Ask Katy — Natural Products

by Katy on June 18, 2009 · 23 comments


I received this question from Non-Consumer Advocate reader Jeff:


Do you typically buy natural health and beauty products, nontoxic household and laundry cleaners, and either organic or local foods? Such items are appropriate for a green lifestyle, but they can be budget-busters. I’m generally willing to pay extra for earth-friendly and healthful goods, but staying the course can be tough when money’s tight. I’m hoping you and maybe some of your friends and fans can offer some insights.


Good question. I have given up all my toxic cleaning supplies, (I put them on craigslist for free and they were gone faster than you can say, “yummy, yummy chemicals!”) but that doesn’t mean I’m now spending a fortune on green cleaners.

Here’s my dark and dirty secret — I mostly just clean with water and occasionally a squirt of dish soap. (That’s how I mop my kitchen floor, which is pine.) When I’m about to launder the hand towel in the bathroom, I wet it first and wipe out the sink. When I’m washing the bathroom towels, I’ll wet one and give the bathroom floor a quick swipe. No fuss, no muss.

I’m also saving the earth from excessive cleaning supplies by not cleaning that often. I highly doubt I’ll be on my death bed and wish I’d spent more time keeping my house in a constant state of immaculate-itude. Keeping a perfectly clean house is a fallacy and a poor priority in my eyes.

For laundry detergent, I make my own from Fels Naptha Soap, washing soda and borax. It sounds like a pain, but it only takes a few minutes, and works great. I also use the borax as a cleanser for the kitchen sink and bathtub. I have tried baking soda in the past, but the elbow grease required is beyond my patience.

I am currently using up a Costco container of dishwasher detergent that does contain phosphates. But I will be more mindful with the next purchase.

And beauty products? Well . . . beauty like mine doesn’t come in a box. Seriously though, I rarely wear makeup and have next-to-no beauty regime. I am a low maintenance gal.

I have however been coloring my hair over the past year or so, and I do so with a nasty chemical-laden box of drugstore hair dye. This is one of my few vanities, as my natural hair color was dragging me down. In an ideal world, I would cherish the dishwater blond strands that emerge from my scalp. But such is not the case.

Organic and local foods? Ahh . . . here is where I’m going to look pretty bad. I do not feel that I am in a financial situation to be buying 100% organic food. I hardly buy any prepackaged foods, so we’re pretty good in the preservatives department, but I rarely make the organic food choices. I do have a small kitchen garden planted with tomatoes, lettuce, peas, blueberries, raspberries, cabbage, garlic, cucumbers and radishes. I use no chemicals.

I heard from a neighbor yesterday that a farmer’s market is going to be opening a few blocks up from the house. I plan on making it part of my rounds. (I am essentially somewhat lazy, and need things to be convenient in order to incorporate them into my rotation.) There is also a New Seasons natural grocery store that will be opening two blocks from my house in 2010. This store sells all kinds of wonderful natural and organic food and does have terrific sales, which I will be incorporating into my food gathering routine.

I only buy beef a time or two per year, and this is as much an environmental decision as it is a health one. We eat meatless meals around two-three times per week.

So Jeff . . . I guess I am a mixture of good and bad. I often make the green choice, but not always. I am extremely focused on paying off all personal debt, and I feel that buying the green marketed products can be a barrier to this goal. Really though, I wish all produce were organic and earth friendly and that I never had to make these choices.

Are you struggling over buying the green products while also striving to make smart financial decisions? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Have a question for Katy and The Non-Consumer Advocate community? Send your questions to

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

BarbG June 18, 2009 at 4:43 am

Right now my mom and best friend are both terminal with cancer. I have to ask why! Both live a healthy lifestyle. Neither drink or smoke or use drugs. Both are a healthy weight I could go on and on. I suspect it has to do with all the crap we take in.
Since their diagnosis, I only use Borax, washing soda, baking soda, lemon, vinegar and salt. I make my own detergent for the dishwasher and use vinegar as the rinse agent.(Don’t even get me started on just how BAD rinse agents are for our lakes, rivers and streams…Very bad!) I use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect the bathroom
I wear little make-up buy like you Katy I do colour my hair. I want to try one from the health food store but I have not yet for two reasons. It is way more expensive and it comes in about 4 colours!
This time of the year is great for local fruit and vegetables. I go to farmers markets and get them way cheaper than the grocery store. I buy all my meat organic from a local guy just across the street from me. His prices are high but his sales are awesome so i stick to sales. All his products are local, antibiotic-free, hormone-free and grain fed. All the animals are free range.
I am lucky to be living in the Pacific Northwest (on an island even) so all this great stuff is at my finger tips. Nobody rolls their eyes when I asked how the chickens/cows/pigs etc were raised!


Jeff June 18, 2009 at 5:14 am

Thanks, Katy, for responding to my question. You offered some great insights and inspiration. I’m particularly glad to hear you say you’re not obsessed with keeping your home immaculate at all times; I now feel better about my own relaxed approach to housecleaning. I already follow some of your guidelines but you fired me up with some new ideas. Thanks again.


