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Go Green or Bust? When to Buy Organic

  • Lisa Shin

    Unpeelable Produce

    Verdict: Go green

    Fruits and veggies that can't be peeled (or where you usually eat the skin) are typically coated with insect repellants — the USDA has found 28 pesticides on conventionally grown potatoes, 39 on strawberries, and 48 on grapes and apples. Unfortunately, the substances that keep bugs off your berries have been linked to cancer, lung disease, birth defects, reproductive problems, and more, so opt organic when purchasing leafy greens, apples, potatoes, and the like; they're grown with nonsynthetic pest controls. (Always be sure to avoid the Dirty Dozen — the most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies.)

    Can't afford organic produce? Try this make-your-own wash, from Jackie Newgent, RD, author of Big Green Cookbook: Mix 1 cup each water and white distilled vinegar, 2 teaspoons each fresh lemon juice and baking soda. (Foaming may occur.) Spray and scrub with a produce brush, then rinse to shower off some pesticide residue.

    You can also try shopping your local farmers' market for hidden organic gems. "Many farmers follow environmentally friendly practices but haven't completed the certification process to be considered officially organic," says Newgent. Just ask Farmer Bill if he uses chemical pesticides — you might snag an undercover eco-friendly deal!

    Get the full list for the Dirty Dozen >>

  • Peter Tak

    Produce with a Thick Peel or Rind

    Verdict: Be mainstream

    The Environmental Working Group, who created the Dirty Dozen list, have also ID'd the Clean 15: the fruits and vegetables least likely to have pesticide residues. When it comes to onions, avocado, asparagus, eggplant, mangoes, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and more, you can feel good about skipping the organic label and saving some dough.

    Get the full list for the Clean 15 >>

  • Kevin Summers/Getty Images

    Animal Products

    Verdict: Go green

    Pick your protein wisely. Organically raised cows, chickens, and pigs are not given antibiotics (which may pave the way to drug-resistance in humans), their feed has not been genetically tweaked, and they may be treated in a more humane way, says Newgent. (Interestingly, chickens and pigs raised in the U.S. are never given hormones, rendering a "hormone-free" label relatively meaningless.) Besides protecting yourself from potential superbugs, you might be sparing your waistline: Organic meat is brimming with Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), thought to promote weight loss and lessen your risk of cancer and heart disease; organic milk may contain higher amounts of health-promoting nutrients like beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids, along with CLA.

  • Comstock


    Verdict: Be mainstream

    If organic meat and chicken are too pricey, Newgent suggests veering toward a plant-based diet; nonorganic beans are way cheap, offering excellent protein and fiber bang for your buck — two things most women don't get enough of. Buy them in a bag and soak them yourself to avoid a toxic chemical called Bisphenol A, or BPA, found in some can linings and linked to everything from cancer to infertility. (Or try beans from Eden Foods and Amy's Kitchen — both brands use BPA-free cans.)

  • Denise Crew


    Verdict: Go green

    Just when you finally devoted yourself to slathering on SPF, new reports are emerging (but have yet to be confirmed) that suggest certain common chemicals in sun block, such as oxybenzone, may cause a slew of health problems of their own, from hormonal disruption to free radical damage in skin. But don't throw in the beach towel just yet: If you're concerned, Kasprowicz recommends buying broad-spectrum sunscreens that rely on physical blockers like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are not absorbed into the skin, rather than conventional sun protection products that contain chemical ingredients that do seep into skin, such as benzones, amino benzoic acid, and cinnamates. Try Kiss My Face Natural Mineral Formula SPF 40 ($16.99; or Coppertone Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 ($8.99;

  • Jack Miskell

    Nail Polish

    Verdict: Be mainstream

    There's a reason you need a surgical mask to breathe in nail salons. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the polish has traditionally contained a "toxic trio" of health-threatening ingredients: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde, and toluene. DBP adds flexibility and sheen, formaldehyde is a nail hardener, and toluene imparts a smooth finish. These same chemicals have also been shown to affect the reproductive and central nervous system; formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. So why are we assuring you it's safe to go mainstream? A number of popular polish manufacturers, including OPI, Orly, and Sally Hansen, have retinkered their products to remove the toxic trio. Your salon doesn't carry those brands? BYOP — Bring Your Own Polish!

  • J. Ryan Roberts

    Shampoo and Body Wash

    Verdict: Go green

    Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate — the ingredients that help you suds up your tresses — can irritate skin and have even been linked with (but not proven to cause) cancer, so pick products with an "SLS-free" label. You'll be protecting the environment clean, too: "The products you use in the shower get rinsed off, going down the drain and into waterways," notes Mike Morgan, Whole Body Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, Midwest region. Buying "clean" products keeps harsh chemicals not only off your skin, but also out of streams and rivers.

    At Whole Foods, any product with the Premium Body Care seal is free of parabens, SLS, fragrance, and preservatives.

    Remember that just having the word "organic" somewhere on the label — or even in the name itself — does not guarantee that a product is entirely organic. Look for the USDA Organic Seal or for the term "70% organic." Cosmetics and personal care products that are between 95% and 100% organic may display the USDA Organic Seal, while those that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may use the term "Made with organic ingredients." Those with less than 70% organic ingredients can list individual organic ingredients.

