Incorporate these eco-chic designs and habits into your house, and discover a greener, healthier way for your family to live.
You probably already read food labels, stay on top of check-ups, and avoid unhealthy behaviors all in an attempt to give your children the best possible health advantage. You also probably have given a lot of thought to your children’s rooms, picking out a fun theme, organizing the toys, and giving in to one or two slightly over-the-top design choices. If you combine the two areas of focus: health and home design—you’ve come up with the basis for eco-design.
What is Eco-Chic?
Style is nothing without substance—in your home you want your colors to coordinate and your personal style to shine through, but most of all you want the furniture and accessories to serve your family with a good place to sleep, eat, and relax. Most people when decorating only think about these two factors though, and never consider a third—the health factor. “It doesn’t matter what the color of your walls look like. If they are emitting toxic chemicals into the air you breathe the paint can’t be good.” says Bernadette Upton, ASID, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certified Professional, and interior designer in southern Florida. Specializing in what is known as “eco-friendly design,” Upton’s company, Eco Décor, is a resource for all things environmentally and family friendly.
“Eco-friendly design is really a two-fold process,” explains Upton. “First, it is environmentally friendly, meaning that the products are not depleting or harming the environment in the manufacturing or use of the product. Secondly it is user-friendly, because it is also focused on creating a healthy, usable space.” Many of these products are also produced in socially responsible ways, meaning workers are not exploited, child labor is discouraged, and native peoples have not been displaced.
When it comes to decorating it is definitely possible to have it all—you don’t have to sacrifice style for safety and you certainly don’t have to give up functionality by going “green.” Here are ten simple ways to easily go eco.
1. Pleasant Paint
“Be more concerned with the VOC level than the color,” is Upton’s rule of thumb. Look for low-level or no VOCs, like Harmony by Sherwin Williams or EcoSpec by Benjamin Moore. These paints can also work great for creating murals.
Also, “avoid scrubable wallpaper which contains PVC (Polyvinyl chloride),” says Upton. This paper not only off-gases, but also it can trap moisture in the wall and promote mold growth.
2. Clear the Air
No matter how much you try to keep the indoor air quality good, there’s bound to be some pollutants tracked in, so it’s a wise investment to buy a quality air purifier. Upton recommends a freestanding model with a HEPA filter. Many of these models now come in a variety of colors, so they can easily blend into your space.
3. Flawless Floors
“The ideal choice for a baby or child’s room has to be hardwood,” says Upton. Wood floors are easy to clean, fun to play on, and have no off-gassing. Other good alternatives include cork and bamboo flooring. Area rugs help to bring a warm feeling to a room. Tightly woven rugs work well in children’s rooms. Wool is best because it is washable and natural. Avoid synthetics like nylon. “If you must have wall-to-wall carpets, make sure the installers off-gas the materials at an off-site locale,” adds Upton. “And remember to avoid glue or use a no-VOC glue when installing.”
4. Luxurious Linens
“Synthetic and even natural fabrics are doused with phenols and formaldehyde,” says Turner. “Phenols are toxic to everyone, there is no real variance in sensitivity and they have actually been banned from use in certain materials.” So rather than use polyester, nylon, or even standard cotton, try organic wool and organic cotton.
Available in a variety of colors, organic cotton can be used for crib sheets, bed sheets, comforters, towels, and even clothing. “Organic cotton is great because it is so soft and just feels really good against the body. Plus, neither of these materials will off-gas any harmful chemicals,” adds Turner. Bed linens should also have a high thread count, which Upton says will help will cut down on dust and dust mites in bed. She also recommends choosing fabric window treatments rather than plastics such as mini-blinds. “Aside from their cord danger, mini-blinds are made out of PVC, which when heated by the sun has been shown to off-gas,” says Upton.
5. Eco-Friendly Furniture
Wood appears to be the best pick when it comes to eco-friendly design. But, you’re probably thinking, “cutting down a lot of trees doesn’t seem so eco-friendly.” And you’re right to be concerned. It’s important when you are buying wood to know its origin. The Forest Stewardship Council certifies companies using approved lumber. In addition, “avoid using particleboard,” says Upton. “Even on many pieces of furniture the back portion or liner may be made of particleboard. This material off-gasses formaldehyde and other dioxins. If you see it you need to seal it with AFMs ‘Safe Seal,’ a milky, non-toxic sealant that blocks emissions.” Be sure to also avoid particleboard in built-in pieces.
