Ways to go organic

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 November 2011 © The Nut Graph

Organic pumpkins (© Richard Smith | Flickr)

WE are what we eat. But how often do we think about where our food comes from and how is it processed?

I started taking an interest in organic food due to health and ethical concerns. It is encouraging to observe growing consumer interest in organic products and the mushrooming of retail outlets such as Country Farm Organics, Justlife Shop and Little Green Planet.

But while organic food is increasingly accessible to the public, it is still not necessarily affordable for all. On top of that, I’m often put off by blatant claims like “100% Natural” made by certain farmers or manufacturers.

How do we know if the food is truly organic and what are some of the certification schemes we can rely on? Is it possible for consumers to go organic with a limited budget?

Organic certifications

A common misconception surrounding organic farming is that it merely involves agriculture without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

In reality, it is more complex than that and involves sustainable agricultural practices that should minimise soil erosion, protect water quality and wildlife as well as safeguard workers’ rights.

Well-known foreign organic certifications include, among others:

  • Australia’s National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA),
  • Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS),
  • the US’s National Organic Program (NOP),
  • Sweden’s KRAV; and
  • Netherland’s Skal.

L-r: NASAA logo (source: nasaa.com.au); JAS logo (source: maff.gov.jp/jas); USDA logo, KRAV logo and Skal logo (source: skal.nl)

Skim Organik Malaysia (source: doa.gov.my)

While previously it was free-for-all in Malaysia, since 2011 only products certified under the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Ministry’s Skim Organik Malaysia(SOM) can be labelled as “organic”.

Those who claim their products to be “organic” without SOM certification can be fined up to RM5,000 for breaching Food Regulations 1985. However, consumers should still be wary.

“Discerning consumers should be careful and ask for certification,” said Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (Cetdem) chairperson Gurmit Singh in an email interview.

Gurmit Singh (file pic)

The veteran environmentalist also advises the public to read product labels and encourages them to visit organic farms and even grow their own produce.

Cetdem operates an organic farming community centre and regularly organises Organic Day in the Klang Valley, which allows consumers to meet organic farmers, producers and retailers. It also published a local organic guide book in 2009.

Shopping organic on a limited budget

“As a beginner, you can stretch your dollar by buying local fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking at home,” said Justlife Shop chief executive officer Callie Tai.

Eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, is still better than consuming processed foods and other less healthy alternatives, according to the US-based Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce.

Organic pineapples (© Noah Markus | Flickr)

The 2011 guide shows fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues and are therefore the most important to buy organic. The top three are apples, celery and strawberries.

Alternatively, consumers can switch to the least contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables like sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus and mangos, as ranked by the US-EWG list. However, agricultural practices can differ from country to country and even from farm to farm, and consumers would do well to be aware of alleged claims by their local watchdogs about excessive pesticide use or other chemicals used to accelerate the ripening of fruits.

Next, Tai recommends switching the essentials such as cooking oil, rice, salt, sweeteners and condiments in your kitchen.

“These essentials may seem more expensive compared to conventional products but you don’t use a lot of it each time and you will stop feeding your body synthetic chemicals that can’t be metabolised,” added the social entrepreneur.

Eco-enzyme, for household cleaning (© Lainie Yeoh)

Subsequently, start switching your conventional synthetic chemical-based household cleaning products to eco-friendly ones such as baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and eco-enzymes.

Tai pointed out that it would be more economical to go organic in the long run as one would end up saving on medical bills by having a stronger immune system and healthier body.

Changing conventional habits

“There is plenty of information about organic living in books and on the Internet. What is difficult is to inspire people to start reading and practising it,” said Tai.

Indeed, for people like me who have grown used to the convenience of fast food and processed food, it is difficult to switch to organic. In addition, I grew up in a quick-fix society that is often motivated by short-term, not long-term benefits.

But I do strongly believe in the core principles of organic agriculture, and that as intelligent beings, surely humans are capable of producing and consuming food without adversely affecting our own health and ecosystems.

