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Getting rid of the ICK: Mold in the Shower

Getting rid of the ICK: Mold in the Shower

Mold growth in the shower seems to me like cockroaches in a house: even luxury homes sometimes have problems with each, and sometimes it takes a number of attempts to find a non-toxic solution for them!   The shower just happens to be the ideal place for mold to grow (moisture, food, air and heat are all applied daily!), so keeping the shower from looking like a petri dish can be challenging.  Let us help you with this problem!

Since we know, wittingly or unwittingly, how to grow mold, we can look at its life source requirements and see if we can eliminate one or more to get a mold-free shower.

Moisture:  You would think that taking the “wet” out of a shower is impossible.  Of course, the shower will often be wet, but the important bit is that it’s not continually wet or wet for long periods.  There are various ways to dry it out after showering; check to see if there are any that you haven’t tried! 

  • Make the surfaces hydrophobic:  Hydro-what?  Hydrophobic is the characteristic of products like Rain-X: they repel water instead of absorbing them, so that water drops roll right off.  The active ingredient in Rain-X is Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which is rated a “1” on scale of 1-10 by the Environmental Working Group (meaning it’s of very low toxicity).  In fact, here’s a tip that has worked well for me: after thoroughly cleaning your shower as well as you can (see next section), give all the surfaces, glass and otherwise, with a coat or two of Rain-X to make the water slide right off.

  • Squeegee: This tool, normally in the hands of a window-washer, is also useful for removing water from flat surfaces in the shower.  It can work somewhat on tile if the tiles are large and flat, but it works on glass even better.

  • Drain: Obviously, the water has to have somewhere to go.  If your drain is not working well, you can enlist the help of a plumber.  While the plumber is involved, inquire whether the venting of the drain is adequate (if a vent is too distant or non-existent, the drain does not work well and can cause mold build-up).  If the slope of the shower pan leaves puddles in the floor, it might be prudent to think about replacing or remodeling the shower, because continually wet floors are not only unsanitary, they’re unsafe!

Food: Molds can dine on just about anything, and dead skin cells and even bodywash and hair shampoo are on the menu.  That’s why regular cleaning can break the mold chain even if the other “links” like moisture, air and heat are present.  Find a non-abrasive sponge or brush to avoid damage, and go to town with a non-toxic cleaner:

  • TotalClean is our odorless powerhouse cleaner that can be used on any surface

  • Earth Clean is especially good as a degreaser if you have buildup of waxy products (citrus scent)

  • Force of Nature is a method of making electrolyzed water, which is a completely safe and natural disinfectant that can be used for hand sanitizing and cleaning all areas in your home that can tolerate water!  They have a line of reusable bottles and travel-size sprays that are great for the environment.

  • Vinegar-based cleaners also work, however make sure that they are safe for your shower surface first (for example, they should never be used on travertine or marble, both of which are a type of limestone that can be damaged by acids). 

Air: Of course, you can’t eliminate air from your bathroom, and some molds are even anaerobic anyway (meaning they can survive on little to no air!).  What’s best is if you can change out the air as much as possible, sweeping away excess humidity and mold spores with it.  This is what a good bathroom exhaust fan is for: get the air moving!  Professional restoration companies do the same when they bring in big blowers: air movement speeds up the drying process because it promotes evaporation of water from all the surfaces.  Check out our article on how to check if the size and venting arrangement of your bathroom exhaust fan is optimal.  Getting members of your household to use it is another feat, however this can be automatic if you have an electrician wire the switches together so that the vent always comes on with the light.  Also, here’s another way to “condition” the air in your bathroom to avoid mold:  use a Germ Defender 24/7.   The ions created by the Germ Defender not only destroy mold and its spores in the air and on surfaces, it also sanitizes surfaces after they’ve been contaminated by the dreaded toilet plume.  

Heat:  Anyone who’s cleaned out a refrigerator knows that heat is not a pre-requisite for mold to grow!   However, it certainly makes a more hospitable environment for many molds to flourish.  Using your bathroom exhaust vent after showering  certainly helps reduce moist heat in the air.  

There are also many products worth mentioning that can keep your shower cleaner for longer.  

  • That pink slime that forms around your drains and shower corners can also populate the shower head, and it’s not good!  It’s actually caused by the bacteria Serratia marcescens, and can cause urinary and respiratory tract infections, which are especially problematic for people with immune problems. (Not So Pretty in Pink: What Is That Pink Slime in My Bathroom?)  There are other types of harmful bacteria in there as well, such as NTM (nontuberculosis mycobacteria).  Soaking your showerhead to clean it does not fully resolve the problem, because it does not dry out. If you can’t seem to get rid of it from the shower spray head, swap it out with one of these:

    • Shower Clear Shower Heads ($299-319) are made of brass (a naturally anti-microbial material) and are made to open fully to dry out between uses. 

    • This showerhead by Niagara ($28) features a removable faceplate that will also allow the showerhead to dry between uses.

