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Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living Paperback – June 1, 1999
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These days, more and more people are saying no to "better living through chemistry" and yes to a lifestyle that is less toxic and more environmentally friendly. This trend toward a more natural lifestyle has become something of a crusade for Annie Berthold-Bond, author of Better Basics for the Home. After developing hypersensitivity to even very low concentrations of chemicals, Berthold-Bond was forced to rid her life of as many toxins as possible. "It wasn't until I had to be away from chemicals that I began to realize how many we lived with. The extent of the contamination is startling--from hair spray and floor wax to dandelion killers and plastic shower curtains and other products that line our hardware stores and supermarket shelves."
This book represents the culmination of her search for a more sustainable lifestyle. Taking her cue from an earlier time, Berthold-Bond, former editor in chief of Green Alternatives for Health and Environment, offers more than 800 simple and practical alternatives to common household toxins, covering everything from skin care to gardening. And the good news is that adopting her suggestions and formulas isn't hard at all. "Mixing up face creams or wood stain isn't much different than cleaning the windows with vinegar, soap, and water instead of using Brand Name X, or making a cake with flour, eggs and milk instead of buying a mix," see asserts. "With a few simple staples we can clean our houses, wash our hair, rid the dog's bed of fleas, and do many other things as well." If you have your doubts, here is her formula for metal polish:
3 teaspoons salt, 1 tablespoon flour, and enough white distilled vinegar to make a paste. Scoop the paste onto a clean sponge, and polish the metal clean. Rinse with hot water and buff dry.
Sure, these days it's literally impossible to lead a life that is completely toxin-free. But you can significantly reduce your exposure, and picking up a copy Better Basics for the Home is a great way to get started.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Commonsense Rule of Thumb
It is a great relief to establish a healthy home. Two-thirds of us cite healthy air and water as an extremely important local priority, second only to safety from crime, according to Roper Starch Worldwide. National Wildlife Federation research has noted that up to 80 percent of us are concerned about how pesticides and indoor air pollution affect our health. Other polls show that a natural lifestyle is one that women, mothers in particular, overwhelmingly want because it protects the health of their families.
Yet polls ever since Earth Day 1990 consistently show a significant gap between wanting a more healthful environment and knowing how to create it. We are realizing that the government doesn't fully protect us from toxic products, leaving an uneasy and pervasive feeling that we have to take charge of safeguarding our families' health. The stumbling blocks seem insurmountable.
Having lived in a healthy home for more than a decade, I've learned that after some initial adjustment, the way to establish such a home is quite simple. The most important guideline for choosing safe materials is to follow this basic rule of thumb: Use only materials that have been around so long, and been used by people without harm for so long, that they are "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS for short), otherwise they would have long since been abandoned. Using only GRAS substances will take us back to the time before plastics and forward to new technology using old and safe materials. It will introduce us to plants and healing herbs; minerals such as baking soda, borax, and washing soda; and products from animals and insects such as milk, honey, shellac, and royal jelly. We may not have realized that these natural materials could clean, disinfect, moisturize, or make paint. This discovery will open up a new way of looking at our world.
Our alternative is to get a combined degree in toxicology and environmental studies in order to do a simple risk analysis of bathtub cleansers that won't cause harm, or to go shopping armed with research files. That's a stretch for even the most well intentioned among us.
Help also comes from something we all already have, even if we need to clear out cobwebs to find it, and that is our common sense. If the choice for polishing furniture is between polish in a can that reads "fatal if swallowed" or using a simple but effective recipe of lemon juice and raw linseed oil, common sense and the GRAS rule guide us to the lemon and raw linseed oil.
Mixing up face creams or wood stain isn't much different than cleaning the windows with vinegar, soap, and water instead of using Brand Name X, or making a cake with flour, eggs, and milk instead of buying a mix. And it seems amazing, although true, that we can make paint ourselves using milk and lime. With a few simple staples we can clean our houses, wash our hair, rid the dog's bed of fleas, and do many other things too.
Looking for cause and effect is another way of choosing safe products. Sometimes I wonder if we've allowed consumer products to deplete the earth's resources or to be so toxic because the products don't look like the raw materials used to make them. We don't see the connections. A can of pretty robin's-egg blue paint in a hardware store isn't visibly connected to its ingredients of fungicides and petroleum or to the smokestacks of the factory where it was made. Seeing the loss and damage that occurs in its creation might incline us to purchase a more ecological brand or to buy a little less. Or having access to the old-timers' recipe for milk paint might inspire us to try it out ourselves.
Just because a formula is old, or its ingredients are natural, doesn't mean it is safe, of course. Some old paint recipes call for white lead. A musty-smelling 1951 housekeeping book I found recently at a yard sale recommended using DDT paint on screens and windows. DDT paint! For those of you not familiar with DDT, it is a pesticide, now banned, that is symbolic of the worst of the industrial age's impact on the environment. Natural materials such as turpentine, citrus solvents, and tung oil can cause health problems for many. Needless to say, we need to look at the old recipes with a discerning eye. The key is to integrate the best of the old-the simplest, most wholesome ingredients and methods-with the best of the new-information about the effect of poisons on our collective health, and how to replace them with safe alternatives.
