Guide to Less Toxic Products

Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia

Using this Guide

Why a Guide to Less Toxic Products?
Who needs a Guide to Less Toxic Products?
Our Product Selection Process
Our Categories
Why No Synthetic Fragrances?
Does "Unscented" Really Mean Scent-Free?
What People are Saying about the Guide to Less Toxic Products

Why a Guide to Less Toxic Products?

We live in a chemical world. Over 50,000 chemicals have entered daily use since World War II, many of them found in the products we use every day to clean and beautify our bodies and our homes. Some of these chemicals are linked to cancer; others may disrupt the delicate endocrine system; and others may compromise our immune system or our central nervous system.

Scientists are increasingly concerned that long-term low-level exposures to chemicals create a variety of health risks. They also worry that we do not yet know the impact of living with the cocktail of chemicals found in household air and dust.  Testing for human health effects is normally done on single chemicals, but in the real world, we are all exposed to a variety of chemicals every single day.

Identifying less toxic products among the thousands of products lining the shelves of grocery stores, pharmacies and health food stores, garden centers and home improvement stores can be difficult. 

The Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia has produced this Guide to Less Toxic Products to assist people who want to decrease their exposure to harmful substances in their daily life. Everyone can benefit from using less toxic products. For people with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma and other diseases who become ill when exposed to ingredients in many conventional products, finding less toxic products is a necessity. But as studies continue to reveal startling information on long term health hazards associated with commonly used chemicals, including cancers and reproductive problems, more people are looking for less toxic products as a healthy lifestyle choice.

Many people assume that “if it was bad for us, the government would not allow it to be sold.” But we know that regulatory bodies are slow to act. Legislation governing pest control products was only amended in 2002, after over 30 years without change. And Health Canada has been slow to restrict many chemicals currently in use, including known or suspected carcinogens, hormone disruptors and reproductive toxins. It maintains a ‘hot list’ of chemicals restricted in cosmetics, but even chemicals, officially declared "toxic", including known carcinogens such as hydroquinone, are still allowed in personal care products. Evaluating and regulating all the chemicals we use in our daily lives is a slow process and past experiences in regulating lead in gasoline, tobacco and lawn pesticides tells us that the companies which produce these products won’t take attempts to limit their use quietly.

In choosing the products we use on our bodies and in and around our homes WE are the ones in control. We can make informed choices for the sake of our own health and the health of our families. And in most cases, what is less toxic for us is also less toxic for the natural environment.

Making the move to less toxic products can seem overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to happen all at once. Whether you make changes in only a few things or in many, you will be making positive choices for your life.

We have produced this Guide in the hope that it will be of assistance to many different types of people, all of whom want to live healthier lives.

Note: The marketplace changes rapidly. It is inevitable that some good less toxic products are missing from this guide. The information contained in the sections, Chemical Hazards, will help you evaluate other product choices. For more information see Our Product Selection Process.

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Who Needs a Guide to Less Toxic Products?

People whose schools or workplaces have gone scent free: Finding alternatives to replace scented products can sometimes be a hassle. This Guide should make it easier. No product in this guide contains synthetic fragrances. A few products in the Best or Good sections contain strong natural fragrances and may not be suitable for scent free environments. Check ingredient labels or do a smell test.

People with chemical sensitivities: People’s sensitivities vary, and what one person can tolerate, another cannot. Every product listed in the guide won’t necessarily be tolerable for each person with chemical sensitivities. But the guide is a starting point, and can provide valuable tips on products which may work for you. All the products are free of synthetic scents (to the best of our knowledge). Many of the products have been used successfully by people with chemical sensitivities.  Products for the chemically sensitive will most likely be found in the Best and Good sections, but may also be found in Simply Unscented. Also check the “Make your own” recipes and Tips for useful suggestions. The Guide may also help you to find products which you can recommend to neighbors whose household cleaners are making you sick, or friends and relatives you would like to socialize with if only they used products which you could tolerate.

Asthmatics and others allergic to synthetic scents: All products listed are, to the best of our knowledge, free of synthetic scents. Products in the Simply Unscented category are also free of strong natural fragrances.

Friends and family of people with chemical sensitivities: Many family members of people with sensitivities don’t know where to start to find products that their loved ones can tolerate. This Guide should help, but remember, everyone’s sensitivities are different. Your ultimate guide is the sensitive person him or herself.

People who want to raise their children in a healthier environment: Children are especially vulnerable to toxins in their environment. Indoor air in the home is often 8 to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air, and has been measured at up to 100 times worse. Cleaning products, personal care products and chemical pest controls are major sources of indoor pollution. By using healthier products such as those listed in the Guide, you can provide a healthier environment for your children.

