Tips for a Less-Toxic Holiday Season

The Slightly Greener Life Podcast | Episode 28

December 6, 2023

In this week’s podcast episode, we dove into a few ways to have a less-toxic holiday season. This is my favorite time of year and I LOVE to decorate, so let me be the first to tell you that I don’t have completely toxin-free decorations (or a toxin-free home for that matter!).

Instead, I’ll give you steps you can take to lessen your exposure to toxic chemicals that we’re commonly exposed to through holiday decorations, scenting the air, and in our sweets, but just choose the steps that make sense for you and your family. I think the most important thing is to enjoy the extra time with family and friends and making a cozy home with all the things you love. I just want to give you options!

Toxic Chemicals in Holiday Decorations

When it comes to decorations, the Healthy Stuff Lab tested 69 seasonal holiday nontoxic Christmas treesproducts purchased in November 2014 from major retailers. More than two-thirds of the products contained at least one hazardous chemical at levels of concern, including heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and antimony. 

No, thank you!

And then there were concerns such as PVC (which is typically contaminated with lead, cadmium, and phthalates), and most artificial Christmas trees, garlands, and wreaths are made with PVC; so are Christmas light strings.

Artificial trees also commonly contain flame retardants, which are toxic and many act as hormone disruptors.

However, researchers have said risks are most likely minimal.

Lessening Exposure to Toxic Chemicals when Decorating

But I’m not here to tell you not to put up your favorite decorations – instead, I’m going to help you put them up safely. Because who wants to be told they can’t use their holiday decorations? Not me! I love decorating for the holidays, and I go all out.

But I’ve learned a safer way to put up my favorite (and sometimes toxic) decorations. After all, we’re slightly greener, right?

If you already have your decorations up, no problem! I’m sure a lot of us already do (I think mine have been up since like November 10th).  But if you’re still putting them up or are still looking for decorations here are some tips you can follow. And if you’re completely done, just use these tips when taking the decorations down.

Tips for Reducing Exposure to Toxic Chemicals when Putting Up and Taking Down Decorations

  1. Open Windows

Have windows open for a little bit while you’re decorating, if you can. I live in the midwest, so my window-opening times are limited, but I still open a couple of them for a few minutes at a time while I’m getting my decorations out and getting my tree up. This helps move fresh air in and to help get rid of some pollutants in the air.

If you have a new artificial tree, place it in a garage or outside if you can and let it off-gas for a few days before putting it up. Just make sure it’s sitting somewhere you don’t spend much time. Less toxic Christmas decorations

2. Wear a Mask

If you or someone in your family has allergies, wearing a mask can help lessen the amount of dust inhaled.

3. Wash Hands Frequently or Wear Gloves

Glittery ornaments, holiday light wires, and Christmas trees and garland can contain harmful chemicals, so if you can’t wear gloves, wash hands often, especially before eating. Make sure these gloves are dedicated to putting up decorations, and take them off as soon as you’re done so those toxic chemicals don’t get spread around!

4. Supervise Children

I know this is a tough one! Kids can ingest lead from the decorations, or be exposed to toxins such as phthalates, which can disrupt hormones. If they love to decorate, try to keep them away from the wires on the lights, and glittery ornaments, or at the very least, have them wear gloves. 

5. Vacuum Often

Dust, glitter, and chemicals like PVC from light cords and Christmas trees and garlands fall on the floor, so be sure to vacuum after decorating, and often after that to lessen toxic exposure. 

6. Use an Air Purifier

Another way to filter out toxins in the air is to use an air purifyer to remove contaminants. This is a more expensive way to do it, but it’s well worth the cost in my opinion because they can filter out so many contaminants.

There are a lot of great options out there, but the one we use is Air Doctor (not an affiliate link or sponsored link – just recommending it because it’s what we use, after a lot of research). AirDoctor’s UltraHEPA® filters capture ultra-fine contaminants like dust, pollen, mold spores, smoke, pet hair and dander, bacteria and viruses, and their Carbon Filter removes dangerous ozone, gases, odors and VOCs, such as formaldehyde.

I have one on every level of our house, including the basement. They also have an air quality sensor to assess the air quality in the room and immediately adjust to the correct level of filtration, making it kick on higher when it senses things like hair spray, bonfire smoke, or my cooking 🥴.

Replacing Your Artificial Tree with a Less-Toxic Version

When it comes time to replace your tree, real trees are not always the best non-toxic option (they might be sprayed with pesticides), but in some cases it might be a better bet. But it’s not always easy to get one and get it home. So if you are in the market for a new artificial tree, look for one of the the less-toxic options made from Polypropylene (PP) or Polyethylene (PE). However, these trees might also containn flame retardant chemicals. 

Ikea makes trees that are made out of PP and PE, but I’m not sure if they contain flame retardant chemicals, but they are a safer option. 

Less-Toxic Holiday Lights That are RoHS Certified

When it comes to string lights, it’s next to impossible to find s truly lead-free version, but one label you can look for is RoHS, which means that the amount of lead must be under 1,000 ppm (.1%).

