7 October 2019


5 household products you don’t need

Forget eco swaps. Here are 5 things you can just stop buying altogether.

There are tons of articles out there on the web – not to mention posts on social media – about sustainable swaps you can make to reduce your impact on the planet. Some may cost more than what you were previously buying but most will save you money (if not immediately, then certainly in the long run). In this post, however, I’m looking at products you (probably) don’t need to buy at all.

For me, truly sustainable living is about living with less. Buying less, using less, wasting less – and ultimately spending less (woo hoo!).

Recently I’ve been questioning which of the things we buy are actually necessary and which are the result of effective marketing, making us believe we need something when we really don’t.

I thought I’d share with you a few products we’ve stopped buying altogether (or have never bought). 

For those of you who decide you just can’t go without, I’ve got some eco-friendly suggestions for you – ones that could save you money and ones on which you might need to spend a bit more.

Any links to products are provided purely as examples and are neither personal recommendations or affiliate links. 

Cotton buds

In England alone, it’s estimated that we use 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds each year. An estimated 10% of cotton buds are flushed down toilets and can end up in waterways and oceans. 

A few months back my husband, Charlie, and I were discussing whether we really need them at all. We mostly use cotton buds to clean our ears, even though we know it can be dangerous. Turns out, it’s also unnecessary. Ear wax protects our ears from infection and damage, has antibacterial properties, and traps dust and dirt in the ear canal, thereby stopping it from reaching the more delicate eardrum.

I sometimes used cotton buds for fixing smudged make-up but these days, on the rare occasion I can be bothered to put any make-up on, I use cotton wipes instead.

Even though we were using paper-stemmed cotton buds (Wilko’s own brand), they came in a plastic bag that wasn’t much use for anything else afterwards. They also weren’t organic, so there’s also the huge environmental impact of the cotton industry to consider. I looked into more eco-friendly options but they were, unsurprisingly, a lot more expensive. 

So, partly to reduce our impact on the planet and partly to save money, we’ve done away with cotton buds altogether. It’s now been a few months and we don’t miss them at all.

If you really can’t do without…

Save: Make your own cotton cloth wipes out of old t-shirts. I use mine instead of tissues, kitchen roll, baby wipes and cotton buds (amongst other uses). Just wash them with your towels. Apart from the extra few minutes it takes to hang the wipes up to dry and put them away, these are just as convenient as disposable wipes or cotton buds. Just keep some in every room, so they’re always to hand.

Splurge: Buy organic cotton buds with paper stems and plastic-free packaging. If you have a local zero-waste/bulk/organic store, they’re likely to stock some. If not, here’s a link to the best price* I’ve found online.

I’ve also just discovered these reusable cotton buds, which are available to preorder (to be shipped in October 2019). The website does state these can’t be used for every purpose you might have used traditional cotton buds, so do read the FAQs before you buy.

Fabric conditioner 

People have been using fabric conditioner/softener since the 1950s. It is supposed to eliminate static, make fabric feel softer and smell nicer. I think many of us buy it because we saw our parents using it when we were growing up or just because it’s perceived as an essential. I mean, most washing machines (if not all) have a compartment just for softener – it’s got to be important, right?

Well, no actually. Just because washing machines have a compartment dedicated to fabric conditioner doesn’t mean that it’s required. In fact, for much of what you wash at home, it’s better not to use it. Softener only really works on natural fibres, so it’s wasted on synthetic fabrics. Anything that needs to be absorbent, such as towels or nappies, should be washed without fabric conditioner.

Fabric softener coats the fibres of your laundry in what is effectively grease with silicon elements that make the fibres separate. This gives the feeling of the material being softer. It also repels liquids from the material, making the material much less absorbent.

Many fabric softeners contain chemicals that can cause skin irritation and are harmful to the environment. Then there’s the issue of the single-use plastic bottles to contain the product. These aren’t widely recycled, though they are included in the Terracycle air, home and laundry care scheme

We stopped using fabric conditioner over a year ago and don’t miss it one bit.

If you really can’t do without…

Save: Use white/distilled vinegar instead. It supposedly removes static electricity and helps remove any residual minerals. It can also prevent pigment dyes bleeding, keeping your colours vibrant. Also, it helps keep the washing machine clean – bonus! Add a few drops of essential oil if you like your laundry to have a fragrance.

