Medicine Cabinet Makeovers

Mercury thermometers and other common hazards
may lurk within your bathroom.

By Jodi Helmer

February 2016


You probably don’t give much thought to the prescription drugs, over-the-counter pain relievers, personal care products and first aid items in your medicine cabinet. But they could be taking their toll on the environment—and your health.

“A lot of the things we keep in our medicine cabinets can cause significant ill effects,” warns Jaclyn Chasse, ND, of Northeast Integrative Medicine in Bedford, New Hampshire. “It’s pretty easy to find natural products that are just as effective.”

Read Labels

All personal care products are required to list ingredients. Johanna Congleton, PhD, senior scientist for Environmental Working Group, advocates looking for “red flag” ingredients such as butyl paraben, an endocrine disruptor linked to reproductive issues, and forms of formaldehyde such as DMDM hydantoin, which can trigger allergic reactions. Personal care products, including toothpaste and antibacterial soap, may also contain triclosan, another endocrine disruptor that may foster the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; triclosan also gets into waterways where it has a negative impact on aquatic life. (EWG maintains Skin Deep (ewg.org/skindeep), a searchable database of cosmetics and personal care products.)
In addition, check that scents are from natural sources. For example, opt for vanilla essential oil over vanilla fragrance.

“When you’re applying products directly to your skin, it’s important to know what’s in them,” Congleton says.

Stock Up on Supplements

A lot of common over-the-counter medications cause side effects. Medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, for example, have been associated with problems like upset stomach, heartburn, diarrhea and high blood pressure. Swap conventional remedies for natural alternatives such as supplements and essential oils.

Chasse recommends switching from NSAIDs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen to turmeric, an herb shown to reduce inflammation and alleviate digestive issues. She also suggests trading over-the-counter allergy meds for supplements such as quercetin, rutin and vitamin C to quell sneezing, and using elderberry extract to fight the flu. “These are great everyday medication replacements that tend to work really well and have no side effects,” Chasse notes.

Every medicine cabinet should have a bottle of probiotics, according to Chasse. “A lot of natural remedies treat symptoms and offer preventive health benefits,” she says. “It’s a double dose of good health.”

Dispose and Swap

It’s a bad idea to flush unused or expired medications down the toilet because they can contaminate the water supply. One study of samples from 50 water treatment plants across the US found that more than half tested positive for at least 25 different drugs.

Jeff McClusky, RPh, pharmacy supervisor with the Houston-based Harris Health System, suggests crushing unused medications and mixing them with coffee grounds or cat litter before tossing them in the trash in a sealed container. “The idea is to remove all temptation to use the medications,” he says. Or you can contact your local police precinct or pharmacy to ask about medication take-back programs that allow you to drop off meds for proper disposal.

If you have an old mercury thermometer and the glass breaks, the vapors can cause health and environmental issues. To check what kind you have, look at the liquid. In a mercury model, it’s silver; alcohol-based versions contain blue or red liquid (and digital ones have no liquid at all). “It’s best to properly dispose of a mercury thermometer before you have the opportunity to break it,” McClusky says. Call your waste disposal company for instructions
on proper disposal.

Other products could create excess waste. Consider swapping cotton balls for reusable cotton pads or washcloths and trade plastic razors and toothbrushes for those made from recyclable materials.

Giving your medicine cabinet a makeover is a simple way to have a significant positive impact on your health and the environment.

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