YES! But How? :: Cold Remedies

If you're searching for practical ways to live sustainably, just ask us.


Cold and flu season is approaching and I want to stay healthy through the winter. I'd like to wash my hands with antibacterial soap, but I've heard it's bad for the environment. Is this true? And if so, what are the alternatives?

We sympathize with your desire to stay healthy through the winter. There are some good ways to keep your hands free of germs, but antibacterial hand soap isn't one of them. The active ingredient in these soaps is triclosan, which we recommend avoiding for several reasons. First, triclosan can damage your skin by sucking out its moisture. Second, when you use antibacterial soap, you're not just exposing your hands to triclosan, you're also releasing triclosan into the environment, since the residue gets washed down the drain.

Triclosan is immune to most water treatment filtration processes, so it frequently ends up in local streams where it can have devastating effects on aquatic life. Triclosan accumulates in the gills of fish and renders algae inedible, which disrupts the entire ecosystem. If triclosan comes into contact with chlorine or sunlight, it becomes even more toxic. Triclosan and its variants have been detected in human breast milk, making its presence in our water systems a serious concern.

In addition, scientists warn against the overuse of antibacterial soaps due to their potential to create antibiotic-resistant "superbugs". Doctors add that antibiotic hand soaps are not particularly useful for preventing illness, because triclosan does not affect viruses, which are responsible for colds and flus.

Frequent handwashing, with plain old soap and water, remains the most highly recommended tool for preventing illness. Just be sure to use warm water, rub vigorously, and wash for 20 seconds. Don't want to count to 20? Try whistling "You are my Sunshine" instead. Really.

If you don't have access to water (for instance, on a hike), or want an extra measure of protection, sanitizing hand gels are a better option. Most are alcohol or peroxide-based, with an alcohol content of up to 95%. Alcohol and peroxide kill both bacteria and most viruses instantly. Scientists find it highly unlikely that bacteria could develop resistance to these gels. Alcohol gels do not contain triclosan, so they're gentler on aquatic ecosystems, and they're less likely to irritate or dry out the hands the way antibacterial soaps can.

Whenever possible, doctors recommend using hand sanitizing gels after handwashing instead of in place of it, because the presence of dirt or food on hands can reduce the effectiveness of the alcohol.

Triclosan can be found in hair care products, detergents, sponges, cutting boards, cosmetics, toothpastes, and even some plastic children's toys. Remember to keep an eye out for it in the active ingredients list of your purchases, and opt for a natural alternative when you can.

—Catherine Bailey


I'm assuming most traditional shoe polishes are pretty toxic, since they smell really bad and contain warnings to apply only in a "ventilated area." What are some alternatives to make my shoes shine?

Many commercial shoe polishes contain either trichloroethylene, methylene chloride, or nitrobenzene, all of which are suspected human carcinogens that can easily be absorbed through the skin.

There are several safe, non-toxic alternatives to traditional shoe polish. To make your leather shoes shine again, all you'll need is some white, lint-free cloths, some water, and a bit of olive, walnut, or vegetable oil. First, remove dust and dirt from the outside of the shoes with a slightly damp cloth, then gently buff the surface dry. Pour some oil onto a new cloth and rub over the leather until the oil has been absorbed into the leather and the shoes are shiny.

Alternatively, you can apply petroleum jelly to smooth leather (not suede or nubuck) to make it softer and less susceptible to cracking. Rubbing shoes with the inside of a banana peel will also make them shine, since banana peels are rich in potassium, one of the key ingredients of commercial shoe polish.

To keep leather shoes looking their best, polish them once a month. Brushing the dirt off when you're through wearing them for the day can reduce build-up and reduce the need to polish them so frequently.

Shoe polish can be extremely harmful to the environment. If you have old shoe polish around the house, make sure you don't dispose of it by washing it down the drain. Instead, save it for a hazardous waste collection program, which most municipalities organize at least annually. Contact your hometown sanitation department for more details.

—Catherine Bailey


Zeolite Rocks

When I moved into my new apartment, I couldn't ignore the pungent stench of ancient cat pee wafting up from the orange shag carpet. My mother recommended zeolite, a volcanic rock that absorbs smells. She had used these these rocks successfully after a flood left her basement smelling like mildew. Rather than use some toxic cleaners, I decided to give this natural, non-toxic solution a try. Because they can be difficult to find in stores, I ordered them online. They worked like a charm, absorbing the smell almost immediately. No cleaner, no magic spells—just nature.

—Sarah Kuck


Fortunately, nature does provide us with ways to alleviate everyday suffering. Studies by the University of Michigan report that tart cherries contain anti-inflammatory properties comparable to those of aspirin, with high levels of antioxidants as an added bonus. Cherry juice can thus soothe joint pain, including arthritis.

  • For a cough, sucking ice cubes can numb aggravated nerves. For the more adventurous, an effective remedy can be concocted by boiling a few onions, straining off the water, and drinking it along with a drop of honey.
  • Papaya pulp assists in healing burns, and putting a dash of turmeric powder on a small cut can help stop the bleeding and disinfect the wound.
  • Peppermint and ginger are age-old soothers for upset tummies; a cup of tea using one of these ingredients can provide fairly rapid relief. For severe diarrhea, just remember the BRAT remedy: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.
  • For headaches, follow the standard advice: drink plenty of water, breathe deeply, rest in a dark room, and nap. If you feel up to it, getting a bit of exercise can release endorphins, the body's natural painkilling chemicals.

Most of these safe and gentle remedies are inexpensive and can be found in your home. While these suggestions have not necessarily been declared "official" by the medical community, many sources can testify to their effectiveness.

To ease pain overall, several simple lifestyle changes can help too. Spending just a little time in the sunshine prevents the body from developing a deficiency of vitamin D, a condition which can create a reduced tolerance for pain. Keeping your vitamin C and omega-acid intake up, and your stress levels down (remember to breathe) can also bolster natural resistance to pain.

—Catherine Bailey

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