For most of us our bathrooms are our sanctuaries. You can close the door on the noise and demands of your day-to-day life, fill the bath, light a few candles and suddenly you are in a serene world of your own. But just how relaxing would that long hot bath be if you knew that the bubbles around you contained a detergent so strong that it is used to degrease engines? And while you brush your teeth, consider that the toothpaste in your mouth may contain artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and aluminum again!
In fact, almost every bodycare product in your bathroom probably contains a long list of chemicals - many of which could be toxic to you and the environment. Add to this the amount of plastic packaging that comes out of your bathroom in the form of toothpaste tubes, toothbrush packs, shampoo bottles, pots of body lotion and so on, the water wasted and the power used to heat your bath and shower water, and the environmental impact of your bathroom becomes very clear. Your days of stress-free bathing may be over unless you start making some green bathroom choices.
Avoid using conventional paints for bathrooms, as these are likely to contain fungicides and other chemicals that can offgas into the room. They are often also impermeable and therefore likely to trap moisture, potentially causing damp. Instead, go for water-based microporous paint that will let your walls breathe, dispersing moisture and aiding drying. Or another wall choice is wood paneling. It can help regulate the bathroom climate if it is treated with a porous finish such as beeswax.
For floors, the choice is similar to that for kitchens since moisture levels and heat are the main factors in both rooms. Natural linoleum, cork and terracotta tiles are the most suitable floor coverings in the bathroom.
The bathroom suite
As with every other part of your house, try to avoid plastic when it comes to choosing a bath, basin or toilet. Alternatives include porcelain or enamel bathroom suites, which both hold the heat of the bath water better than plastic or fibreglass. Choose the best-quality fixtures you can afford as they should last longer.
Avoid power showers, as these are heavy users of energy, but be sure to have at least a shower attachment that fits to your bath taps (faucets), as normal showers are huge savers of water. Installing water-saving shower heads can save you even more water, and opt for an electric shower which heats the water only as it is used, thereby saving energy.
Don't go for the biggest bath you can squeeze into your bathroom - think of the water and power that will be wasted (and the cost on your heating bills) in just getting it half full. Remember that the less surface area of water exposed to air the less heat that will be lost, so go for a short but deep bath tub if possible. In fact, you could dispense with a bath altogether - a shower will do the job and save you acres of space, too.
Your taps (faucets) should ideally be low flow and sensor controlled, turning on only when your hands or toothbrush are beneath them. But if these are beyond your budget, choose mixer taps, which use a minimum amount of water to get the right temperature. Spray taps save water, too.
When it comes to toilets the golden rule is to choose low-flush models, as toilets use the most amount of water in the home (54 litres (90 pints) per person each day; 33 per cent of all household water use). New toilets are now required to use no more than 7.5 litres (13 pints) of water in their cisterns, but most existing toilets use at least 9.5 litres (16 pints), if not more. Look for a valve flush, rather than the less water-efficient siphon flush, and check out the latest models, some of which have 6.5 or even 3.75 litre (11 or 6 pint) cisterns. There are also dual-flush models that allow you to choose how much water you need for each flush. The cisterns can be bought separately and fitted to your existing toilet.
For the determinedly green, there is no better option than the compost toilet. This uses no water and creates a valuable garden fertilizer out of your waste. Contrary to popular belief, compost toilets are not smelly if they are properly looked after and you can now buy compost toilet systems specifically designed for domestic properties.
Finally, say 'no' to a bidet. They are not really necessary and will waste yet more water when a shower would do the job just as well.
• Don't have a bath or shower just to wash your hair and remember you do not need to wash your hair every day - in fact it is better for your hair if you don't.
• Have showers rather than baths - a bath uses around 170 litres (37 gallons) of water compared with 80 litres (18 gallons) for a five-minute shower, so if you had a shower every two days instead of a bath, over a year you would save 17,000 litres (3,740 gallons) of water. In addition, a shower uses only 40 per cent of the hot water needed for a bath.
