Q: I love to sweeten the air with incense, oils, you name it, but some don't seem so natural. Any tips?
A:With windows and doors closed tight, indoor oxygen tends to get a little stale at this time of year. And what better way to freshen the air and your mood than to light up a stick of incense or burn some aromatic oils? Unfortunately, your suspisions are bang on. Many are loaded with chemical binders, petroleum distillates and synthetic perfumes. (How the hell else can you get incense to smell like green apple?) Here's a tip: if you can smell it from a foot away before you even burn it, you know it's a fake. Price is another indicator - cheapie dollar store brands tend to be super-synthetic.
Not that an all-natural ingredient list should put your mind at ease. Overexploitation and unsustainable harvesting have led to the decimation of popular ingredients for both incense and essential oils. Agarwood's (or aloeswood) popularity in incense and perfumes is pushing it toward the point of no return. Same goes for the tamarind tree in Burma and the rosewood tree in Brazil. And, sorry folks, but that super-popular hippie staple sandalwood faces similar threats thanks to a major fire that ravaged slow-growing Indian sandalwood forests in the late 90s.
Even essential oils made from so- called wild-crafted herbs are potentially problematic, since uncontrolled herb-picking can also push a plant species toward extinction. When it comes to burning oils, a good way to ensure a company is using sustainable practices is to look for certified organic labelling.
Cheapie non-therapeutic-grade oils are often cut with synthetics. Many brands, including Aura Cacia (from $10.99 at Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor and Noah's on Yonge or Bloor), Aromatherapist (from $12 at Noah's and Big Carrot on Danforth) and Divine Essence (from $5.59 at Noah's and Big Carrot), make organic lines. Oshadhi (from $14.99 at Whole Foods on Avenue Road) also offers high-quality, handmade organic and biodynamic oils. Fairly traded (though not organic or therapeutic-grade) oils from the Spice Islands are sold at Blue Moon on Danforth, from $5.95. The shop also has fair trade ceramic oil diffusers from $7.95. Be aware that while many of the Body Shop's home fragrance oils smell delicious (hello, chocolate orange!), they're full of artificial perfumes and chemicals. Aveda, however, says its "aroma diffuser oils" are made entirely of essential oils in a coconut base. And the company says it abides by sustainability principles.
As for incense, it's virtually impossible to find any that use organic ingredients. But Shoyeido is an excellent Japanese brand that harvests all its own high-quality ingredients in a sustainable manner ($5.59/35 at Noah's, Whole Foods and Big Carrot). Other all-natural, hand-rolled brands (though we couldn't confirm their harvesting practices) include Triloka (from $2.59/pack at Noah's and Whole Foods), Nitiraj, Auromere, Auroshikha (all at the Carrot) and the classic Nag Champa ($3.49/pack at Noah's and Whole Foods).
Another wonderful option is fair trade incense. The workers are better paid and the products can't use endangered ingredients. Ten Thousand Villages on Yonge or Danforth carries Silence incense cones and sticks ($1.25/10) made by deaf workers in Calcutta. Blue Moon on Danforth offers all-natural, made-in-Canada incense ($2.79/20) at its fair trade shop as well as a variety of incense holders ($9-$12).
If you're looking for conventional air fresheners, skip the usual sprays, plug-ins and sticks - they're full of formaldehyde and ozone-depleting volatile organic compounds, as well as other nasty toxins that can kill people or pets if swallowed. Febreze isn't as toxic, but it's still loaded with perfumes and isn't biodegradeable. Switch to earth-friendly air fresheners like Citrus Magic (from $10.99 at Grassroots), Aura Cacia aromatherapy mist ($7.99 at Big Carrot and Whole Foods) or Air Sense (from $9.99 at Noah's or Whole Foods). Simply Essentials is great because it uses all therapeutic-grade oils in its sprays ($16.99 at Big Carrot), as does HerbWise Spritzer ($10.95 at T.H.E. Store on Avenue Road).
For musty corners, hang some super-odour-absorbent, moisture-controlling zeolite in nylons ($5.50/kg at Grassroots). When it stops working, you can "recharge" it by baking it.
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