By identifying real organic food via recognised organic certifications and by budgeting carefully to start shopping organic step by step, it is possible to lead a more sustainable way of life and leave a lighter footprint on Earth.

Gan Pei Ling plans to become an organic farmer one day so that she can produce healthy food for her family, friends and local community.

Development? Really? For whom?

by Gan Pei Ling / 17 October 2011 © The Nut Graph

MOST of us living in Peninsular Malaysia take electricity for granted as we have hardly experienced a blackout since the 1990s. But how many of us have stopped for a moment to think where the electricity, that allows us to turn on our TVs and computers, comes from?

What are the impacts of the power plants that generate our electricity — be they coal, hydropower and perhaps in the future, nuclear — on the environment and local communities living near these plants?

Coal plant and fishes


At a climate and energy forum in Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 Oct 2011, Peninsular Inshore Fishermen Action Network president Jamaluddin Mohamad, from Johor, talked about the impact of the Tanjung Bin coal plant.

“They are using chlorine to prevent sea water from corroding the pipes in their power plant. But it is polluting the ocean, and the water that they use to cool the plant is being released back to the sea in high temperature. Our catch has been dwindling over the years,” Jamaluddin told the forum that was jointly organised by Third World Network, Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

Run by independent power producer Malakoff Corp Bhd, the 2,100MW Tanjung Bin coal plant was built in 2003. The power producer intends to expand the plant’s capacity by another 1,000MW.

Jamaluddin noted that Tanjung Bin was rapidly developing into an industrial area: “The areas where we can fish are shrinking and becoming increasingly limited.”

He said none of the affected communities are against “development” but the coal plant and rapid industrial development are threatening their livelihoods: “That’s why we’re protesting against the coal plant’s expansion.”

Dams and livelihoods

Across the South China Sea, natives in Sarawak have been displaced by the Bakun dam and more will be displaced by 12 dams the state government is planning to build to boost its power capacity to 7,000MW, over 600% of its 2008 capacity.

Philip Jau

Philip Jau, a Kayan from the Baram valley, said 20,000 people from various communities will be displaced by the Baram dam the Sarawak government intends to build. “This does not include those who are living downstream yet. Up to 38,900 hectares of our native customary land will be submerged. Our land is our life. We cannot live without it. It is as simple as that,” said Philip.

The Baram dam will also cause deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Philip said the communities affected by these dams are establishing a network to create a united movement against what he described as the “damned” dams. “We want electricity but we hope the government will explore other alternatives like micro-hydro, which is more environmentally-friendly, though it may not generate as much profit as building a mega dam,” he said.

Philip said he has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the affected communities from Bakun were relocated to. “They’re suffering. Most of the villagers feel that they have no future,” said Philip. The communities in Baram do not want to suffer the same fate with good reason.

Of broken promises

The Bakun dam flooded 69,000 hectares of land, around the size of Singapore, and forced the relocation of 10,000 people. Construction began in 1996 and the project eventually cost RM7.5bil.

Wing Mikiu

Wing Mikiu from the Sungai Asap settlement told the forum the Sarawak government only allocated three acres of land to each family that were relocated from Bakun in 1999. “My family has eight children. Three acres of land is not enough for us. We’ve 2,000 new couples in our settlement to date and most of them have no land [to cultivate],” said Wing.

He said the government promised to build the villagers a new town with an airport, jetty, highway and even an international school in the effort to persuade villagers to leave their ancestral homes. But today, many youths have moved to Bintulu or other towns due to the lack of job opportunities in Sungai Asap.

To add insult to injury, Wing said the compensation villagers received for their now submerged native customary lands range from RM0.30 to RM3 million. “If you’re unhappy with the amount, you can bring it to court or complain to the district office, but you’ll have to pay for the cost to resurvey the land yourself,” Wing explained.

“Perhaps the project profited the company and the people in this state [when the dam starts producing energy], but what about us? Our people didn’t enjoy any development as promised, and we’ve lost our land and heritage,” said Wing.