Investing in one or two quality wood pieces for a child’s room can be all that is needed. You can choose a wood that can be safely painted to customize the look or leave it neutral for changeable styles.
Two good choices are available in eco-friendly lighting. First, consider the compact fluorescent—they use less energy than your standard incandescent and they also seem to help prevent eye strain. Next, you may want to give the Ott-Lite a try. Invented by world-famous photobiologist Dr. John Nash Ott, PhD, this light actually produces the full spectrum of natural light, which appears to benefit both plants and animals. Plus it can save you a few dollars every month on your electric bill.
7. Be Done With Dust
It’s not something you want to think about but dust mites are everywhere: on your sheets, curtains, and pillows, even your child’s favorite plush toys. Aside from the creepy factor, those little dust mites can cause big allergy problems. To cut down on the mites in bed you can invest in a tightly woven mattress cover. Vacuum stuffed toys regularly and choose window treatments that are dust repellant.
Remember the old environmental slogan: “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse?” It can certainly apply to decorating. Make out-grown baby clothes into a decorative quilt, reuse a hand-me-down dresser into a stylish new piece with a sander and some paint (in an open space, using safe paint, of course), or get rid of some extra clutter on shelves and tables to minimize dust. Brainstorm which unused pieces meet eco-standards and assign them new functions, get rid of the rest in a responsible manner.
9. Get the Moisture Out
A dehumidifier may not seem like a great style enhancer. But, if you live in an especially humid climate or have a room that tends to stay moist, this might be the most attractive piece of equipment you’ll own. Serious mold problems can occur in rooms with high humidity. Mold has been linked to a variety of health problems, from asthma and allergies to chronic headaches and neurological problems. “By eliminating excess moisture, you eliminate the mold problem,” says Upton. It’s really that simple. If there isn’t a moist environment, mold won’t be able to colonize on you walls and ceiling.
10. Sleep Well, Tonight
Think of how many hours you spend in your car each day . . . maybe two or three? Now, how many hours are you in your bed? Eight for sleeping, maybe another hour or two watching TV and reading? It’s been estimated that you spend a third or more of your life in bed. With that said, just think of the level of exposure to off-gassing from a standard mattress over this length of time. Eco-friendly mattresses made of natural rubber, latex, and cotton offer a clean sleep with the added luxury of being supportive and restful. Also, don’t forget to change your pillows,” adds Turner. “Shredded natural rubber is great because it feels comfortable, is totally safe, but is also machine washable and dries easily.”
Go Beyond Furnishings
Try these tips for introducing environmentally friendly habits into everyday practice:
- Cleaning products: Instead of ammonia, chlorine bleach, and tough grease cutters, try non-chlorine bleach, natural vegetable and fruit-based cleansers, borax acid (for mildew), and non-toxic abrasives.
- Pesticides: Read the warning labels and it’s easy to see why you should avoid using these extremely harsh chemicals, especially those that are sprayed and go right into the air. Try new fruit-based sprays that are safe to use around children and pets.
- Air Fresheners: Spraying artificial fragrances that are just masking odors can add to the problem. Investing in a good HEPA air filter is a better solution.
- Air Conditioners: “Change your air conditioner filters frequently, using high efficiency filters,” suggests Upton.
- Beauty Products: Nail polish and polish remover are the two strongest beauty product problems. Both are made with harsh chemicals and solvents that quickly dissipate into the air. Try to use these only in well-ventilated areas or even outside.
Try a Natural Alternative
“Natural is an overused word,” says Upton. “Look for specific words that hold some meaning behind them, such as certified organic or Forest Council approved. Plastics, vinyl, stain-resistant, wrinkle-proof, and particleboard are all words to be wary of.” Here is an at-a-glimpse guide to healthy alternatives:
- Instead of PVC, try natural wood
- Trade standard house paint for no or low VOC paint
- Invest in metal instead of plastic
- Go for wool instead of nylon
- Pass on particleboard and instead purchase high-quality MDF
- Substitute synthetic foam for natural rubber or latex
- Buy organic cotton instead of polyester