Splurge: Choose an eco-friendly brand, such as Bio-D or Ecoleaf. Here’s the best price* I’ve found online.

Whether you opt for white vinegar or a eco-brand softener, see if you can refill your own container at a zero waste / bulk store. If not, buy the biggest bottle you can, to get better value for money and reduce the amount of plastic used.

Air freshener

I don’t know about you but I hate air fresheners. I haven’t bought one in at least 5 years. Most don’t actually eliminate the bad odour but mingle with it, making it even worse. I find a lot of them leave a horrible taste or feeling in my mouth/throat, as I do with other aerosols. 

Then there’s the thought of what we might be breathing in. Air fresheners can emit over 100 different chemicals, including various volatile organic compounds and other pollutants. Air fresheners have been associated with a range of adverse health effects, which include migraine headaches, asthma attacks, breathing difficulties, respiratory difficulties, mucosal symptoms, dermatitis, infant diarrhoea and earache, neurological problems, and ventricular fibrillation.

Plus, of course I have to mention the environmental impact. Asides from the effect some of the ingredients might be having on the environment, there’s the issue of these being single-use products. Even if you buy refills, there will be some sort of container to dispose of. 

Air freshener containers, for aerosols and other types, are not widely recycled. There are a couple of Terracycle schemes that take some air freshener products but this is not enough to balance out the amount of raw materials being used to manufacture the products or transport them.

If you really can’t do without…

Save: First things first. If you can, open a window and let the fresh air in. Alternatively, to eliminate odours, bicarbonate of soda is your best friend. Put some in a small jar or pot (about 3 tbsp) and leave with the lid off on a shelf in the room (out of reach of children or pets), so it can soak up any bad smells. Mix in a good few drops of essential oil if you’d like to add a fragrance (about 15-20 drops will do, depending on how strong you want it to smell).

Another option is to make your own air freshener spray or reed diffuser.

Splurge: I’ve just come across this lovely little company, who make natural, eco-friendly reed diffusers (as well as candles). I think they’d make a lovely gift for someone too. Check them out here

Toilet rim/cistern blocks

I’ve never EVER bought these things. If there’s a prime example of us being brainwashed into thinking we need something that we really don’t, this has got to be a prime example. Just clean your toilet regularly and it’ll be fine (preferably with an eco-friendly cleaner rather than bleach).

As with other toilet cleaning products, these usually contain harmful chemicals. I had a quick look at a popular brand’s blue toilet rim block and it says this:

Warning. Causes skin irritation. Causes serious eye irritation. Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects. If medical advice is needed, have product container or label at hand. Keep out of reach of children. Wear protective gloves/eye protection.

Do you really want to be using something that has this warning on the back? Same goes for a lot of other household cleaning products, such as bleach and anything that contains it.

Once again, these products often come in plastic packaging that can’t be or just isn’t being recycled. It doesn’t even look like there’s a Terracycle scheme for these.

If you really can’t do without…

Save: I find that a small amount of vinegar spray (white vinegar mixed half and half with water) sprayed around the bowl, followed by a quick scrub with the toilet brush, does a good job of keeping the toilet bowl clean. I try to do that every 2-3 days. Once a week I’ll pop one of my homemade dishwasher tablets in the loo overnight and give it a scrub when I get up. Works a treat!

Splurge: If you must use a rim or cistern block, Ecozone make one that’s free from harsh chemicals, uses plant-based ingredients, is allergy UK certified, suitable for septic tanks, vegan and cruelty free. Here’s the best price* I’ve found online.

Tumble dryer sheets (and maybe the tumble dryer too)

Tumble dryer sheets are pieces of material (usually polyester) coated in fabric softener. Their purpose is to help soften clothes and decrease the amount of static created when your clothes/sheets/towels rub against each other. Most also have a fragrance, to make our washing smell nicer.

I used dryer sheets for a short while, back when I first had use of a tumble dryer as an adult. We lived in a rented flat that came with a shared washing machine and tumble dryer for about 8 months. Though, I didn’t use the dryer that much, so I doubt I got through many packs of sheets. After that, we didn’t have a tumble dryer for over 10 years. 