Source of inspiration

Protesting against a coal plant or dam may seem daunting, but local communities can look to Green Surf for inspiration. Since 2007, the coalition has successfully pressured the government three times to cancel plans to build a coal plant in Sabah.

Wong Tack

Wong Tack from the Sabah Environmental Protection Society, which is one of the five environmental organisations in Green Surf, said it was most important for communities to be united. “Locals must take responsibility. If the people are united [in the struggle], then we can solve any problem,” said Wong.

Wong pointed out that it is also crucial to build partnerships with national and international partners. “When the government proposed to build the coal plant for the third time (in Kampung Sinakut in 2009), we knew this could no longer be a Sabah issue.  We had to turn it into an international issue.

“We went to the Parliament and built partnerships with international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) so that the government would have to listen to us, and finally they did,” said Wong. The government scrapped the plan to build a coal plant in Sabah for good in February 2011.

Development? Where?

Those with vested interests in mega projects have a tendency to demonise local communities and environmentalists who oppose such projects as “anti-development”.

But if there’s anything to learn from the stories of community leaders, it is not just about conserving the environment. It is about defending communities’ source of livelihood and preferred way of life so that they can continue to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and continue to work and fend for their families.

Of course, the government and corporations involved can continue to ignore local communities’ interests and voices. But surely, they do so at their peril? If communities are adversely affected economically by development projects, surely these communities would have nothing else to lose in fighting back.

Gan Pei Ling believes government and businesses must always take into account not just environmental impact but social and economic consequences on local communities when proposing mega projects. If not, they risk earning public outrage.

Amber Chia: 1Malaysia won’t happen in a day

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 September 2011 © The Nut Graph

(All pics courtesy of Amber Chia)

WHEN she was 18, Amber Chia flew to Kuala Lumpur from Tawau, Sabah with only RM300 in her pocket to fulfil her dream of becoming a model despite her parents’ vehement opposition.

Chia stumbled around for some time before she found the right modelling agency. In 2004, she got her big break when she was chosen as international spokesperson for Guess Watches. She has since represented various international brands like Sony, L’Oreal and Mitsubishi.

Apart from modelling, Chia has acted in Chinese movies such as Possessed, and made guest appearances in sitcoms and TV shows in Taiwan and China.

The 30-year-old started her own company Amber Creations in mid-2009 and a modelling school Amber Chia Academy in August 2010. She married her manager Adrian Wong in March last year, and gave birth to their son Ashton Wong in September.

Her year-old son and business are her main focus now. The model-turned-businessperson shares her humble beginnings and future aspirations in an interview on 29 July 2011 at her academy in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: When and where were you born?

I grew up in a fishing village in Sekinchan, but I was born in Ipoh on 14 Dec 1981. There was no hospital around Sekinchan or Kuala Selangor, so my mother went to Ipoh to give birth to her six children. I’m the third child. I’ve an elder brother, elder sister and three younger sisters.

My family moved to Tawau, Sabah when I was nine.

Eight-year-old Chia

What was it like growing up in a fishing village? What are some of your fondest childhood memories?

My dad was a fisherman. He would go out for days to fish. I had to help my mum take care of my three younger sisters and I learnt to cook when I was very young.

We stayed in a wooden house and had lots of animals: ducks, geese, turtles, cats, dogs and birds. Although my family was poor, my siblings and I had fun growing up together. We played together, climbed trees, or went to the beach to catch sea snails. The place we stayed at was always flooded, but we were happy when it happened because then we didn’t have to go to school (laughs). I used to cycle to school.

Can you trace your ancestry?

My dad is Teochew and my mother is Hokkien. I can speak both dialects.

My paternal grandfather came from Chaoyang in China, but my dad was born here in Sekinchan in 1950. I don’t really remember my paternal grandfather because he passed away when I was very young.

What about your mother’s side? Where did your maternal grandparents come from?

Chia and her parents

My maternal grandparents were farmers from Anshun, China. My mum was born in Perak. She married my dad when she was 26 and moved to Sekinchan.

