Life Cycle: Will You Soap My Back?

While the production of soap--or anything, really--has environmental repercussions all its own, the pretty smells in our personal care products have been linked to not-so-fine human ailments.
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Life Cycle is a series of posts addressing the impacts of everyday items.


Getting cleaned up can be a dirty job.

Today, our journey through your day o' stuff brings us somewhere between breakfast and work, when you're getting beautiful or, at the very least, attempting to meet modern hygiene standards.

And modern hygiene requires that you spend some quality time with your showerhead. The average person showers for about 10 minutes. In an old-school shower (made before 1992), that means you're using about 100 gallons of water. The government has since required showerheads to use no more than 2.5 gallons of water per minute, but ecoists in the know seek out the low-flows that use only 1 gallon of water per minute or less and still give high PSI or pressure.

You can opt for a new showerhead, shorten your showers, or soap up with a friend.

And how about that soap?

The magical cleaning agent in your bar of hygiene is likely cow fat or oil from, say, coconut. At the manufacturing plant, a chemical process removes the valuable glycerin in the fats and oils to be used in other products. The leftovers are mixed with sodium hydroxide and then blasted dry to form soap pellets, which are then mixed with the colorants, fragrances and other ingredients that allow a humble soap to go by the name of Carribean Breeze or Lilac Meadow.

While the production of soap--or anything, really--has environmental repercussions all its own, the pretty smells in our personal care products are, perhaps, the issue most worth examining here. Many of the chemicals producing fine aromas have been linked to not-so-fine human ailments or tested on animals, and their disposal--down your shower drain in a sudsy stream--fills our water system with chemicals that do not readily biodegrade (or breakdown).

Now, how about a shave?

Razor production involves a lot of steel--made from our friend iron ore, a finite natural resource, through a process officially known as Carbon Emissions Nightmare.

Modern-day razors also owe a lot to the stinky plastics industry, as most are either entirely disposable or come with the nifty replaceable blade cartridge. An estimated 2 billion disposable razors wind up in U.S. landfills in each year. Don't forget the packaging (the thick plastic encasing a new Venus Quad-Blade Mach 3000 is more accurately described as a booby trap). You've got the plastic bag around the disposable razors, the plastic tray holding razor cartridges, the various spots of cardboard. A group called the Dogwood Alliance is fighting for companies such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Revlon to reduce excessive paper packaging.

And finally, the lynchpin of American hygiene (we know women who carry it in their purse): deodorant-antiperspirant.

Not so long ago, aerosol spray was the deodorant mechanism of choice, but was ultimately doomed by inhalation concerns and ozone-depleting CFC propellants. The reining stick form of deodorant/antiperspirant, which works by clogging armpit pores with aluminum (yikes), relies on gelling agents, fragrances and colorants to deliver on its promise to keep us civilized, PH-balanced and raising our hands because we're sure.

Like soap, deodorant includes ingredients that are highly toxic in the large quantities boiling around in manufacturing plants; overfilling or spillage may occur, and toxic by-products end up somewhere the government has deemed appropriate.

Your morning routine might also include moisturizer, makeup, cotton swabs, cotton balls, disposable face cloths, toothpaste, floss, mouthwash, shaving gel, hairspray, hair gel, hair mousse, cologne, sunscreen, powder for your balls (so we hear). What we're trying to say is, that's a lot of natural resources, production energy, transportation energy, packaging and trash.

A few ideas to ponder: Electric or solar-powered (!) razors. Heck, even an old-school blade you sharpen yourself (bonus sexiness points for men). Organic and/or all-natural soap (do your research--the label isn't sacred). Natural deodorant, minus the antiperspirant aluminum. Products with minimal packaging. Avoiding body odor yet smelling human.

This post was written by Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Lacey Johnston for research assistance and Metropolis Music for the image. You can find previews of these posts every week on Green Options.

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