Washing in the wilderness

Summer is finally here! Where I live, that means cottages, lakes and paddling and, for some, summer camp.

So, what should we be packing for the great summer getaway? And how to keep clean without damaging the environment?

I suspect that the first thing people think about - including those who write camp supply lists - is biodegradability.

All soap – in its pure form – is biodegradable, since it is essentially a detergent (something that grabs onto dirt and loosens it from a surface) that is made from natural sources (traditionally animal fat - now often vegetable fat - and lye, a strong alkali). However, the things that are added to soap, such as fragrance, dye, sudsing agents, etc. may well not be biodegradable. Furthermore, what you think of as liquid soap may in fact be a detergent made from petrochemicals. So biodegradability - or purity in the case of soap - is desirable.

However, biodegradability is not the panacea you might think. A biodegradable product is one that can be broken down by living organisms (usually bacteria). For the process to take place, the product has to come in contact with the bacteria. For soaps, detergents, shampoos, etc. that means they have to meet the soil where the bacteria live…soap will not biodegrade if it remains in water. This is why even biodegradable soaps should be used at least 200 ft away from water sources, to prevent pollution, and why used suds should be buried 6-8 inches deep in soil. This is something that is often overlooked by campers, however environmentally aware.

Another concern is that some biodegradable products contain sudsing agents, etc., that are known skin irritants (such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate) and that we might otherwise choose to avoid. Since ingredient labelling is not compulsory it is hard to make a call on this. My advice is that if companies do not disclose product ingredients, you might want to avoid them.

In fragile, natural environments, for those few fleeting months of summer, why not err on the side of caution and choose products that are as natural as possible? You might not get the lather you expect from your regular products, but maybe you can live without this for short while.

Here are some liquid soap and shampoo suggestions from the Environmental Working Group
small olivier
. I am just about to pick up products from Olivier Soaps, a New Brunswick company which scores a zero (best) on shampoo and soap and which sells both on-line and at a variety of bricks and mortar stores (including at a franchise store in Old Chelsea, Quebec).

Two final pieces of information.

First, a quick note on phosphates and lakes (which are a bad mix). Canada banned phosphates from laundry detergent in the 1970s and in 2010 both Canada and 16 US states banned phosphates in dishwasher detergents. So many of us do not have to worry about that problem any more. (Interestingly, this is an area in which the EU lags North America: it is only this year that the EU banned phosphates in laundry detergents and its ban for dishwasher products will not come into effect before 2015.)

Second a plea NEVER to purchase products containing the anti-microbial agent Triclosan (that means no anti-bacterial soaps, sponges, toothbrushes, baby toys, etc.). Triclosan - which is in up to three quarters of liquid soaps and nearly a third of bar soaps - has numerous harmful effects, including increasing antibiotic resistance, producing highly toxic dioxins and destroying aquatic ecosystems, due to its effects on algae. A very bad choice for the home and an even worse one for the cottage.

Last, but not least, think wash cloth and water when in the wilderness. We do not always need soap to keep clean.

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