My mum told me they got married after their first date. They watched a movie together. Their parents wanted them to get married. Although it was an arranged marriage, and they sometimes fought when I was young, my parents love each other dearly.

How was life in Tawau when your family moved there?

My elder sister, elder brother and I each went to stay with a different foster family or relative as my family had financial difficulties. My three younger sisters stayed with my parents. It was difficult to be separated from my parents. I was sad and missed them very much, but I understood the situation.

My foster parents treated me well. I consider them my parents’ friends as they were also from Sekinchan, originally. My foster father has already passed away, but I still keep in touch with my foster mother. They have four sons and they are like my brothers, too.

I moved back with my parents after primary school and started working part-time. Compared to Sekinchan, Tawau was a larger town [with more job opportunities]. I’ve done all sorts of jobs: kindergarten teacher, shopping mall promoter, and helped my dad sell fish in the market.

When did you decide to leave for Kuala Lumpur?

After I finished SPM, I told my parents I wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur to work. I’ve always wanted to be a model. I wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur to look for modelling agencies that could help me fulfill my dream. But when I told the people around me, they always dismissed it.

I even fought with my parents because they had negative impressions of the modelling industry and were against the idea. They were worried I would take the wrong path, all on my own at a young age in the city.

But I was very stubborn, so I bought an air ticket and only told my mum after I had arrived in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t be so daring anymore as I’ve started a family and have responsibilities.

I only had RM300 in my pocket when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Looking back, it was quite amazing I managed to survive to be who I am today.

It was very tough in the beginning, I didn’t know where to go, what to do or who to go to. I tried looking up several modelling agencies, but many were more like makeup academies, and the people were more interested in selling me their makeup courses, which I couldn’t afford.

Chia took her first studio photos at age 14

It took me a pretty long time to find the right agency. That’s the reason I told myself when I made it big, I would open my own academy to help those who want to join the modelling industry but don’t know where or how to start.

I love challenges. I believe if you work hard and have a [fierce] determination to achieve your dream, you can do it.

Is there any part of your identity that you struggle with, as a mother, woman, model, or Chinese Malaysian?

The older generation like my grandmother always favoured boys, so my elder brother was pampered in the family. He would always be the one who got the chicken drumsticks. Whenever anything happened, my brother was right and I was wrong.

That’s also the reason my mother continued to have children, because my grandmother wanted to have one more son in the family. That’s the gender part I’ve had to struggle with.

As for my identity as a Chinese [Malaysian], when I was growing up in Sabah, I had friends from different races in school, so I didn’t feel I was any different.

What about when you come to Kuala Lumpur?

I didn’t feel much difference as well.

With her family

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like to see for your children in future.

Although I don’t feel the differences, I know what the government is trying to achieve with [its] 1Malaysia [project]. I believe it cannot be done in one day as language is a major barrier. Not everyone can speak fluent Bahasa Malaysia or English. Malaysians need a common language, and it could be either Bahasa Malaysia or English.

But I hope we can achieve 1Malaysia. We’ve lots of interesting cultures, and in the local entertainment industry, you can see more movies being made using different languages. There are also different ethnicities in the modelling industry.

I believe one day we can become a united country.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is available at all good bookstores for RM45. Found in Malaysia Volume 2which was launched recently, will also be sold in bookstores soon.

The nuclear waste dilemma

by Gan Pei Ling / 19 September 2011 © The Nut Graph

A person was killed and four were injured in a French nuclear waste treatment plant on Sept 12, 2011. This piece of news drew my mind to the fact that debate over nuclear waste treatment and disposal in the light of Malaysia’s own nuclear plans, is still lacking. More often, worries are focused about potential meltdowns in nuclear plants. This is because although the probability of a meltdown is low, its impact could be devastating, as we have seen in Japan‘s case.

Najib (file pic)

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has said nuclear power remains an “option”, and that a study is being conducted to identify suitable sites for nuclear plants. Tellingly, it was reported that the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation under the Prime Minister’s Department is searching for a public relations firm to build public support for nuclear power.