Nancy from Mass June 18, 2009 at 5:30 am

Hi Katy,

Like you, I also don’t wear makeup or use harsh cleaners. I laugh at the ‘green cleaning’ product commercials that say they are green and natural, but show someone wearing vinyl gloves to clean their sink. Vinegar may not smell great, but it works! Also, I have been using a phosphate free dishwasher detergent and I’ve realized one thing, if my rinse cup in the dishwasher is empty (I only use vinegar in it), the dishes become stained. If I make sure to fill that rinse agent cup with vinegar, they’re fine. Just a hint when using phosphate free…
Frequent that farmers market when you can! you will taste the difference in your fruits and vegetables and even if they cost a little more, you are helping a neighborhood farmer and keeping your family healthier.


GLM June 18, 2009 at 6:54 am

Have you tried Henna for your hair instead, for color? I did that for a while – it’s a bit messy, but it does have fewer chemicals.


Angela June 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

BarbG- I’m so sorry about your mom and your friend. I too have known a lot of people recently with cancer, and I think it’s definitely the fact that we are poisoning our environment.

I also am a mixture of good and bad, in terms of paying the “green” price. The best is when people think it’s more expensive, but it’s actually not. Like using the simple cleaning products like baking soda and borax and vinegar instead of the harsh expensive cleansers. That one is a win/win. I don’t even understand using “softeners” – maybe we’re just lucky with out water but I’ve never used that nasty stuff. Our clothes aren’t stiff or “hard.” But thanks for the tip on the dishwasher detergent Nancy- I’m going to try that tonight because our phosphate-free brand was not working.
With produce, like Katy, I need it to be convenient so we’ve recently joined a CSA, which means Community Supported Agriculture. It’s like the Farmer’s Market coming to you. And it’s not expensive.
I don’t wear much makeup, usually just a bit of lipstick, and don’t color my hair.

I think it comes down to 2 things:
1. we all do as much as we can, and can afford
2. we keep busting the myth that the green or organic option is always too expensive- because that’s not the case. We may not be able to shop at Whole Foods, but there are a lot of things we can do, which Katy demonstrates so well on this blog.


Carla June 18, 2009 at 10:02 am

I agree that eating organic can be expensive. A way to ease into it is to start buying organic versions of the foods below. These are the foods that tend to have the highest pesticide levels in them. An even cheaper alternative is, of course, to simply not eat these foods….but there’s some pretty good stuff on this list:

The “Dirty Dozen”: Must-buy organic foods
Grapes, imported
Bell peppers


Jeff June 18, 2009 at 10:43 am

I’ve used various “natural” dishwasher detergents (by Seventh Generation, Ecover, Earth Friendly Products and Kirkland, among others) and they’ve all worked fine for me. I rarely use a rinse aid, and I have to admit, I’m not sure what it’s for. Is it supposed to prevent spotting on glasses and dishes? Maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention, but I haven’t noticed a problem with spotting. Is there some other reason I should be using a rinse aid, such as white vinegar, in my dishwasher?


Charlotte June 18, 2009 at 10:44 am

For dishwasher, also use Borax & washing soda (mixed 1:1). Works great for me. And vinegar as the water softener.


consuminglessandlivingsimple June 18, 2009 at 10:53 am

I am making a transition to “green” products one thing at a time. I am using up all of my toxic and chemical filled cleaning and beauty products and as I run out, I am replacing them with smarter and greener choices.

I have cut down on purchasing processed foods, and since I don’t have children, it dosen’t seem much more expensive to eat organic for just myself.

I’ve replaced my shampoo, conditioner, and bodywash to natural products, but the one area I haven’t transitioned at all is make-up. I do wear make-up everyday but I haven’t purchased any natural products yet. I haven’t bought make-up in awhile so I think I will start with one item at a time as I run out.

I do get my hair highlighted and lowlighted every 3 months so I get a big “F” in that area too.


Kristen@The Frugal Girl June 18, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Katy, if I didn’t know better, I’d think we shared a brain. Earlier this week a I wrote a post on frugality/organic local food so that I could post it today(which I did). I had no idea you’d post on such a similar topic, and I don’t know why I decided to post it on Thursday. lol


Stephanie June 18, 2009 at 2:12 pm

What a good question. I have recently been thinking about the same one as well. It is hard to not buy organic products when I know what could be in my food. I do know that I buy more natural brands for anything processed…crackers etc. No artificial anyhing, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup (bye bye wheat thins), or hydrogenated. YUCK.
For cleaning I am still working on. Right now vinegar, lemon, and baking soda are the best. I get baking soda in the bulk section of WINCO (warehouse type store) for next to nothing. This summer I will be working replacing all our cleaners with stuff I make. I really don’t use much any way because I think squeeky clean is a little over rated. Beauty type products are always “natural”. Try . Then click on “what’s in your products?” I am learning how to make all my own stuff too. I have found the more I have stayed away from chemical laden products the less I need!

