Great thread! This has been a goal of mine over the last 6 months or so, and it's a challenge since we live in an environment that abounds with so many artificial and toxic ingredients and chemicals that most people don't even question their safety or necessity.
First, a great website for checking on specific ingredients and brands is http://skindeep.ewg.org
(Another great thing somewhere on Environmental Working Group's main site is a listing of the types of produce that are the "dirtiest" in terms of pesticide residues, etc., so you have an idea which are the most important to buy organic.)
In this whole quest for "more natural" toiletries, cleaning products, etc., I've found that even a lot of the "natural" brands that you find at health food-type stores are still full of chemicals that may be okay but still seem unnecessary. After all, only a few generations ago, people didn't have all of these products but still managed. So I've been looking for the most simple solutions possible and after some experimentation have found some things that work great. Here's what I currently use:
-Instead of shampoo, I use baking soda. I take 1-2 T of baking soda, mix in a small cup with enough water to make a paste, then apply it to the roots of my wet hair and scrub it all over my scalp. After leaving it on for a minute or so, I rinse it out.
-Then, instead of conditioner, I use apple cider vinegar to rinse any buildup out. I take 1-2 T of cider vinegar, dilute it in a cup with about 1 c. water, then pour the solution over my hair from just below the roots to the ends. After a minute or so, I rinse it out.
-(Note on the baking soda-cider vinegar routine: I didn't really have any issues with it, but when I was reading about it online, some people said that it took them a few days or weeks to have their hair "adjust" from using regular shampoo/conditioner. Because you're not using a lot of surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate that strip away all of your hair's moisture, it may take your hair/scalp a little while to "figure out" that it doesn't need to produce a lot of oil to replace what's constantly being stripped away. So just as a heads-up, if you try this, give it a little time before you decide it doesn't work--it may just be an issue of adjusting. On a personal note, I've always had very dry hair, and with this method of washing it, it's the least dry it's ever been.)
-If you need a little extra moisture on the ends, you can use a little olive or coconut oil.
-Instead of hair gel for my curly hair, I make my own using what is apparently the same "recipe" as what women in the 1920's used to set their curls. I boil 1/3 cup of water, then add 1 tsp whole flax seeds and simmer for a few minutes until it's just starting to have a gel-like consistency. Then I immediately turn off the heat and strain out the seeds. The liquid that's left works just as well as gel. Because it has no preservatives, it's best to make small batches and keep it in the fridge.
-I love Kiss My Face brand soap. They make a bar soap that's just water, olive oil, and salt. Just as with the baking soda-vinegar hair washing method, this soap doesn't strip away your skin's natural oils (especially if you don't shower with super-hot water), so your skin may take a small amount of time to adjust its oil production, but it's worth it. My skin has always been very dry, but even in cold PA winter weather with indoor heating, so far this winter I hardly need to use any moisturizers at all, even on my hands.
-If you like liquid soap, a castile soap like Dr. Bronner's is good too.
-For all-over skin moisturizer, I just use coconut oil. It's a saturated fat, so in cooler weather if solidifies, but if you scoop out a little with your fingers, it quickly melts with your body heat. Because it's a pure fat, it can take a little longer than conventional lotion to absorb into your skin, so you may have to wait a little longer before putting on clothes after you apply it. It has a great but subtle tropical smell, too.
-For my hands, I use pure shea butter. Like the coconut oil, it solidifies at room temperature but quickly melts with body heat.
-For deodorant, I use baking soda mixed with just enough water to make a paste. (Usually I just scoop out the little bit left in the cup after I shampoo and put it on my armpits after I dry off.) I figure that if it absorbs odors from the fridge, why not body odor too?
-(Note on soaps/moisturizers: I've found that by using less soap less often, my body has adjusted the amount of oil it produces so that I need to shower less and use less moisturizer. I shower ever other day and have no problem with my skin getting too oily in between. I also only wash my face only when I shower, rather than twice a day like I used to. My skin, including my face, is in the best shape it's ever been in, even with using less moisturizer than ever.)
-I generally just wet my toothbrush and brush with water only. A few times a week I dip the wet toothbrush in a little baking soda and use that instead of toothpaste. But I've found that with flossing, good brushing of the teeth, and brushing my tongue, I don't have any problems with bad breath, plaque, etc.
-Baking soda and white vinegar are just about all you need! When I clean my kitchen and bathroom surfaces, I just sprinkle baking soda on the counters, toilet, etc., scrub it around with a damp cloth, then rinse it off using the same cloth. Vinegar is good for deodorizing, e.g. pour a little in the toilet after scrubbing the bowl with baking soda. A solution of water and white vinegar in a spray bottle works great instead of Windex on mirrors, glass tabletops, etc.
-For my vinyl kitchen and bathroom floors, I mop with a little bit of castile soap diluted with water, although a vinegar-water solution would probably work as well.
-If you buy microfiber cleaning cloths, for whatever reason you can get away with using much less cleaning product. Some people claim that by using this type of cloth, they can clean using only water. I like using a little baking soda and vinegar so that I feel like I'm disinfecting a bit as well, but I don't need to use much. The microfiber cloths are also great dry for dusting because they pick up the dust rather than just stirring it up. You just throw them in the washer and they can be infinitely reused.
-For laundry and dish soap, I currently use the "natural" brands like Seventh Generation that have no added fragrances, etc. But once I run out of my current supply, I'm going to try a product called "Soapnuts," which are apparently just the fruit of the soapberry tree and produce a soapy compound called saponin when mixed with water. Apparently you can add them to the washing machine instead of detergent or use them to make a liquid soap to use for things like washing dishes. I'll report back on the effectiveness once I've tried them.
Well, I think that summarizes the main things that I've found effective for me. Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to pass on what I've found works through my own trial and error and to give people some ideas of how simple it can be if you think outside the box of needing to buy a bunch of single-use formulations.
If you look around on the internet, there's lots of this type of information out there to give you ideas on ways of making your own toiletries/cleaning products. To me, it makes sense to do this for several reasons. If you make your own products, you know exactly what's in them. Also, stuff like baking soda and vinegar is so much cheaper than buying even the conventional/mainstream brands of pre-made products. If you're concerned about the environment, this is also great because not only are you not using a bunch of chemicals, but you can buy most of the ingredients in cardboard boxes, glass jars, etc. rather than a ton of plastic bottles.
I also think that, as I mentioned above, there's no reason that we need to buy all of these pre-made products since, when you think about it, only a few generations ago, people made do without having them all available. For example, I've been nostalgically re-reading the "Little House on the Prairie" series, and it's amazing how resourceful they were because that was just the way things were done then.
Anyways, great thread, and I'm enjoying reading different people's solutions to this problem!