As for not needing a tumble dryer itself, full disclosure, I have one. We were given it as a gift just over 2 years ago, when we were expecting Sophie. While we could have got by without one, it has made keeping up with the extra washing that comes with having a baby a lot easier. Though, I’m not sure I would have wanted one if we weren’t on a green energy tariff. I also prefer to hang my washing up on the line and I do so as much as possible.

I haven’t bothered buying tumble dryer sheets this time round. Partly because they contain chemicals that could irritate the skin and be harmful to the environment. Also because they’re made of non-recyclable plastic and packaged in single-use plastic that’s not widely recycled (though the packets may be included in the Terracycle air, home and laundry care scheme).

If you really can’t do without…

Save: To reduce static, choose a setting that doesn’t over-dry your clothes. The longer they’re in the dryer and the more moisture that is removed, the more that static charge builds up. As for softening clothes, I find the dryer does that well on its own but you could make your own wool dryer balls.

If you like to give your laundry a fragrance, a good trick is putting a few drops of essential oil on a cotton cloth wipe (lavender works well). Add it to the dryer when your laundry is almost dry. I’ve tested it and it gives a better result if you add the scented cloth at this point rather than at the start.

Splurge: I’ve got a couple of options for you. Reusable dryer balls by Ecozone or these (also reusable) wool dryer balls, made in the UK using British wool.

5 household products you don’t need


Are there any other products you don’t need that you’d add to this list? Is there anything on the list you couldn’t do without? Let me know in the comments below.


*best online price from UK seller, including delivery, at the time of writing (excluding Amazon, as I’m trying to avoid using them on ethical grounds and am therefore not about to recommend them to you)


Featured image by NeONBRAND on Unsplash


carbon footprint, eco friendly, eco home, eco swaps, environment, environmental impact, ethical, green living, less plastic, less waste, low waste, natural cleaning, plastic free, save money, simple living, sustainable living, zero waste

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  1. Hello Steph,
    Great list and you rightly point out that some things we buy are a product of marketing that makes us believe that we absolutely MUST have whatever they are selling. I can add a couple more things to your list:
    1. Paper towels – Growing up in India, I had never seen paper towels. I started using them after I moved to the U.S. In India, we just used old rags, wipes and towels. These were washed in hot water every week. We also had handkerchiefs. Everyone had their own and we always had a set of handkerchiefs ready for use in the drawer. These were used for most personal uses. We were not more sick or spread germs more than we do now! Disposable products were really a novelty back then and were usually meant for picnics and outdoor adventures.
    2. Dish scrubbers – Again, growing up, we never used plastic scrubbers. We used the husk from a coconut. For greasy dishes, we added sand to the husk. When the husk got soft, we simply threw it away and used a new one.

    1. Two excellent points! I use cloth wipes that I made from old t-shirts instead on paper towels, tissues, baby wipes etc (so many uses!) I stopped buying plastic dish sponges and now use a natural loofah and a plastic brush that I’ve had for years – nothing wrong with it so no need to replace it. I find the loofah deals with most dirt ok but for really greasy dishes I use a sprinkle of bicarbonate of soda (similar to what you say about using sand I guess).
      I totally agree with you about how we seem to have lost sight of what disposable items were originally intended for. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Pleased I do not use any of these. I don’t use any sort of cleaning wipes either. I use old fashioned dusters and wash them, My old tea towels become ‘wet wipes’ with white vinegar. My old towels- very few- over the years became dog towels, then care washing towels.

    1. Hurray for turning old tea towels into dusters/wipes! I also do this with old t-shirts etc. I don’t have a dog or a car, but I’ve seen dog sanctuaries request donations of old towels and sheets, so that’s always an option for anyone in the same boat as me. 😀

  3. A great list and I have never bought any of these things. It is like you say I think some people buy the fabric softener or toilet bricks etc because they grew up seeing them used at home. A lot of things are so surplus to our lives when you step back and look at them, also a huge saving can be made on the supermarket trip if people just cut out all the unnecessary items.

    1. Having bought some of these items in the past, just because it's what I thought was the 'done thing' because my parents did, I know how easy it is to keep doing it. Something or someone usually has to make you step back and see things from a fresh perspective. And even then, sometimes it's not enough to change someone's behaviour. For many, the cost savings will be the biggest persuasion, as not everyone shares the same values (such as protecting the environment).

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