One of the things I’ve had to learn how to do over the past few years is read ingredients labels, and I started with packaged food. For people with sensitive systems (like me) it’s important to monitor what we consume. I’ve also had to accept that the things I put onto my body, like lotion, makeup and soaps, are being at least partially absorbed into it. So I’ve started reading those labels as well.

When I’ve mentioned my label-reading attempts to other people, I usually get a deer in the headlights look with a response like, “I don’t want to know that.” It was intimidating to me at first, too, and produced more than one grocery store freakout. Learning what went into my food and other products turned into giving up some of my favorite things when I found out exactly how much junk is in them! But despite the frustration, I don’t think sticking our heads in the sand is the best answer. When the public talks, companies listen. Starbucks has taken high fructose corn syrup out of their baked goods. McDonald’s no longer fries their french fries in trans fat. Chick-Fil-A has recently announced that over the next five years they’ll be changing to antibiotic free chicken. Basically, being informed doesn’t mean you have to start homesteading. (Although I won’t stop you if you want to go that far!) It does mean you can make educated decisions and put pressure on companies through your dollar vote.

So, okay, you decide to take the plunge. You’re going to READ THE LABELS. You’ve heard the phrase, “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t use it,” and with this as your guide you pick up your favorite soap at the grocery store, take a deep breath, and check the list. Holy crap! This Whole Paycheck, GMO-free organic soap has Tocopherol! And sodium cocoate! And glycerin!! Hell. You put it back and check the next one. Sodium palmitate, sodium chloride and stearic acid. The next one contains panthenol and citric acid. Clearly you need to dig up sand from the nearest beach and scrub yourself raw if you want a natural solution.

At least this is what happened to me. But eventually I learned that the adage about ingredients needing to be pronounceable isn’t perfect for food, and it doesn’t work at all for cosmetics. Why? Cosmetic labeling uses scientific instead of common names. Tocopherol may sound like chemical doom, and I think I put down several products over it when I first started out. Turns out it’s a fancy way of saying, “Vitamin E.”

The other problem with the pronunciation rule of thumb is that not all man-made chemicals are bad for us. Soap is created from a chemical reaction (that I now perform in my backyard), and I happily slather myself in the result. But soap is a chemical that man has been using for thousands of years. That’s some serious tried-and-true testing! I worry that the FDA approves things without rigorous enough testing of long-term effects, as attested by this list of food additives that were once approved and now banned, this list of food colorants with their changing FDA statuses, and this article on cosmetic ingredients we use in the US that are banned in other countries.

Facing the harsh reality of the world we live in can send me into panicked overwhelm, but I try to remember that the human body is an amazing thing that can handle a whole lot of crap. It’s not possible to avoid every single iffy chemical thrown our way, but that’s okay. We don’t have to be perfect because our bodies are designed to sort out the good from the bad. But if I combine an on-the-go diet filled with packaged (i.e. preservative-filled) food with unchecked topical chemicals from deodorant to toothpaste to makeup to lotion, then walk out into a city filled with car smoke…I’m slamming my body with a mess while probably not feeding it the nutrients it needs to sufficiently clean up after me. For me it’s not about perfection but about acknowledging that I need to take care of my body so that it can take care of me! Making just a few changes can make a big difference! And label reading is an important skill to help make those changes.

Since I’ve been spending so much time lately sorting out what means what, I thought other people might be interested in decoding tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. This list will have to be a multi-post event, but I figured I’d start with one I’ve been focusing on in my backyard: soap. Stayed tuned next time for detergents vs. soaps and common ingredients in things that make us clean. Do you have anything particular you’d like me to interpret in this post series?