• Get leaking taps (faucets) fixed as soon as possible, as up to 4 litres (7 pints) of water can disappear down your sink every hour this way. A dripping hot tap (faucet) can waste 31 hot tanks of water each year.
• Find out if you have a leaking toilet cistern by putting vegetable dye in the water. If it appears in the toilet bowl without flushing, you know there is a leak, which needs to be fixed straight away.
• Recycle a plastic water bottle by filling it with water and putting it in your toilet cistern. It will fool the cistern into thinking it is full and therefore save on water use.
• Flush your toilet less. One-third of an average family's water use is flushed down the toilet - the equivalent of two baths of water per day. If you are the only one in the house do you really need to flush it every time?
• Investigate water-saving systems - there are various ways of collecting rainwater for use in your toilet and saving greywater from your bath for use in the garden. You will probably need advice from experts on the best system for your needs.
• Make use of the water in your bathroom air by growing humidity-loving plants in your bathroom, such as ferns.
• Turn the tap (faucet) off! Leave it running while you brush your teeth and you could be wasting 4.5 litres (8 pints) of water.
Bath and shower accessories
The look of your bathroom is defined by the accessories - a truly green bathroom will have no plastic in sight and the accessories (and those that are only absolutely necessary) will all be made from natural materials, such as wood.
So resist the urge to use a plastic shower curtain and have a glass screen instead. Don't buy a plastic non-slip bathmat unless you are really unsteady on your feet or have small children, and don't clutter up the place with a lot of unnecessary plastic soap holders, plastic storage boxes and plastic toothbrush holders. If you really do need all of these bits and pieces seek out those made of sustainable materials. Otherwise opt for items made out of stainless steel, which can be recycled and is, incidentally, very fashionable.
Use a flannel (wash cloth) rather than a sponge. Real sponges are taken from the sea disturbing precious natural habitats, whereas artificial sponges are another product of the plastics industry. Cotton flannels (wash cloths), preferably organic and unbleached, can be washed time and again, and used around the house for other cleaning tasks when they are past their best.
Unbleached, organic cotton towels are the most eco-friendly and if you have linoleum flooring you may want to look out for organic cotton bathroom rugs as well. Or make your own bathroom mat by sewing together the best bits of old towels or by gluing leftover cork tiles onto a piece of hardboard.
For scrubbing under your nails, reaching the middle of your back or giving your skin an all-over brushing to help detoxify, choose wooden brushes with natural-fibre bristles. Check that the wood comes from a sustainable source - likewise for toilet brushes. You can also buy wooden duckboard-style slatted mats for stepping onto when you get out of the bath. As always, check the source of the wood before you buy.
Avoid plastic in other areas of your bathroom, too. Don't buy disposable plastic razors - use metal ones with replaceable but durable blades, or an electric shaver. Look out for recycled plastic toothbrushes - now available in the USA made from yogurt pots - and make the effort to recycle your toothbrushes. An old toothbrush makes a great cleaning aid for hard-to-reach areas around your taps, on bicycle chains and under your nails.
And, although it is not strictly an accessory - more of an essential item - when it comes to toilet paper there is no excuse for buying anything other than recycled paper. The quality and softness are now the equal of most other papers.
And now here are some green solutions to a few of those tricky cleaning challenges in the bathroom:
• Limescale on taps (faucets): rub with half a lemon, rinse thoroughly and dry.
• Limescale on tap (faucet) nozzles: tie an old plastic bag filled with white vinegar around the ends of your taps (faucets) until the scale is dissolved, then rinse.
• Blocked shower head: remove the head and soak it in a bowl of warm, neat vinegar. A needle will help clear blocked holes.
• Hard-water deposits in toilet bowl: apply a paste of borax and white vinegar, leave for a few hours, then rinse.
• Hard-water deposits on shower doors: wipe with white vinegar, leave for 30 minutes, then rinse.
• Mildew on shower curtains: prevent mildew by soaking curtains in salted water before hanging, and scrub with a bicarbonate of soda paste and water, then rinse.