People who want to live a healthier lifestyle: More and more people are becoming aware that many commonly used products contain harmful ingredients. But where do you look for healthier ones. Just because a company advertises its product as “natural”, “green”, “non-toxic”, or “eco-friendly” doesn’t make it so. By providing information on common hazardous ingredients, and by researching the ingredients in many products, the Guide provides a shortcut to identifying healthier products in the consumer jungle.

People who care about the environment: Although the focus of the Guide is on finding products which are healthier for humans, less toxic products are generally also less toxic for the natural environment. By using less toxic products, fewer harmful chemicals are flushed down drains into our waterways, and fewer harmful materials pollute the air, fewer toxic wastes are created in manufacturing, and fewer harmful breakdown products are created in the environment. A cleaner natural environment, especially clean air and water, is critical for all species, including human beings.

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Our Product Selection Process

This Less Toxic Guide has been prepared based on the best available scientific research coupled with the anecdotal evidence of consumers who have contributed their experiences with various products. While scientific opinion is frequently open to debate and conclusions reached by one study may be different from those of another, we take the view that where there is an identified risk to human health it is better to err on the side of caution. Users of this Guide are encouraged to consult other sources for information and reach their own conclusions about individual products and ingredients.

For the purposes of this guide, we have considered both acute and long-term health effects. Acute effects are those which happen immediately, including allergic reactions like rashes and asthma attacks, headaches, memory loss, dizziness, nausea, coughing or other symptoms. Long term effects may not show up for years or even for another generation. These can include respiratory damage and problems involving central nervous system function, as well as cancers and reproductive or genetic damage.

We have looked at ingredient information for many products in order to make our selection.

  1. Products had to include fewer hazardous ingredients than most other products in the same category. Our lists of common hazardous ingredients will give you an idea of the ingredients we considered in evaluating products.
  2. No product in the Guide contains synthetic scents, to the best of our knowledge. Products in the Best, Good and Less Toxic Alternatives categories may contain natural fragrances.
  3. Products in the Best category usually contain few, if any, hazardous ingredients. Products in the Good category contain fewer than most products on the market. Products in the Simply Unscented category are products with ingredients comparable to most conventional products, but without added fragrances, whether synthetic or natural. That does not mean they will have no smell, since many ingredients, both plant based and synthetic, have smells.
  4. In the personal care section, we looked at the product ingredients of every product listed in the Best and Good section. In the cleaning section, we looked at the ingredients in products listed in Less Toxic Alternatives. If ingredients were not available on product labels, we went to the manufacturer. In cases where we were not able to get ingredient information, good products may have been omitted.
  5. Some products were recommended by people with chemical sensitivities as products which they could tolerate. Those people who recommended products have a range of sensitivity, from mild to severe. Many of the ‘tips’ also come from people with chemical sensitivities.
  6. We did not have the capacity to evaluate all products on the market. If you have a question about a product that is not listed, we recommend that you read the ingredient list where available, and check ingredients with our list of Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products. For cleaning products, ingredient lists are often not included on labels. Sometimes you may find them on-line, or a manufacturer may provide them on request. Advertising claims are not a reliable basis for determining whether a product is safe.

EHANS is a non-profit, charitable organization that is entirely independent of any supplier or manufacturer of products mentioned in the Guide. The Guide is a work in progress and may be amended from time to time if new or better information comes to our attention. It has been most recently updated in early 2011.

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Our Categories: Best, Good, Less Toxic, and Simply Unscented

Personal care products in this guide are divided into three categories:

Best (): These products contain no ingredients from our list of Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products. They are often based on natural ingredients. In some sections you will find specific information about what ingredients are not included.

Good (): These products contain few, if any, ingredients on our Common Hazardous Ingredients list. They contain fewer toxic ingredients than most conventional products but may contain some toxic ingredients. In some sections, you will find more specific information about what ingredients are, and are not, included.

Simply Unscented (): Products in this category contain no synthetic or natural scents. This category is included to meet the needs of people who have to avoid scents, but are less concerned about other hazardous ingredients. Products in this category are likely to contain a number of chemicals from our Common Hazardous Ingredients list. Many unscented products are included in the Best and Good categories, and can also be used to avoid scented products.

Household cleaning products are categorized as either Less Toxic Alternatives (equivalent to Best and Good in Personal Care) or Simply Unscented. This is because there are many fewer product choices and it is more difficult to find complete ingredient information.

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Why no Synthetic Fragrances?

Most fragrances are no longer made from natural substances, but are made from synthetic chemicals. The fragrance industry regularly uses more than 3,000 chemical ingredients to create perfumes and fragrances. About 95% of these ingredients are synthetic. There can be as many as 100 chemicals in a single fragrance.

About 5% of us cannot tolerate fragrances, while up to 30% are sensitive in some way. Fragrances can aggravate asthma, cause headaches, and trigger allergic reactions. In 1989 the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health evaluated 2,983 fragrance chemicals for health effects. They identified 884 of them as toxic substances. The US Environmental Protection Agency found that 100% of perfumes contain toluene, a toxic volatile organic compound (VOC) that can have developmental effects.