Total Outdoor Lighting, Holiday LEDS, and Reinders all have RoHS compliant lights available, but HolidayLEDS is the only one with all the lights being compliant. Check the individual lights carefly from Total Outdoor Lighting and Reinders.

I don’t believe that there’s a perfect non-toxic tree or holiday decoration, so follow the steps above for washing your hands frequently and/or wearing gloves, touching the tree as little as possible once it’s up (this includes kids touching the tree) and vacuuming often, and enjoy your decorations!

Natural Ways to Scent the Air for the Holidays

Another thing you can do to have a less-toxic holiday season is to safely scent indoor air. If you’re like me and LOVE your candles, especially during the holiday season, there are some fun options you can use, as well as some safer candle options that use essential oils for scent instead of fragrance, because remember, fragrance is considered to be a trade secret, and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals, most of which are toxic.

Less-Toxic Candles

Candles are a popular way to scent the air, and I love mine during the holiday season! But there are toxic chemicals released while burning when using a traditional candle. Many candles use paraffin wax, which can release toxic fumes. Three especially toxic chemicals released when burning are  Benzene, which is cancer-causing, styrene, which has been moved up from the “possibly cancer-causing” category to being a “probable cancer-causer” toluene – and all three can negatively affect the nervous, respiratory, and circulatory systems. And artificial scents can be irritating to some people and/or can trigger allergic reactions.

I recommend looking for 100% coconut or beeswax-based candles, especially ones that have lead-free 100% cotton wicks. Or you can also look for wooden wicks that are not coated and that are FSC-certified.

Some brands I like are Pure Plant Home, Fontana Candles, and The Safe Scents Shop

Flameless Candles

If it’s the ambience of a candle you’re after and not necessarily the scent, then battery-powered flameless candles are a great option – and one of my nontoxic Christmas decorationsfavorites! Luminara has pillar, tapers, votives, and tealights, and their holiday collection is so cute! They have gnomes, trees, candy cane-striped, and spheres that would look great just about anywhere. Homememory is another brand, and they have Indoor and outdoor pillar, taper, votive, and tea light candles that also come with remotes. I’ll add these to my website also.

Orange Cinnamon Simmer to Naturally Scent the Air

Or…you can try this easy DIY recipe that’s sure to be a talking point at your holiday gathering! You can do this in a small pot or small crockpot (I have the TRU stainless steel .65 qt size)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A small crockpot (I use the TRU stainless steel .65 qt size)
  • 3-4 Cinnamon Sticks
  • 1/2 an orange, sliced
  • Whole cloves
  • Cranberries (optional) – These don’t really add to the smell but they look pretty!
  • Star of Anise (optional, but looks great as a topper)

Add water 3/4 of the way to the top of the pot or crockpot, then combine all ingredients, and sprinkle cloves, cranberries, and Star of Anise depending on the size of the crockpot.

For even more scent for special occasions, I’ll add apple cider instead of water. A small amount of fresh ginger can also be added for extra scent – there are so many fun combos you can make!

Let the crockpot simmer on Low or Warm, and let the light scent fill your kitchen!

Safer Sweets 

Holiday sweets are the best, but can contain some ingredients that aren’t so great. In addition to sugar, many contain artificial colors, like Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 which are linked to hyperactivity in children, and cancer. Avoid these artificial colors by avoiding ingredients such as Red 40 and Yellow 5 – anything that has a color followed by a number.

It’s easy to make the switch! Avoid artificial colors by Look for candy that is naturally colored – look for things like turmeric, beets, carrots, spirulina, or blackcurrant on the label – it will usually say “added for color.”

I also recommend looking for ingredients like organic cane syrup. But listen to these ingredients from a popular, traditional candy cane brand compared to Yum Earth’s naturally colored candy canes:

The traditional candy cane ingredients are: Sugar, corn syrup, natural flavor, color added (includes Red 40).

Yum Earth’s candy canes are organic cane sugar, organic brown rice syrup, natural peppermint flavor, colored with organic fruit and vegetable concentrate (radish. apple, blackcurrant). Doesn’t that sound much better? But even though it says organic, doesn’t mean candy that contains it is healthy! Candy is still candy and is chock full of sugar. 

Brands such as Yum Earth, Surf Sweets, and Black Forest USA are great naturally colored frostingoptions for candy. If you’re baking, Supernatural Kitchen has plant-based colorings for sprinkles and food colorings to be used for all your cookies and baking needs.

Don’t Stress about It

Those were a few ways to have a less-toxic holiday! Don’t feel bad if you can’t follow every tip on this list! I just like to give you options, and you can chose what is doable for you and your family. Start out with just a couple of these tips and work your way up from there when you can.

My holidays are not completely non-toxic, and I’m ok with that. I do a lot in other ways so I don’t have to worry as much, but it has taken me awhile to get here. Again, it’s not about perfection or replacing everything all at once. I prefer to ease into it and enjoy this extra time with my family, and to enjoy the decorations around my house and not stress too much about it!

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