• Mould around shower: wash down with borax and do not rinse - the borax residue will fight mould growth.
• Fungus on tile grouting: apply a paste of bicarbonate of soda and water, leave for an hour, then rinse with warm water.
• Bath stains: light stains can be treated by rubbing with cut lemon dipped in salt, darker stains should be removed by applying a paste of borax and lemon juice - leave for an hour, then rinse.
• Drip marks in a bath: rub with warm vinegar, then rinse with warm water. Repeat this daily until they disappear.
If you have a problem with condensation in your bathroom then you will need to consider ventilation. The most eco-friendly way of airing your bathroom is obviously to open the window, but if feeling a draught around your ankles while you stand in the shower does not appeal then you will almost certainly require an extractor fan.
To save energy, it is best to use a wind-operated fan in your window that draws air out of the house using the difference in pressure alone. If you do not have a convenient window then you are likely to need, or already have, an electric extractor fan. Often these come on automatically when you switch on the bathroom light, but to save energy install a second light in the bathroom, say above the mirror, which can be switched on without the extractor fan going on as well. You can use this light when you are just brushing your teeth or putting on your make-up -use the main light (with the extractor) only when you are having a bath or shower.
Finally, you will want to be sure that the bathroom door is well draught-proofed to prevent all your valuable, centrally heated, warm air being drawn out along with the condensation.
Today bodycare means big business. There are products aimed at the moisturizing, cleansing, toning and all-out pampering of almost every part of your body, and men are now just as well catered for as women. But behind the alluring promise of beauty lies the ugly reality of thousands of chemicals polluting the environment, millions of plastic bottles sitting in landfills, and the earth becoming ever more depleted of diminishing resources. So if you want to make a world of difference in one quick and easy step, make sure you buy only what is absolutely necessary and always check that it is as natural as possible. But beware: the term 'natural' is used somewhat loosely in the bodycare world; in many countries very few ingredients need to be natural for this term to be applied to a product.
What you should be looking for are ingredients that are plant based, rather than petroleum based, since these are theoretically sustainable, non-polluting and better for our health. It is also advisable to avoid as many manufactured chemicals as possible, which come in the form of fragrances, preservatives, detergents, chelating agents, thickening agents, colorants, antimicrobials, emulsifiers, and even UV absorbers to stop the chemical dyes in some products from fading in the sunlight (i.e. chemicals to protect chemicals!)
Bodycare products are notorious for their long list of bewildering ingredients, so it can be hard to distinguish which are good or bad among them. If in doubt, choose the product with the least number of ingredients of any kind.
Always choose certified organic bodycare products or products that at least contain organic ingredients Again, beware of the hype here - the term organic' can be freely used on bodycare product labels in many countries without it meaning anything at all. Look for certification of individual ingredients as a guarantee that they were grown organically and check what percentage of the product contains these ingredients. In the future you may also be able to purchase organically certified bodycare products rather than just those that have some organic ingredients - standards are currently being developed in the US, for example.
Finally, try to avoid using as much packaging as possible. Aim to bulk buy, refill and recycle at every opportunity. You will then reduce waste and save yourself some money, too, while you are at it. And make sure that you let those manufacturers that consistently overpackage their products know that this is one of your reasons for no longer buying the product.
• The chemicals in most bodycare products are not just putting an unnecessary strain on the environment; they are also putting our health under pressure. Our skin absorbs around 60 per cent of what is put on it - hence the success of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and nicotine patches - so in a year the average woman is estimated to have absorbed up to 2 kg (4 lb) of chemicals from bodycare products. While there are government bodies assessing the risk from these chemicals, they are usually looked at in isolation or in the formulation used in the product, so the potential risk from the reaction of chemicals from one product with those from another is being overlooked. The net result can range from allergies to cancer.
• The list of risky ingredients is long and instantly forgettable unless you have an aptitude for chemical names; inadequate labeling also makes their detection in a product difficult. So the best approach is to avoid as many synthetic chemicals as possible -you can do this either by making your own products or buying 100 per cent plant-based products that have no added chemicals.