was using. Of course, surfing these sites is an overwhelming experience, which is why I started compiling my own cheat sheets.

As increasing numbers of friends of friends began contacting me to ask about the safety of the products they were using, I decided to record all of my research in one spot where anyone could find it -- and this is how Gimme the Good Stuff was born. My hope is that it gives concerned but overwhelmed moms a way to easily navigate the confusing world of "natural" products. For a super quick start, here are five easy-to-implement strategies that will go a long way toward lowering your home's toxic load.

  1. Avoid fragrances. If you cut out just one unhealthy ingredient in your cosmetics and household cleaning products, make it synthetic fragrance, which unfortunately makes an appearance in nearly all beauty products and sometimes shows up on the label as "parfum." Why does fragrance stink? Because it often contains phthalates, those nasty chemicals that have been suspected of causing early puberty, autism, obesity, and birth defects. Opt instead for unscented products or those that specify that they contain only natural essential oils.
  2. Find substitutes for plastics. When it comes to plastic, BPA and phthalates have the bad reputations, but there is evidence that other plastics may leach hormone-disrupting chemicals, too. When possible, go for glass or stainless steel instead of plastic for food storage and bottles. If you must use plastic, don't microwave it, don't reuse water bottles, and avoid containers with #3, #6, and #7 recycling codes.
  3. Get healthy on the inside. To lessen the potential damage of chemicals in your beauty products, boost your body's immune system with whole, organic foods. A healthier body is better able to handle the blast of phthalates you encounter whenever you walk through the cosmetics floor of Bloomingdale's. You can also help the inside of your home get healthy (indoor air is typically more polluted than outdoor, thanks to off-gassing furniture and smelly cleaning products) by opening windows, and loading up on air-purifying houseplants.
  4. Invest in a safe mattress. I know this one is a drag since mattresses are such a big-ticket item. Unfortunately, the evidence about risks of a toxic mattress are pretty convincing: you and your kids have your faces smashed onto the thing for a solid third of your life, and the volatile organic compounds released from conventional mattresses have been linked with cancer in lab animals and respiratory, allergic, and immune effects in children. Look for mattress made of 100 percent natural latex, organic cotton, and wool, or get a doctor's prescription for a mattress that's untreated with fire retardants. Check out Gimme the Good Stuff's mattress shopping guide for a list of safe choices.
  5. Use less stuff. If you are addicted to some bad stuff, fine -- just try to use less of it. The 17 anti-aging products you use probably are doing a lot less than a quick shot of Botox would (I'm not suggesting that Botox is innocuous -- only that at least it works). Or maybe you're addicted to a toxic brand of detergent. Fine, just buy the unscented version and skip the dryer sheets. If you're really brave, you could even become a "no-pooer" -- you won't believe how good your hair looks if you stop washing it. Seriously. Be particularly discerning about products that you use on your whole body on a daily basis (like the lotion you apply head to toe after every shower); I still use a phthalate-ridden perfume when I go out at night -- since that happens less than once a month, sadly.

The Bottom Line

Okay, we know stress is bad for both emotional and physical health. New-parent anxiety is a cliché, but the information glut of our modern era has taken it to a new level. I fully believe that the risks from environmental exposures are greater than ever before, but I also recognize that paranoia is rising right along with them. Diaper bags are packed with hand sanitizer and Epi pens, and I recently came upon foam bumpers for pregnant women to wear on their bellies and prevent damage from -- walking into pointed table corners, perhaps? My advice -- and my own goal -- is to stack the odds in our favor by reducing the known risks, and then take a deep breath and try to enjoy motherhood... whether or not I ever am able to banish every last bit of BPA from my home.

For more by Maia James, click here.

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