Another ingredient in almost all fragrance-containing products is phthalates used to disperse the scent. Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals which are suspected of causing damage to the kidneys, liver , lungs and reproductive organs. One type of phthalate (DEP) commonly found in fragrances can lead to infertility and may also be linked to miscarriages and birth defects. Recent product tests found the chemical in every fragrance tested in the US. Manufacturers are not required to list phthalates on product labels so they are difficult to avoid.

Canada's Cosmetics Regulations, which require “complete” list of ingredients on cosmetics labels, do not require individual fragrance ingredients to be identified. They simply require the word "fragrance", "parfum" or “masking agent.” Fragrance ingredients are exempt from disclosure as trade secrets.

The average North American uses between 17 and 21 scented products per day, exposing themselves to a random chemical soup with unknown health effects. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, fragrances cause 30% of all allergic reactions, and 70% of all asthmatics develop respiratory symptoms when exposed to perfumes.

Natural Fragrances

Companies which manufacture products with all natural ingredients often use natural fragrances for added scent. Some companies who use both natural and synthetic ingredients have chosen to substitute natural fragrances for synthetic ones. In both cases, this eliminates some of the toxic chemicals found in synthetic fragrances, like toluene and phthalates. However, some people become ill when exposed to natural fragrances, so natural fragrances are not a good choice for a scent-free environment.

Some companies who use natural fragrances but not synthetic ones include:

Aubrey Organics
Beauty without Cruelty
Botanical Therapeutic
Dr. Bronner's
Ecco Bella
Green Beaver
Kiss My Face
Magick Botanicals
Mill Creek
Nature's Blends
Pure Anada
Pure and Natural
Purple Prairie Botanicals
Real Purity

These companies may also make some products which are free of both synthetic and natural fragrances.

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Does "Unscented" Really Mean Scent-Free?

Identifying unscented products is not as easy as you might think. Product labels which say “Unscented” can be misleading. These products often contain masking agents to cover unpleasant smells of other ingredients. In most cases, these masking agents are synthetic fragrances. This practice is allowed by Industry Canada, the government department responsible for monitoring misleading labeling. Industry Canada states there is no firm rule about how much fragrance is allowed in products labeled “Unscented.” The general rule is that it must not be more than is needed for masking other scents. On average, industry representatives say that “Unscented” products contain .6% scent, while scented products contain on average 1.5 % scent, two and a half times as much.

This labeling practice creates obvious problems for people who are allergic to scents. In the “Simply Unscented” category we have attempted to screen out products containing added fragrance in any amount. If you have questions about a product, you can call the manufacturer to ask if a product contains any added fragrance. They are required to tell you whether a product contains an ingredient if it may create a health hazard for you. Please contact us if you find we have included a product in the Simply Unscented category which contains added fragrance.

Scents may be found in some unlikely places. For example, “Odor guard” in Glad kitchen garbage bags is in fact nothing more than fragrance. Scents have also been found as ingredients in children’s toys, rubber boots, and car wash detergents.

Different manufacturers use different words to label their unscented products. Some of these include “Pure”, “Scent-free”, “Fragrance Free”, “Sensitive skin formula”, “Hypo-allergenic”, “All-sensitive”, etc. Although these words have no legal definition, they may help you identify truly unscented products.

Some product lines are completely fragrance free.
Clinique - all fragrance free (except perfumes)
Marcelle - all fragrance free
RoC -  many fragrance free products
Sensitive skin formula - usually is fragrance free, as fragrances are a common skin irritant.
Hypoallergenic usually is fragrance free, as fragrances are common allergens.

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What People are Saying about the Guide to Less Toxic Products

Spring 2011

"For all of us who know that we are exposed to toxic chemicals every minute of our lives but feel helpless to do much about it, here is an opportunity to take some responsibility."
David Suzuki, scientist and environmentalist

"This [Guide] is wonderful !!! Congratulations to the AEHA on what must have been a mammoth project. We will certainly be letting our patients know about it, as it applies the precautionary principle, suggesting the most likely safest product choices, given the available scientific evidence. Hopefully, the Guide will stimulate further research in this important, yet neglected consumer health area."
Dr. Lynn Marshall, Medical Director, Environmental Health Clinic
Sunnybrook & Women's College Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, ON

"This Guide provides what we all hoped the Internet would deliver years ago -- uncommercial, clear, unbiased information produced by a non-profit group with nothing to sell. Print off pages and take them with you when you shop. You and the planet will be healthier for it!"
Heidi Ship, Complementary Health practitioner