    • AquaDance Antimicrobial has antimicrobial rubber tips that also prevent minerals from clogging the spray jets.  (It uses the material Microban, which does contain quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats”, however).  

  • Thankfully, there are several good changes happening in the shower curtain market.  For one, PVC shower curtains are being phased out and replaced with PEVA or EVA.  Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short, is that plastic with the strong smell that emits toxic VOCs which can disrupt hormones, liver and kidneys, and your nervous system.  EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) is a safer alternative to PVC, but some EVA contains formamide.  Formamide is used to make the foam soft, but it’s considered to be carcinogenic and a developmental toxin that can be absorbed through the skin. If you’re considering purchasing one of these doors made from EVA, it’s best to contact the manufacturer to ask if their product contains formamide. (hellonaturalliving.com)  

    • Sustainable Jungle also gives many organic and sustainable options to plastic shower curtains!  

    • Check out how I used TotalClean, our non-toxic all purpose cleaner, to clean the pink stains off the hem of my shower curtain.

  • And finally, what about your washcloth?  Experts say it’s a good idea to use a new one everyday, or at least several times a week.  Since it’s usually hanging in the moist shower, washcloths and scrubbies take a long time to dry, allowing microbes to grow and establish in the fibers.   

Since bathrooms are among everyone’s least favorite rooms to clean, and showers and toilets certainly also near the bottom, I’m liking the concept of wetrooms more and more.  Wetrooms are waterproofed bathrooms (at least all of the floor and some distance up the walls) that can be wetted and cleaned all in one go.  If you can’t do that, at least make your cleaning tools easy to use and accessible:

  • This Turbo Handheld Sprayer by Clorox ($50) eliminates the tiring pump, pump, pump of handsprayers.  Used with non-toxic cleaners like we suggested above, this could be a game-changer!  We don’t recommend the Clorox Turbo (or Turbo Pro) however, because it uses alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides, which can have asthma, respiratory, reproductive and developmental effects according to the Environmental Working Group.

  • E-Cloths Shower Cleaning Kit ($15) requires only water to have a sparkling shower.  Once you’ve cleaned it, use these two cloths on a regular basis (with no chemicals) to keep it clean.

  • The shower squeegee is a good way to remove water from the glass surfaces, but what about all the corners, curves and floor area?  If you thought about this before designing your bathroom, you might install an Airmada Air-Jet Shower Drying System.  It directs compressed air through special nozzles on the walls and ceiling of your shower, and can operate on a timer so that without your effort, water is removed from the equation and mold doesn’t have a chance to grow.  Another perk is that everyone can walk into a dry bathroom, no matter how many people have showered before you.  Now that is a great use of technology!

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

What’s the difference between dangerous mold and good fermentation?

What’s the difference between dangerous mold and good fermentation?

Maybe you’ve heard about fermented foods as one of the latest health fads, and are wondering (like I was), what’s the difference between green cheese discovered in the back of the fridge, and “good” stinky cheese, kombucha or sauerkraut?  They all seem to use microbes to change the flavor, so how can we tell the difference?  

Fermented foods are defined as “foods or beverages produced through controlled microbial growth, and the conversion of food components through enzymatic action” (my emphasis, from 2016 study).   The main difference, it turns out, is the intention and methods (control) of allowing food to ferment.   Fermented foods have been around for a loooong time.  When you have foods that are notoriously difficult to preserve (dairy) in a hot climate (the middle east and Africa), fermentation happens naturally and quickly.  As long ago as 10,000 BCE, people figured out how to control the natural bacteria present in cow, sheep, goat and camel milk to produce yogurt.  This is called “thermophilic lactic acid fermentation”. (Living History Farms)  This continued for centuries and in 1910, a Russian bacteriologist, Elie Metchnikoff, attributed the longer average lifespan of Bulgarians (87 years) to increased fermented milk consumption, and a particular strain of bacteria used in their fermented milk products.  Certain strains of “Lactobacillus bulgaricus” were shown to be able to survive and flourish in the human stomach and intestines, making them the first “probiotics” discovered.   Probiotics simply are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you, especially your digestive system. (webmd.com)  The “cultures” of live bacteria and yeasts in fermented foods make them full of natural probiotics.  However, ancient peoples (through the 1900s) were likely not eating them for their health benefits.  Fermenting was simply a form of food preservation.  Cheese, bread, vinegar and beer are all products of fermentation.  Food can be fermented naturally using the microbes that are present in the food itself, or by adding a “starter culture” that has the desirable microbes included. (2019 paper)

Many studies have been conducted on the health benefits of fermented foods.  Some have been proven, and others are disputed.  For example, compounds known as biologically active peptides, which are produced by the bacteria responsible for fermentation, are also well known for their health benefits. Among these peptides, conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) have a blood pressure lowering effect, exopolysaccharides exhibit prebiotic properties, bacteriocins show anti-microbial effects, sphingolipids have anti-carcinogenic and anti-microbial properties, and bioactive peptides exhibit anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, opioid antagonist, anti-allergenic, and blood pressure lowering effects. (paper investigating the health effects of fermented foods). As a current health hot topic, it’s best for you to do your own research on any fermented food you want to start including in your diet. 

