When Liz Johnston was pregnant with her first child, she had trouble finding a local store with nursery items she deemed safe.
"You become more environmentally aware as you are getting a nursery together and smelling the paint," she said. "You start to see what's going on in the products you use -- so many detergents have formaldehyde in them. That's a huge allergen."
So 18 months ago, Johnston and her brother, Clark Sykes, opened up the Greener Good, one of the first retail stores in Tarrant County devoted to a dry goods product line that is only green.
"When we were doing our research, we discovered that Fort Worth ranked in the top 20 markets nationally as a place for green living," she said. "I think people are open to it, especially young families."
Three months ago, Johnston quadrupled her space when she moved her store from a tiny shop to a new location just west of downtown, 925 Foch St., near the trendy So7 development.
Greener Good's product line focuses on green products for personal care, home cleaning, lawn and garden, home improvement and pet care. Johnston has also thrown organic and recycled apparel and home furnishings into the mix and, of course, baby products.
Everything from all-natural shampoo and laundry soap to nontoxic paint and pest control is featured at the store.
"We've done our research," Johnston said. "Everything here is as healthy and environmentally friendly as it can be."
Every year for Earth Day, coming up April 22, I try to focus on some new habit to improve either my carbon footprint or the environmental health of my family.
This year I'm working to change our personal care and cleaning products for greener choices.
Most people use around 10 personal care products every day, with an average of 126 different ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C., focused on health and the environment.
While the ingredients are at least listed on personal care products, (unlike home cleaning products), manufacturers aren't required to test such products for safety, said Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist with the group.
"It's an unregulated industry," she said. "Every company makes their own definitions. Just because something says 'natural,' don't assume that it's safe."
Another area to watch is products labeled with marketing terms that make them appear green but that might still have harmful ingredients, something called "green washing," Johnston said.
"One of the first lessons I learned was with a hand cream product I almost bought that was marked as organic," she said. "A closer look at the ingredients showed that it listed some ingredients as organic -- but not all."
Sutton recommends looking only at the ingredients of a product labeled to appear organic or green.
"The rest of the label is not necessarily something you can trust," she said. "Some products say they are hypoallergenic -- but there is no legal meaning of the word. It's more of a marketing word. A product can be labeled as natural and still contain artificial preservatives."
Products that don't list their ingredients have something to hide, Johnston said.
"If they don't list their ingredients, they probably have chemicals you don't want," she said.
Fragrance is another catchall term that hides dozens of different chemicals, some that may cause cancer, Sutton said.
"Look for products that use essential oils for fragrance instead," she advised.
The Environmental Working Group has set up an extensive database of thousands of common cosmetic and personal care products by name and brand that consumers can check for free to determine their safety.
The website is www.cosmeticdatabase.com.
I compared it against my own cosmetics and found my "nourishing" mascara was of moderate hazard and had some ingredients in it that have been linked to allergies and cancer.
In addition, I learned that more than 70 percent of the 750 other mascaras tested had lower concerns, so it makes sense to switch.
Similarly, my "clean" makeup foundation was of high hazard compared with 86 percent of the rest of the market tested. Out it went as well.
Unfortunately, there is no such database for household cleaning products, Sutton said.
"They are difficult to buy because there are no laws to require ingredients labeling," she said. "All you have is marketing."
Sutton advises avoiding anti-bacterial cleansers, because that means they generally have pesticides in them, and studies have shown they don't improve the health of households that use them.
Be sure to follow the instructions on the cleaning product as well, she said.
"One cleaner called Simple Green has a spray nozzle on it, but it's sold as a concentrate and is supposed to be diluted with water," she said.
There are certification standards for cleaners with the Green Seal and EcoLogo, but those are more for institutional cleaners and not consumer household products, she said.
Johnston carries a number of household cleaner brands at her store, such as The Laundress, a biodegradable, nontoxic concentrate for laundry, including dry cleaning; and Better Life, all-natural surface cleaners that list all ingredients on the label.
While green products might cost more, they are often in concentrated forms, so they last longer, she said.
Vinegar and baking soda are natural alternatives for cleaning. Johnston said there is a new scented vinegar that smells good for those who don't like the smell of regular vinegar.
Whole Foods also carries nongrocery green products, including 181 household cleaning products and more than 1,000 personal care products, according to a spokeswoman.
The most popular brands sold at Whole Foods are Seventh Generation for household cleaning products and its "365" private label, house-brand body care products, she said.
Green is becoming more mainstream as traditional retailers like Target and Walmart and big-box clubs like Sam's Club and Costco expand their green product lines, Sutton said.
If you buy green from traditional retailers, just be sure do a little detective work beforehand to make sure you are getting the real deal, she said.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.