Dirty Secrets of Getting Clean


11009563865?profile=RESIZE_710xWashing your hair and body can be a quick and functional endeavor or a luxurious, spa-like experience. To make sure bathing is as sustainable as possible, consider how you bathe, how long you bathe, how much water you use, how much energy you use to heat your water, and the products you use to get clean. While greener options may require some expense up front, they pay dividends on your future water and water-heating energy costs, and they help the planet. 

Compare Showers and Baths

Let’s discuss the age-old question, “Which uses more water, a shower or a bath?” A standard bathtub holds 42 gallons of water and most people use 30 gallons of water for a bath. For showers, a standard showerhead flows at a rate of about 2.5 gallons per minute, which amounts to 25 gallons for a 10-minute shower, while a low-flow showerhead flows at a rate of about 2.0 gallons per minute, which amounts to 20 gallons of water for a 10-minute shower. In other words, if you don’t use a low-flow showerhead, you’re wasting 5 gallons of water. What’s the bottom line? According to the EPA, a shower that is 10 minutes or less is more eco-friendly than a bath. If you need any more encouragement, Europeans regularly practice what we think of as the “Navy shower” method -- a quick shower in which you turn on the shower to get wet, then turn it off while lathering up, and then turn it back on to rinse off. Mais oui! Those of the more Spartan persuasion can do a daily wash of just “pits, privates, and piggy-toes.” Even if you don’t practice these methods, at least consider skipping a long and indulgent daily session for a once-in a-while treat and try to keep showers mostly short and functional.

Install low-flow showerheads and faucets

The length of your shower isn’t the only issue. If your showerhead is like the high-pressure gusher featured on Seinfeld's "The Shower Head" episode, you’ll be wasting water even with a five-minute shower. Look for WaterSense labeled low-flow showerheads. By installing one, the average family will save 2,900 gallons of water per year, decrease the strain on water heaters, and save enough electricity to power a house for 13 days. Nationally that’s a savings of more than $2.2 billion in water utility bills, more than 260 billion gallons of water, and $2.6 billion in energy costs for heating water.

11009563498?profile=RESIZE_400xThere are two types of "low-flow" showerheads available. Aerating showerheads mix air into the water stream, which maintains steady pressure and creates a softer, bubbly shower, the more popular choice. (One downside is the water cools down a bit as it sprays towards the bottom of the shower floor.) Non-aerating showerheads work by restricting the water flow and squeezing it through very small holes, producing a harder, massaging water spray. Most modern faucets are threaded to accept aerators. According to EarthEasy.com, low-flow showerheads and faucets cost between $8 and $50, depending on dials and design features, but the conservation of water and energy will pay for their cost within a few months.

Reduce Water Temperature and Frequency

If you like a really piping hot bath or shower, you are probably running your water for a few extra minutes, which wastes water and takes up energy. This process of waiting for the water to heat up has been dubbed “behavioral waste.” It’s no secret that many people keep a bucket in the shower when warming up water and use that saved water for other tasks like watering plants.

The optimal temperature setting for your water heater is 120 degrees F.  Keeping it hotter only wastes energy. Some water heaters may come from the factory with a higher setting or have been changed by a previous owner to a higher setting.  In this case, lower the temperature to 120 to save energy and lower utility bills, however, don't go lower than 120 or you'll run the risk of enabling bacteria to thrive. In fact, dishwashers typically have a built-in water heater to boost the water temperature to prevent the growth of Legionella bacteria. The average bath temperature only needs to be between 90 and 105 degrees. Keeping your water heater set to 120 degrees is also safer for preventing scalding baths, especially with small children.

Healthwise, dermatologists suggest limiting bath soaks to no more than 15 minutes to avoid stripping the skin of its natural oils, which can lead to inflammation and irritation. Super hot showers also rinse off protective oils and prevent keeping moisture in, thereby parching rather than hydrating your skin. Washing your body and hair daily isn't always necessary unless you get really sweaty or have super oily hair. Also, try to bundle showers sequentially with your partner, roommate, or family members so energy isn’t wasted warming up the water each time. As we’ve suggested before, shower with a friend!