  • Eye Makeup

    Verdict: Be mainstream

    "Mascara and eyeliner are probably safe places to go conventional," says Lisa Archer, National Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "They're only touching a very small part of your skin and you're not ingesting or inhaling anything." Just steer clear of products containing fragrance or petroleum distillates, solvents that have been linked to cancer.

  • Jack Miskell


    Verdict: DIY green

    Chances are, you've got some pretty stellar natural lotions sitting in your pantry at home. Olive, almond, and other oils can sub for moisturizer — that's what Jessica Cassity, 33, of Portland, does. "I only use coconut oil on my skin," she says. "I'm trying to follow the Ayurvedic (ancient Indian) principle of 'only put on your body ingredients you'd put in your mouth.' I've been amazed at how much better it is at nourishing my skin than lotion, and I feel better using it than designer organic lotions that still have a long list of suspicious-sounding ingredients — it's sort of like eating spinach instead of a processed spinach dip."

  • Image Source

    Countertop Cleaners

    Verdict: Go green

    Besides releasing irritating chemicals like formaldehyde and chlorine into the air where they'll be inhaled, chances are your food will at some point touch these surfaces (a pineapple chunk falls off your fork en route from plate to mouth; you pick it up and eat it), making it worthwhile to be vigilant about ingredients, says Sophie Uliano author of Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life. Look for the green and white USDA Organic Seal or products that use nontoxic ingredients, like Method or Safeway's Bright Green line.

  • Daniel Hurst Photography/Flickr

    Air Fresheners

    Verdict: DIY green

    Traditional air fresheners contain a plethora of toxic chemicals, including neurotoxic phthalates. Uliano says you can skip the pricey eco-friendly air fresheners and candles and rely on pure essential oils: Just add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to an aromatherapy diffuser.

  • Bumper


    Verdict: Be mainstream (just shop smart!)

    Is "Does this shirt make me look earth-friendly?" the new "Do these pants make my butt look big?" When it comes to clothing, an "organic" label means it was made out of cotton or wool that was not sprayed with pesticides or fungicides. "But a good spin through the washing machine will remove most of the residue, so if you're worried about nasty chemicals rubbing onto your skin, you can safely shop conventional and just clean the outfit thoroughly before wearing," Uliano says. That's what Robin Immerman Gruen, 35, of Chicago, does: "When it comes to shopping organic, clothing is one area where I don't freak out too much. I figure if I wash the outfit before I wear it, it shouldn't cause too much trouble. I'm more likely to spend my money on organic fruits where you eat the outside peel, like apples, or with eco-friendly countertop spray to keep my child's high chair clean."

    More concerned about what Mother Earth will be wearing in 10 years? Patronize stores that sell sustainable clothing made from recycled fibers, like Patagonia and American Apparel. "You'll make a powerful impact on the environment without leaving the store feeling cash-strapped," Uliano promises. Still nervous? H&M and Wal-Mart sell affordable organic options.

  • Jamie Grill/Iconica

    Baby Bottles

    Verdict: Go green

    Babies and young children, with their rapidly growing brains and other organs, are more susceptible to the nasty health effects of BPA. Thankfully, most baby bottles, plastic toys, and pacifiers from reputable manufacturers are now BPA-free. Look for the packaging to explicitly say "BPA-free," or for the recycling labels #1, #2, or #4 on the bottom (avoid #7, which may contain BPA).

  • Ryan McVay/Photodisc


    Verdict: Be mainstream

    Considering the average baby plows through 10 diapers a day (that's almost 300 per month!), plenty of environmentally conscious new moms get caught up in the disposable-versus-cloth diaper debate. But the fact is, "cloth diapering is so energy- and water-intensive, it might not be better for the environment," Uliano admits. One option that blends the ease of disposables with the green of reusables: gDiapers, which pair reusable diaper covers with disposable inserts.

  • LWA/The Image Bank

    Baby Skin Products

    Verdict: Go green

    Protect that deliciously soft skin with lotions and shampoos that are free of parabens and phthalates. An easy tip-off: If it has the word "fragrance" on the label, "that's code word for potentially harmful chemicals," Uliano says, so look for natural fragrances. Seventh Generation's Wee Generation products use olive oil to moisturize and essential oils to naturally add fragrance.

  • Uhl Groesbeck/Getty Images

    Baby Food

    Verdict: Go green

    When it comes to first foods, organic produce is safer for infants as pesticides tend to be most concentrated in the skins of fresh fruits and vegetables, says Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, Washington, DC-based dietitian and expectant mom. "Those pesticides may build up in a baby because they usually eat a more limited number of foods and they eat more food for their body size compared to adults." Don't get too freaked about jarred food, though: "Conventional baby food may actually have lower pesticide levels than fresh, even when they're not labeled 'organic,' because they don't have to use pretty-looking fruits and vegetables." Scritchfield notes than from a nutritional standpoint, no large studies have proven that organic produce pack in more nutrients than nonorganic. No time to steam and puree your own fruits and veggies? Try an organic brand like Plum Organics or Earth's Best.