"This guide is extremely important and helpful in a timely way. The epidemic of cancers that we are all facing is intimately tied to chemical use, although conventional medicine often fails to face this obvious link. Recent mainstream scientific evidence linking chemicals in tap water to miscarriages is a wake-up call. Educating the public about less toxic products is absolutely essential for the health of humans, other species and our planet. Thank you so much for your work in producing and disseminating this information."
Elisabeth Gold, MD, Halifax, NS

"Many thanks to the Nova Scotia Allergy and Environmental Health Association for this extremely helpful guide to avoiding unnecessary toxic threats in our homes."
Elizabeth May, former Executive Director, Sierra Club of Canada

"Hi Folks, Your web site is very impressive. Very good to see someone taking some action on this crucial subject."
Site Visitor

"I can't tell you how wonderful your new site is. not only to me as a severe multiple chemical/environmental allergy person, but to educate others to the effects of scents, chemicals etc. to someone like me... Keep up the good work!! "
Site Visitor

"Thank you for this amazing resource. It is a challenge being sensitive to so many artificial and natural scents, flavors, colors, preservatives, additives...etc. I have been recovering from serious debility and post traumatic stress, and detoxing my life has made a huge difference. ... it is information like yours that has made it possible! "
Site Visitor

Who is using the Guide to Less Toxic Products, EHANS’ popular on line resource?

Amazing numbers of people, from many walks of life. Since the Guide was a featured link on Marketplace’s Chasing the Cancer Answer, in March 2006, more than 600 people per day have consulted the Guide at

The Toronto Globe and Mail referred to the Guide in their hard hitting series, Toxic Shock, June 2006. Environmental Defense Canada included the Guide to Less Toxic Products as a reference in their reports Toxic Nation, which focused on the body burden of chemicals found in Canadians, ( and Polluted Children, Toxic Nation ( Clean Nova Scotia uses material from the Guide in their Tox-Free education campaigns.

The Guide has also been mentioned in the superb series on health hazards in beauty products in the Ottawa Citizen, in an item on less toxic bathroom cleaners in Chatelaine Magazine, in the monthly column of the Natural Resources Defence Council "This Green Life", and in an article on Less Toxic Spas in esthemag pro.

People across Canada and abroad are using The Guide to Less Toxic Products to help themselves and others find ways to switch to products which are healthier for humans and the environment. Below are a sampling of the letters EHANS has received in recent months.

I'm a director of the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, a non-profit group in BC. We're in the process of producing a "Living Toxin Free" brochure for use in our part of Canada. The brochure will provide information about common, potentially toxic household products, offer alternatives, list some brand recommendations and offer information about local disposal sites and best practices. Your Guide to Less Toxic Products is easily the best and most comprehensive website we've ever seen on this subject area, and we'd like to refer readers to it and also mention some of the BC-based products you describe (with full credit to your Guide). May we have your permission?
Thanks, Andrew Scott

Thank you for providing this information! We would like to pass this information on to our residents via our residents association newsletter. Environmental illnesses are on the increase and we would like to make more information available.
Again, thank you for your dedication to this project.
Dianne Eddy, President, Mapleguard Ratepayers' Association, Deep Bay, Vancouver Island

Hello. I am the Editor-in-Chief for a small feminist ezine entitled Edwards Magazine. One of our mandates is to highlight issues of health, and of course cancer ranks right up there when speaking of health concerns of Canadians.
In wake of the Marketplace Report which aired on CBC last weekend, I know many Canadians are anxious to learn more about chemicals, their harmful side effects, and what consumers can do to avoid them in the products we use.
I'm wondering if we could obtain permission to link to your site. ...Our readers are always looking for resources to find the information they need and I think your site is fantastic for presenting this information in a straight-forward, easy-to-understand manner.
Christine Gordon Manley, Editor-in-Chief, Edwards Magazine,

I am the coordinator of the environment education program for Scouts in Western Australia.
The National Association recently introduced a new badge, called the Water Wise Badge. One of the requirements of this badge is to research and compile an environmentally friendly cleaning kit.
I am currently working at compiling a resource folder for leaders, to assist them with instructing the youth members about the badge requirements. After much searching on the internet, I came across your site. I found it very informative and very easy to understand.
I am writing to ask permission to include the information contained within the Household Cleaners section in this resource folder. Your site would receive full recognition, and we would refer any enquiries to your site.
Angela Hein, Branch Activity Leader - Environment, Scouts Western Australia

Help Fund the Guide to Less Toxic Products

The Guide to Less Toxic Products has been on-line for over six years. We are grateful to our funders for making it possible to revise and update the Guide in 2011. We thank the Saunders Matthey Foundation, Halifax Peninsula Community Health Board, and Chebucto West Community Health Board. Thanks also to the Balance Naturopathic Health Centre in Halifax and Halifax Dump and Run for their support.

EHANS is seeking funding to make revisions and additions to the Guide to Less Toxic Products. If you belong to an organization which might support this widely used resource, we can provide any information you need to promote this idea to your organization.

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