Bathrooms are notoriously neglected when it comes to creating a healthier home. The number of times I see a bit of mould on a bathroom ceiling (including my own) or in the grout, condensation, inadequate drainage, damaged or absent waterproof membranes, and leaky plumbing in clients' homes is too many to count.
Moisture, however, is not the only health hazard lurking in this room. Many conventional cleaning and personal care products that we use on a daily basis contain hundreds of chemicals (formaldehyde, nitrosamines, dioxins) that are associated with significant health effects from asthma and allergies to reproductive and developmental toxicity (Environmental Working Group 2007 & 2016). A recent study found that using household cleaners as little as once weekly for 20 years may speed decline in lung function as much as smoking one pack of cigarettes each day for 10 to 20 years.
Bleach gets a special mention, because while I thought it was mostly a thing of the past, my trip to Tasmania last year confirmed otherwise. Every hotel we stayed in used bleach to clean their bathrooms, to the point where I couldn't open my eyes after staying in the room for 5 minutes. Bleach is often used to disinfect surfaces and kill mould. However, bleach is ineffective in killing it as it only discolours it, and because it is highly alkaline it may provide the microbes with a food source, and within weeks the mould will become visible again (Bijlsma 2018).
Bleach gives off toxic fumes which irritate the eyes, lungs, nose, throat and skin and may even cause burns and coma if ingested (Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry 2014). Chronic exposure to low levels of bleach has been linked to respiratory damage, various skin reactions, wheezing, coughing, chest pain and sore throats (Medina-Ramon 2005; Odabassi 2008; Zock 2009). In May 2012, the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC) designated bleach (sodium hypochlorite) as an asthmagen, the term used for an asthma-causing substance. Moreover, if improperly mixed, bleach and acidic or ammonia-based cleaners can react to form extremely high concentrations of chlorine gas, which can cause a person to develop asthma after a single intense exposure (AOEC 2012). So it’s best to stay away from bleach!
Even if you don't use bleach, there are a few things you can do to make the most visited room in your home a healthier place:
1. Ventilate. Ventilate. Ventilate.
Did I say ventilate? I can't say this enough, because most bathrooms do not have enough ventilation even if they have openable windows and exhaust fans. This results in the build-up of water vapour and subsequent condensation on walls, mirrors and windows. And if there is a bit of dust or MDF, both of which are very common in bathrooms, you have yourself perfect conditions for mould growth.
Mechanically driven exhaust fans with timer switches or humidity sensors that are ducted to the exterior (not the roof cavity) should be installed in all bathrooms. These ducts should be insulated to prevent steam condensing with the duct. Windows and doors should remain open when the exhaust fan is on as it will be drawing air from the outside. And, of course, don't forget to use your fan whilst bathing! Also, regularly clean the fan and grille with a microfibre cloth. Something that I often forget to do myself.
A handy trick that I have learnt recently is to put a movable dehumidifier in your bathroom. Operate it during and for at least 20 minutes after you finish showering/bathing. This will help to draw the moisture out of the air and, therefore, reduce the risk of condensation.
It is also good to get into the habit of wiping the moisture from the tiles and shower screen with a suitable microfibre cloth every time you shower. I know, this might take a while to get used to, but it will help to prevent mould growth on the grout and silicone (unless there is water damage in the wall cavity).
2. Don't use air fresheners.
Most contain toxic chemicals that contaminate the air that you breathe. In 2014, Scientific American reported that scented products like air fresheners or candles often contain harmful chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde which can cause headaches, nausea, trigger asthma, cancer, and even damage your brain. Air fresheners also often contain dispersants called phthalates, which are known to cause hormonal imbalances, birth defects, and reproductive problems. Why not use a few drops of your favourite essential oil and water in a spray bottle instead?
3. Say 'NO' to fragrance in personal care products.
Read the ingredients when you buy your shampoos, conditioners, body creams, face creams and face tonics. If it has a word 'fragrance' on it - put it back on the shelf.
Fragrances that are found in many personal care products as well as cleaning products (including so-called 'natural' or 'green'), incense, reed diffusers and toilet deodoriser blocks can contain hundreds of petrochemicals including known carcinogens, hormone disrupting chemicals and asthmagens. Fragrances are collectively considered among the top five allergens in the world (de Groot 1997; Jansson 2001). These pollutants can be absorbed by surfaces inside the home and be re-released into the air at a later stage. They can also react with ozone (common ambient and indoor air pollutant) to form secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde, a known skin and lung irritant and a carcinogen (Steinemann 2016; IARC 2006; Council NR 2011).
It is recommended that colognes, perfumes, scented skin and hair products, and even essential oils (if you are chemically sensitive) are not applied to the skin. There are so many good and healthy alternatives out there. If you struggle finding them, give me a buzz and I will be happy to point you in the right direction.
4. Ditch the antibacterial soaps.
Antibacterials in hand soaps can react with chlorine present in municipal tap water and form small clouds of chloroform gas, a chemical that affects the central nervous system, liver and kidneys (Fiss, Rule & Vikesland 2007). Chemicals in these soaps are known eye, skin and lung irritants that have been linked to asthma and allergies as well as thyroid and reproductive issues (Savage et al 2012; Magnano 2009; NTP 2000).
Antibacterials are effective at killing bacteria. And whatever you put on your skin gets immediately absorbed into your systemic circulation. Antibacterial soaps and creams can significantly contribute to reduced diversity and function of gut microbiome, which in turn has been associated with increased incidence of allergies and asthma (Bisgaard et al 2011; Kang et al 2016; Kim et al 2014).
Stick to personal care products that are made from certified organic, plant-based ingredients such as cold pressed jojoba oil, macadamia nut oil, camellia nut oil, rosehip oil, sweet almond oil and coconut oil.
5. Go green when you clean!
Choose cleaning products with food grade ingredients, environmentally friendly and grey water safe such as Abode cleaning products. Other healthy cleaning brands that are made and owned by Australian companies are OurEco Clean, Kin Kin Naturals and Naturally Clean. These are available in health food stores across the country as well as online. Use microfibre cloths specifically designed for the bathroom, rinse them thoroughly immediately after use and allow them to dry between uses, preferably in the sun.
6. Put a filter on your shower and bath.
Point of use (at the tap) shower and bath filters are recommended, especially for people with allergies. The KDF and Chlorgon filtration media contained within these filters removes chlorine and its carcinogenic by-products (trihalomethanes), hydrogen sulfide, iron oxide (rust) and some other heavy metals, sediment and odours
A lot of people with eczema find that their conditions improve after installing KDF bathroom or shower filters (Bijlsma 2018). Check out AquaSafe Water Filtration Systems for a range of good bathroom and showers water filters.
7. Use healthy and breathable materials, where possible.
Ideally I would love to have a hemp wall in my bathroom. Hemp walls sealed with a clear breathable sealant manage the humidity and moisture exceptionally well. It's a beneficial material anywhere humidity or condensation is an issue in construction.
If you are renovating, avoid laminates, particle board cabinets, melamine, conventional wood stains and sealers, conventional tile sealers, grouts with toxic additives, conventional caulk, and conventional paints and primers.
If you are like me and renting, or just not ready to outlay on a bathroom reno, then take small steps - they all count! Avoid vinyl shower curtains, conventional synthetic
bath mats, conventional cotton towels, and plastic storage containers. Ikea has a good bamboo range that's been in my bathroom for a while and it hasn't gone mouldy yet!
*Image from Hemp Homes Australia
So, there you have it! Some effective and simple steps you can take to start making your bathroom a healthier place for the whole family.
Healthier Home one step at a time!
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