Also, here are some good home made cleaner instructions…


Jacquelyn June 18, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Something to bear in mind is that ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ and other such labels are marketing tools. A good way to be frugal and green is to just not buy the stuff – find an alternative. I’ve replaced a lot of manufactured, chemical-laden, plastic-packaged toiletries and cleaners with baking soda, borax, vinegar, coconut oil, etc, in various combinations. Bought in bulk, of course. Carla’s got good advice with the dirty dozen of organic produce – you can find the full list here:


Tara Morrison June 19, 2009 at 3:46 am

I agree, I agree , I agree. You have to find a common ground in what you can do comfortably and still maintain or pay you expenses. I do try and buy certain foods organic buy I don’t sweat it for other items. I also know that if you are buying imported or well traveled organic produce you are creating a large environmental impact than if you are eating locally grown produce. I don’t use a lot of harsh chemicals in cleaning for cleaning not only for the environmental impact but also because I have small children. Make up and hair only special occasions will you see me in make up, its not a factor of vanity just time restrictions. Though my biggest environmental impact problem is having kids…I am about to have number four.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl June 19, 2009 at 4:59 am

Tara, I have four kids too and I don’t feel particularly guilty about it. Because I live in a fairly green way, I think it’s quite likely that I have a smaller environmental impact than some childless couples out there.


Terry June 19, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I watched a young friend die of acute leukemia brought on by his exposure to insecticides/pesticides at his job at a major university. He left behind a wife and two children. I now buy organic whenever possible, not only for my own health, but because I don’t want to feel like I contributed to the disease and deaths of people just trying to make a living. In most cases, these are poor migrant workers, and their children. I know this means my food costs more, and that it will take me longer to pay off my debt, but for me, a free conscious is worth it. I hope as many of us as possible can at least buy the fruits & veggies on Carla’s list organic. It will keep us healthier, and save a lot of suffering.


tammy June 19, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Katy I love the way you clean. I do the same thing! With no kids but one big dog, cleaning has to be done constantly but I’ve created short cuts! Things don’t have to be perfectly clean in my world. Neatness and organization help me maintain a happy and healthy home and leave a small carbon footprint. Sprays, chemicals and cleaners are overrated.
Except for comet occassionally on my porcelain sink, I don’t use anything except Murphys Oil Soap…I cannot find ANYTHING that gets that sink clean except comet.


Bugsy June 20, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Yah, and I bet mixing in boric acid helps keep down the bug population. It’s not well-known, but powdered boric acid (even 20 mule-team “Boraxo”, I believe), acts to make little holes in anything with an exoskeleton, causing the little fellows to dehydrate. It’s not toxic to anything else. For cockroach control, you spread a very fine layer of it near where bugs go, like around your fridge. Suprisingly, roaches are quite clean, and they’re always licking their million little legs, thus ingesting the boric acid, and voila, holes in the exoskeleton. Your use of boric acid in a solution, I should think, would tend to have a bug-prophylactic quality.


BohoBelle June 21, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Someone mentioned they didn’t like the smell of vinegar. For years my Mothers taught her primary school class to make enfused vinegars for cleaning product Christmas presents. In November all the kids would collect glass cordial bottles etc and then the two recipes were: sprigs of lavender + white vinegar, or, sprigs of rosemary + vinegar. By Christmas time they are ready to use. The smell is divine, especially the rosemary! Decant into a spray bottle for ease of use, or just pour onto a cleaning cloth.


BohoBelle June 21, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Someone mentioned they didn’t like the smell of vinegar. For years my Mothers taught her primary school class to make infused vinegars for cleaning product Christmas presents. In November all the kids would collect glass cordial bottles etc and then the two recipes were: sprigs of lavender + white vinegar, or, sprigs of rosemary + vinegar. By Christmas time they are ready to use. The smell is divine, especially the rosemary! Decant into a spray bottle for ease of use, or just pour onto a cleaning cloth.


Wendy June 21, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Since going “green” with cleaning, I have saved a ton of money. I only use vinegar, salt, baking soda, olive oil, & lemon juice. I am convinced that commercial cleaning products (in addition to coal tar based food dyes & preservatives) contribute to cancer.


greenbean June 27, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Have you looked into Co-ops at all? I did a quick google and was able to find six in Portland proper (didn’t look at the suburbs). They tend to be waaaay cheaper then exploitative chain grocery stores or fake sustainable stores like whole foods. Also, unlike with stores like whole foods co-ops are owned by their customers, and tend to label products based where they come from.

The USDA organic certification is not exactly trustworthy, and many places that advertise sustainable or organic produce (especially in the winter) don’t tell you that the supposed green produce has been shipped up from south america, and usually refuse to provide information about the conditions of the workers that grew it. Whole foods is notorious for putting up signs suggesting that their produce was grown by small family farmers, when it was in fact produced on massive “organic” factory farms in California.

Off-Brand products that carry the cruelty free label tend to be super reliable in the orgaic and sustainable departments as well as being extremely cost effective.


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