Public reactions have been strong against the building of nuclear power plants. While there are pros and cons to nuclear power, despite the risks, it is recognised as the only long-term replacement available for decreasing fossil fuels in terms of continuous bulk energy supply.

So if the government is really going to go ahead, I am personally more concerned with how we are going to store our nuclear waste. This must be answered. Are we going to ship the waste out and dump it in another country? Can we emulate Finland and build a huge underground storage to keep the waste away for the next 100,000 years?

Thinking into the future

In the US, nuclear waste remains a thorny subject. The country has been dumping nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the past few decades, but has yet to find a permanent site to store radioactive waste. Similarly in the UK, nuclear waste has been stored temporarily at Sellafield while its government continues to search for a permanent dump site.

Is the same going to happen to Malaysia? Are we going to build our nuclear plants first and then scramble to find a suitable storage site for radioactive waste decades later, like the US and UK? I have requested the Malaysian Nuclear Agency for answers but to date, have not received any response.

Even if Malaysia does build a permanent storage facility to bury our radioactive waste, how are we going to ensure the waste would stay buried for thousands of years? I did not realise the scale of the problem and the engineering feat required until I watched the documentary Into Eternity made by Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen.

The documentary centres on Finland‘s permanent nuclear waste repository, currently under construction since 2004. It is expected to begin storing waste in 2020 and will permanently be sealed in 2120. It is supposed to last for the next 100,000 years.

However, Finnish experts admitted in the film that they cannot predict whether humans would still be around at that time. And even if humans were still around, no one could predict whether future generations would understand our present languages and signs. How do you communicate to people or other beings 100,000 years in the future that nuclear waste is hazardous and that they have to stay away from nuclear dump sites? How do you ensure they do not open a dump site at any cost, if they were to stumble upon one? Several ways were suggested in the film, including putting up menacing architecture, but perhaps the best way is to not to put any signs at all.

“Full” responsibility for our waste

A nuclear power plant in France (source: Wiki Commons)

The nuclear industry proudly proclaims that: “Nuclear power is the only energy industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and costs this into the product.”

Seriously, I wonder how the industry could make such a claim to full responsibility for radioactive waste that is likely to outlive human civilisations.

I sincerely hope that one day, scientists would find a way to transform the 300,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste that are accumulating worldwide in temporary storage facilities into non-radioactive elements.

But meanwhile, as much as I enjoy the convenience of abundant electricity and would like to continue doing so, I think Malaysia needs to consider whether we are okay with leaving behind such a legacy before we go ahead with our nuclear plan.

Gan Pei Ling still thinks Malaysia needs to try harder to take renewable energy like solar mainstream and implement energy conservation steps before going nuclear.

Green voters hunting for green reps

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 August 2011 © The Nut Graph

green-votersRUMOURS have been rife since late 2010 that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak might call for the 13th general election by this year before the economy takes a worse turn. As such, not just political parties but civil society has been gearing up for an impending election.

Among the civil society groups are a group of environmentalists, who set up Green Voters in July 2011 to mainstream and highlight environmental issues at the upcoming elections. The collective has yet to finalise its action plan but the idea is to focus candidates and political parties’ attention on environmental issues.

It would be amazing if all contesting candidates in the next general election were posed key questions on the environment in their respective constituencies à la The Nut Graph’s MP Watch project.

It is difficult to narrow down the key environmental questions, considering the many environmental issues Malaysia needs to tackle, but here are the questions I would ask candidates standing in my constituency:

1. What’s your stand on nuclear power? Do you agree or disagree that Malaysia needs to go nuclear? Why?

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Reactor Unit 4 (left) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (source: Wiki Commons)

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Reactor Unit 4 (left) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (source: Wiki Commons)

The federal government’s 2010 announcement to build two nuclear power plants in Malaysia by 2021 has received mixed public reactions. The Fukushimameltdown in March 2011 has caused a further negative dip in public perception towards nuclear power.

