Do I Really Want to Put Olive Oil in My Hair?: Evaluating Green Alternatives to Common Household Products in Middle School Science Class
Posted: October 1, 2010
Everyone agrees that too many toxic chemicals are out there in the environment, and that we have to do something about them. To meet this challenge, one tactic that environmental groups often use is to recommend that people use non-toxic alternatives to common household products. The thinking is that we won’t contaminate the environment with toxic chemicals if we don’t use them in the first place. Spill some tomato juice on the table cloth? Put down that bleach cleanser and use some vinegar and elbow grease instead! The coffee table needs polishing? Take care of it with a little lemon juice or olive oil! And who knows what’s in that shampoo you insist on using? No need when you can wash your golden locks with castile soap mixed with almond oil!
These and many other suggestions may be found on an array of lists prepared by environmental groups ranging from Greenpeace to the Environmental Protection Agency. You will discover many of the same ideas on multiple lists, many of them easily available via the internet.
Upon close inspection, however, some of these seem to be a bit suspect. Does sesame oil really condition your hair to be prom-night ready? Does olive oil and cider vinegar really work as a suntan lotion? Do you really want to polish your nails with henna? Or wash your hair with it? The more you peruse these lists, the more you wonder if the compilers have, in fact, actually tried the items they are espousing. You begin to think that the compilers might have simply taken the same ideas from the same lists and published them without putting them to the test first.
If this is the case, then these lists might have the effect opposite to that which has been intended. If people try some of these suggestions and they turn out to be failures or even disasters, then they will likely lose faith in the entire idea of using non-toxic alternatives, and effective alternatives will remain untried.
Happily, we found this situation to be a boon to our 6th grade physical science class. It turned out to offer an enjoyable, meaningful, and even funny opportunity for our kids to learn how to carry out scientific experiments. In brief, we asked our students to design and carry out experiments that test the effectiveness of the alternatives offered by lists that we have collected, and we then publish our results so that the environmentally-conscious public can benefit from our research.
To begin the project, we first collected some lists of non-toxic recommendations. We have copies produced by Greenpeace, the EPA, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Garbage magazine, and the Washington D.C. municipal government, among other sources. Googling the topic will reveal many more. Next, we asked the kids to form teams, select an alternative, and design and carry out an experiment (preferably controlled) that would reveal just how effective the alternatives really are. The kids then went to work.
Most of the data collected was in the form of surveys of kid preferences. Kids testing a copper polish, for example, would polish one section of a copper pot with a commercial brand, one with the recommended alternative, and leave the third section untreated. They would then bring the pot to class and ask the kids which section they thought looked better. Kids would bring in laundry featuring a wide range of stains, dirty tiles, carpet squares, and window panes, all cleaned with both toxic and non-toxic products. They would try out home-made air fresheners on each other. Most comically of all, they would bring themselves in, serving as exhibits for toxic and alternative personal care products. Girls would appear, for example, with one half of their head conditioned with Clairol and the other half treated with olive oil. Let’s just say the difference between the two was obvious. Some boys, meanwhile, enjoyed trying out their home-made non-toxic deodorant alternatives, most frequently after gym class.
Once the results were in, we produced a pamphlet entitled “A Tried and True Guide to Household Alternatives”. The pamphlet was essentially a chart with icons symbolizing each product’s effectiveness, cost, and convenience. A smiley-face icon was the highest ranking; the worst products were indicated by a bomb icon with a lit fuse. Each product rating also included a brief comment written by the kids. We printed the pamphlets up and the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Parks and Recreation distributed them in their nature centers. These days (we no longer teach 6th grade physical science), we would have tried to post our results on a web site, perhaps the school’s or perhaps the site of an outside cooperating organization.
We really enjoyed this activity. It effectively taught the students how to conduct a controlled experiment and provided much classroom amusement. Best of all, the kids had the rare opportunity to see their schoolwork actually produce something that was useful and interesting to the community and that contributed in some small way to encouraging wise environmental stewardship.