Switch From "Dirty" Energy to Heat Your Water  

If you use a natural gas water heater, consider switching to a heat pump water heater, which runs on electricity.  Natural gas is mostly methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.  As of 2021, PG&E electricity was 50% renewable, thus a much cleaner choice than gas.  And MCE offers 100% renewable power, delivered by PG&E, for about the same cost as PG&E power.  For more on switching to heat pump water heaters along with incentives for making it more affordable, visit www.bayren.org and www.switchison.org

Reconsider Toiletry Containers

Some plastic bottles from shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, etc. can be recycled, but plastic can only be recycled once or twice at best before it is permanently disposed. Keep in mind that in 2018 China announced it would no longer accept low-grade plastics for recycling. In fact, over 60% of plastic becomes trash and ends up in landfills or scattered throughout the environment. Some unrecycled plastic is incinerated, which releases harmful chemicals and toxins. Companies like Hairstory.com have refill subscription programs in which customers receive foil and plastic-free refill pouches of shampoo and other products to pour inside permanent containers made of aluminum. According to the International Aluminum Institute almost 75% of the 1.5 billion tons of aluminum ever produced is still in circulation today. Ethicalunicorn.com is chockful of more great tips and has an excellent "Guide To Sustainable Hair Care Brands." 

What About Shampoo Bars?

An innovative product you may have heard about is the shampoo bar, which resembles a solid bar of soap. Traditional liquid products are 70 - 90% water, so solid alternatives are helpful in more ways than one. Shampoo bars from top-rated companies like Ethique are a great alternative to single-use plastic packaging and often make the following claims: there are no health risks associated with their use, they are sustainably produced and biodegradable, use compostable packaging, are plant-based and cruelty-free, and don’t contain palm oil or palm oil derivatives. Shampoo bars last longer than shampoo bottles; a 3.8-ounce shampoo bar is supposedly equivalent to three 12 oz. bottles of shampoo (between 80-100 washes). Since many shampoo bars contain no parabens, sulfates, phthalates, silicone, or synthetic fragrances, they are less drying to your hair than many liquid shampoo formulas. But be sure to read or research ingredients even on shampoo bars because they can be guilty of “green washing” as well.

Choose Less Toxic Ingredients

Okay, so you’ve shortened your showers and lowered the heat; what are you rinsing down the drain? Whether you’re into standard shampoo or shampoo bars, keep an eye out for potentially harmful ingredients. Bubble-bath and other bath products that contain a lot of chemicals affect healthy pH levels and result in skin irritations or even UTIs. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database, 86% of 2,388 shampoo products assessed contained ingredients deemed moderately to highly hazardous.   Sodium hydroxide, for example, is a corrosive base that reacts well with fats, oils, and lipids to create a foamy lather but strips your scalp of its natural oil barrier. Shampoo and soap residues also enter our water systems and can upset delicate freshwater ecosystems, which harms aquatic life. One ingredient you often see on toiletry labels is sodium laureth sulfate. SLS and other ingredients ending in "-eth" are synthetically produced using carcinogenic ethylene oxide. 

It’s a good idea to make a habit out of checking ingredient lists on products before buying anything so you can steer clear of some common red flag ingredients. One harmful ingredient that is ubiquitous in both toiletries and food items is palm oil. Palm oil is harvested by razing natural forests to make room for palm oil plantations. This destroys ecosystems for the wildlife that lives there (especially orangutans), increases greenhouse gas levels due to the lack of old-growth trees that would normally suck up the carbon, and fosters unfair labor practices for plantation employees. Unfortunately, many products contain derivatives of palm oil that are under different names and are often found in a myriad of consumer ingredients, including sulfates. Check out this article to familiarize yourself with these ingredients.

A Word On Leaks

A faucet that drips just six times per hour wastes 317 gallons per year. Get leaks repaired and you’ll save money on your water bill too. Visit  East Bay Municipal Utility District and Contra Costa Water District for tips on leaks. (You can even get a free CCWD house call to identify water saving actions at your residence.) These innocuous seeming actions really add up!

With just a few simple adjustments to your bathing habits, equipment, and products, you can still enjoy your bathing or showering ritual but feel good about getting “green clean”!

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  • I love it! Green Clean. I'll be researching shampoo bars soon.
    • Thank you,Jim! I’d love to know what you think about shampoo bars after you try them!
  • Great info and tips!
    • Thanks so much, Liza!
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