Germany plans to shut down its nuclear reactor by 2022 but China is going ahead with its plan to build 36 reactors within the decade while our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said nuclear remains an “option” for Malaysia.

Regardless whether a candidate supports or objects to nuclear power, I’m more interested in the reasons for their stand.

2. Would you support an amendment to make public consultation compulsory before a forest reserve can be de-gazetted? Why?

Currently, forests, including those that have been gazetted as reserves can be cleared in the name of development for, say, highway construction without public inquiry except in one state. Selangor made history in April 2011 when it passed an amendment to the state’s Forestry Act to ensure a public inquiry must be held before a forest reserve can be excised. However, other states have yet to emulate Selangor’s move.

Our elected representatives should understand that sustainable development is crucial if we want to ensure tragedies such as the 21 May 2011 Hulu Langat landslide, 2008 Bukit Antarabangsa landslide and 1993 Highland Towers collapse do not recur. We need to protect ecologically-sensitive areas not just for conservation purposes but also for our own sake.

Damage caused by the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide of 6 Dec 2008 (Pic courtesy of Raj Kumar)

A properly implemented public consultation process would not only serve to promote transparency and accountability but also encourage participatory democracy among our citizens.

3. Would you support tax rebates for developers and property owners that incorporate eco-friendly designs such as rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels? Why?

This question was inspired by the Petaling Jaya City Council’s initiative to introduce a tax rebate scheme for “green” houses in the city, which is expected to be finalised by the city council by the end of 2011.

The tax rebate scheme would also complement the federal government’s feed-in-tariff system which would allow individuals to sell electricity produced from renewable energy back to Tenaga Nasional Berhad.

4. Would you work with the local council(s) to promote recycling and set up more recycling centres in your constituency?

Ideally, such initiatives should be done by local councillors but local government elections have yet to be restored. So it would not be too much to ask of our Member of Parliament and state assemblyperson to work with the appointed local councillors in their constituencies to promote recycling, would it?

There are other important questions that are more localised. For example, if I were a voter in Pahang, I would ask the contesting candidates on their stand on the Lynas rare earth refinery. If I were a voter in Sarawak, I would ask the candidates whether all the dams the state is constructing are really necessary.

For too long election issues have been determined by politicians and political parties, often centred on race, ethnicity and religion. If elections were to truly reflect the people’s will, then the rakyat needs to take the initiative to determine the agenda of an election instead of allowing politicians to steer public discourse along populist and often divisive and unhelpful lines.

Disclosure: Gan Pei Ling was invited by forest conservationist Lim Teck Wyn to join Green Voters but has remained mostly a dormant member. Still, she is always inspired by citizens’ initiative to reclaim democratic processes, especially the elections, and thinks it’s definitely worth highlighting.

Wanted: Safe and eco-friendly cosmetics

by Gan Pei Ling / 25 July 2011 © The Nut Graph

BODY wash, hair shampoo, soap, facial cleanser, toner — most of us use these personal care products on a daily basis regardless of gender. Women are likely to use cosmetics as well in addition to these products, but have you ever stopped and looked at the ingredients contained in the products? The ingredients should be safe, right?

Not necessarily. It turns out that the multi-billion cosmetics industry might not always have consumers’ best interests at heart

Published in 2007, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry exposed the pervasive use of toxic chemicals in personal care products. Written by former journalist Stacy Malkan, the book also exposed hypocritical cosmetics companies that brand themselves as pink ribbon leaders, yet continue to use hormone-disrupting chemicals or potential carcinogens in their products. The author is now one of the leading advocates for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in the US.

Another short film, The Story of Cosmetics, was released in 2010 to raise public awareness and rally support for the campaign. Although both the book and film were based on an American context, I think they are equally relevant to Malaysian consumers. Similar harmful products are being imported and sold in local stores, yet most of us remain ignorant of this.

So what are the ingredients that we should stay away from when shopping for personal care products? Are all products labelled “organic” or “natural” safe? And what are some of the local alternatives available to Malaysians?