Besides choosing GRAS materials, the next best way to protect yourself and the world at large from toxic products is to read labels and pay particular attention to "signal words." They are placed on products by order of the federal government, with the primary purpose of protecting you, but sometimes to tell you about the products' potential impact on the environment. POISON/DANGER means some-thing very toxic; only a few drops could kill you. WARNING means moderately toxic; as little as a teaspoonful can kill. CAUTION denotes a product that is less toxic; two tablespoons to a cup could kill you. There are a few others, such as strong sensitizer, which means the product can cause multiple allergies. I'd suggest that everyone get over the "it will never happen to me" way of thinking and read labels, believe them, and simply avoid toxic products. Calamity might not happen to you, but it could happen to a child, or a neighbor, or a fish or a dog.
Putting Better Basics into Practice
Most people have some practical concerns about living without toxic chemicals. Just how much of a change is it going to be? Does living this way take more time? Is it more expensive? How do I begin? My answers to these legitimate questions follow. But basically, I suggest you just jump in and try it. I've never once had a person tell me they've regretted it. Some people want to switch to less toxic living on the spot; others stop restocking toxic cleansers as they run out, learning about the alternatives as they go along. Most start switching to natural body care gradually. Choose any way that will work for you. To make it easier to start the process of changing over, I have placed an icon (#) at particularly easy recipes, hoping this will offer you the encouragement you need to give Better Basics for the Home a try.
Top Customer Reviews
"Better Basics" is far easier to use and much better organized and written than "Clean & Green." It is set up in logical sections according to the products' uses. The index is very good. You can find a recipe quickly, although I would suggest you read through the book once and get a feel for how to go about things. Also, one of the best aspects is the "Sources and Resources" section near the back. If you live in an area without health food stores, woods or land suitable for growing your own herbs, then this will be essential for your ability to find ingredients to make your own green household products.
This book is also suitable for the beginner green cleaner. Most of the recipes, once you have the correct ingredients, are very easy to make and quick to put together. That being said, this book is also for people who are really serious about green cleaning, personal hygiene, pest control and other aspects of running a household. I say that because some of the ingredients used in many of the recipes are costly if you have to buy them instead of gathering them from your yard or a nearby wooded area. Also, essential oils - literally essential in green cleaning! - are expensive. (A little goes a loooong way, though.) This is a lot more than vinegar-baking soda-Castille soap cleaning and requires a higher level of commitment financially.
As a single person, I also found that many of the recipes, especially the ones that are highly perishable, would make too much for me to use in the time they are fresh. Of course, the easy way to get around this is to simply cut the recipes in half or even a quarter. If you can cook or do some simple math (I'm terrible at math and I have no troubles), then you as a single person can cut the recipes down to a manageable, useful amount. I have already cleaned my leather couch, made lanolin hand lotion (great stuff!) and protected my hemp shower curtain from mildew with a spray-on solution containing tea tree oil. How long did it take? I did it effortlessly in one day, around other chores. Very easy.
I would recommend, if you are really interested in green cleaning by desire or necessity, to buy this book and also get "Clean House, Clean Planet" by Karen Logan. To me, Logan's book is the single best way to get someone involved in green cleaning. Her recipes tend to be cheap, easy and effective. This book has a far greater range of recipes for many more uses, but they are overall more expensive and specialized.
Also, a few tips if you are going to get into green cleaning:
1) Get equipment that is used only in making your cleaning products. Some essential oils and other ingredients are very bad for you to eat, and mixups and residues could make your day very long and very bad. I have a simple list: a medium-sized Pyrex bowl and 2-cup Pyrex measure, a silicone spatula, *metal* measuring spoons, a whisk and some glass jars with metal screw-on lids you can get at any decent-sized grocery store. With about $20-$30, you can have nearly all the equipment you will ever need.
2) Start with one product that is cheap and easy to make, and works on something you want to clean right now. Instant gratification is a great way to get into the habit!
3) Especially if you want to clean rather than make personal care products at first, buy one small bottle of essential oil that smells good AND disinfects to cut down costs. I happen to like tea tree oil, but if you prefer a wintergreen type smell, choose lavender. If you find out that green cleaning is for you, then you can branch out into other essential oils more suited for other tasks.
Keeping in mind that I think this is a wonderful book, and well worth the cost, there are a few things I'd like to point out. I found that a lot of the skincare recipes were geared for people with dry skin. This is understandable considering the author's dry/sensitive skin, but I wanted to let other readers know to expect this. I tried many of the basic lotion, cream, and soap formulas and found that many of them felt way too greasy for my skin-especially if they contained beeswax. There is a small section with recipes for people with oily skin. That was helpful, but the skincare recipes in general are probably a little more suited for dry skin.
I also found that some of the yields seem a little off. (This is more so for the skincare recipes than the cleaning recipes.) I follow all of the instructions very carefully, but still end up with yields that are sometimes significantly off. You can tell just by reading some of the recipes that it's unlikely they could yield what they say. Also, some of the recipes for the cleaning products seemed a little repetitive. (Not a significant enough difference between some of them to warrant separate recipes.)
One very important point that needs to be mentioned is that in the instructions for soapmaking, the author suggests adding water to the container after the lye. Almost every soapmaking resource I've used suggests just the opposite. (Doing this step improperly can cause an almost volcano-like reaction.) While I'm very grateful that this book introduced me to soapmaking, I would strongly suggest that beginners read a book dedicated to soapmaking rather than start with the soap recipe in this book. There are a few helpful pieces of information missing from her soapmaking instructions.
Lastly, a lot of these recipes work great and are wonderful replacements for the commercial items you buy in stores. However, a few of them simply do not work as well no matter how much I want them to. I prefer to use natural methods anyway, but there may be some readers who will still want to resort to an occasional commercial cleaner from time to time. It's still such a payoff to use as many of these natural recipes as you see fit. Great book overall!