Ingredients to avoid

“Cosmetics should be safe enough to eat,” Horst Rechelbacher, founder of one of the largest eco-friendly beauty salons Aveda, once told The New York Times in 1997. He was right, if you can’t eat it, why would you want to apply the ingredients on your body as the skin would absorb the ingredients and they would end up in your body anyway?

To help consumers search for safe cosmetics and personal care products, one of the key partners in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — has set up a cosmetics database called Skin Deep in 2004Below is a list of ingredients to avoid in various personal care products compiled using resources from the database:

  • Soap
    • Bar soap — Triclocarban
    • Liquid soap — Triclosan
    • Toothpaste — Triclosan

Reason: Triclocarban and triclosan are chemicals used to kill off microorganisms such as bacteria and are toxic to aquatic environments.

  • Day-time moisturiser — Retinyl palmitate and retinol (Vitamin A)
  • Lip balm — Retinyl palmitate and retinol
  • Sunscreen — Retinyl palmitate and retinol, oxybenzone

Reason: Vitamin A is a nutrient but it may cause birth defects if pregnant women are exposed to excessive amounts of it. Oxybenzone is a common sunscreen agent that has been linked to hormone disruption.

  • Hair products – Fragrance, PEGs, ceteareths, polyethylene, parabens and DMDM hydantoin

Reason: Hundreds of chemicals can be included in the term “fragrance” while PEGs, ceteareths and polyethylene compounds are synthetic chemicals frequently contaminated with potential carcinogen 1,4-dioxaneParabens are commonly used as preservatives. Usually listed as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben etc, these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system. DMDM hydantoin is another preservative. It releases the carcinogen formaldehydewhen it decomposes.

  • Nail products – Formaldehyde, toluene and phthalates

Reason: Formaldehyde is a carcinogen while toluene is a potent neurotoxin. Phthalates are a group of industrial chemicals that may disrupt our hormone and reproductive systems.

Having trouble memorising all the chemical terms? So did I when I first researched this subject. But it also made me wonder what all these chemicals were doing in personal care products, some of which we use on a daily basis.

It was not pleasant to discover methylparaben and ethylparaben as listed ingredients in my facial cleanser and body wash, so I went on a quest to look for paraben-free and safer products.

Local handmade personal care products

I stumbled upon two female entrepreneurs who make their own skincare products at a flea market at Jaya One, Petaling Jaya last month.

Shelby Kho, 30, is a doctor who makes bath scrubs, bath salts and other body products as her passion. She learned to make them during college and used to make these body products as gifts for her friends. It did not occur to her to sell the products at flea markets to a larger audience until December 2010.

She does not use any artificial fragrance, preservatives or colourings in her products. Natural ingredients such as manuka honey are used as preservatives and essential oils as fragrance.

Bisou Bon Bon (pic courtesy of Gan Pei Ling)

Kho calls her line of products Bisou Bonbon (which means “candy” in French). Best of all, her products are reasonably priced, ranging from RM9 for a lip balm to RM28 for a jar of body scrub.

RM40 trial set of a 3-in-1 facial cleansing powder, scrub and mask and a 2-in-1 toner and moisturiser.

Meanwhile, Sal, also 30, is a homemaker from Petaling Jaya. She started making her own facial products when she began to develop sensitive skin at the age of 25 and the condition did not improve after she tried different commercial brands.

After experimenting with various recipes, Sal developed her own skincare line called Back to Basicswhich includes cleanser, toner-cum-moisturiser, treatment powder and face serum. Similar to Kho’s body products, Sal does not use chemicals in her products.

“Sometimes I’ll modify my products to suit the customers’ needs as some of them have more sensitive skin,” she said when met at the flea market in June.

Apart from these handmade products, Malaysians may also find safer and biodegradable commercial products at The Body Shop and TNS Skin Lab but their products may of course be pricier.

Gan Pei Ling is still searching for safe and eco-friendly personal care products, especially local handmade ones. Drop her a line at editor@thenutgraph.com if you know of any.