There are many types of fermentation that are culture-specific, having such a strong smell and/or taste that to the uninitiated, may be called “rotten”!  In fact, “one person’s delicious fermentation is another person’s disgusting rot, and according to fermentation guru Sandor Ellix Katz, “Learning a sense of boundaries around what it is appropriate to eat is necessary for survival. But precisely where we lay those boundaries is highly subjective, and largely culturally determined.” (americastestkitchen.com) This is the case for hákarl, an Icelandic delicacy often referred to as “rotten shark”, Surströmming, a Swedish fermented herring product, natto, a slimy fermented Japanese soybean dish, and century eggs, which are fermented for 3 years in some Southeast Asian cultures.  (18 stinky foods around the world).

Okay…we know that heat and microbes will break down food whether or not we initiate it, so just what kinds of “control” can we exert over fermentation?

One key is just as invisible to the naked eye as the microbes themselves: air.  Fermentation is generally an anaerobic process, which occurs in an airless environment. Most desirable bacteria thrive in this oxygen-free environment digesting sugars, starches, and carbohydrates and releasing alcohols, carbon dioxide, and organic acids (which are what preserve the food). Most undesirable bacteria that cause spoilage, rotting, and decay of food can’t survive in this anaerobic environment. (Living History Farms)  Unfortunately, this reference does not point out at least one major exception: Clostridium botulinum, which produces botulism.  In order to keep vegetables from developing undesirable mold, for example, they are “weighed down” under the fermenting liquid so the food does not contact the air. 

According to Paul Adams, a researcher for America’s Test Kitchen,  we have a few other tools to keep the fermented product safer and less smelly:  salt, temperature and acidity.  For example, allowing cucumbers to sit in room temperature water will usually produce a scummy pink slime in short order, but changing the water for brine (saltwater) will produce some nice tangy pickles.  Brewing beer has its best results when controlling the temperature, so brewers have developed methods to decrease or increase the temperature of their kegs depending on the ambient air temperature.  Finally, acidity is a tool for controlling fermentation.  pH is the measure of acidity or alkalinity in a solution and pH changes due to changing chemical composition produced during fermentation.  pH also can control the species of microbes in fermentation.  For example, the low pH (acidity) of kombucha, owing mainly to the production of high concentration of acetic acid, has been shown to prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as Helicobacter pylori, Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhimurium and Campylobacter jejuni. (2019 paper) According to Utah State University Extension Service, for fermentation to be successful at eliminating all potential pathogens, the pH level must drop below an acidity of 4.6 verified by using a pH meter or test strip.  Foods that “appear” to be safe can still contain harmful pathogens.

What’s the difference between yeast and mold?

Yeasts and mold are both considered fungi.  Yeasts are microscopic fungi consisting of solitary cells that reproduce by budding. Molds, in contrast, are multi-cellular and occur in long filaments known as hyphae, which grow by apical extension (extending into fresh substrate). Yeasts do not produce spores; molds do.  Yeasts can grow in aerobic (with air) or anaerobic (airless) conditions; molds only grow in aerobic conditions.  Regardless of their shape or size, fungi are all heterotrophic (cannot produce their own food) and digest their food externally by releasing hydrolytic enzymes into their immediate surroundings (absorptive nutrition). (Introduction to Mycology textbook) Here is a highly magnified photo of the two:

Photo source: microbenotes.com

As a company concerned about air quality, HypoAir is typically anti-mold except where it’s cultured and processed carefully for medical and gastronomical reasons (like penicillin and cheese)!   Penicillium (P.) roqueforti, P. glaucum, and P. candidum are some common types of mold that are used in cheesemaking.  (thecheesemaker.com)  I’ve found out through researching this article that there are other types of mold that give fermented food its characteristic flavor and possible health benefits.  For example tempeh, an Indonesian fermented soybean cake, and Miso, a traditional Japanese paste of fermented soybean used to make miso soup, both contain molds that have no detrimental effects to humans.  Likewise, yeasts are familiar to those who make bread, but Kombucha, a fermented tea beverage reported to have originated in northern China, is also made with yeast.  The critical aspect of making each of these foods is providing the correct environment, including temperature, pH, humidity and salinity, to encourage the good fungus and discourage bad fungus!

Of course, there is a lot of information on the internet about making fermented foods at home.  Not all of them advise the safeguards that are necessary to prevent harmful bacteria from giving you life-threatening food poisoning, so it’s best to compare them to a source such as the USDA.  For example, this guide on safely fermenting food at home recommends starting fermentation only on fresh, clean vegetables and using non-iodized salt.  In addition, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has tips and tested recipes.

If you have any doubts about the safety of fermented food, throw it out!  The website fermentools.com gives the following advice on when to do so:

  • Visible fuzz, or white, pink, green, or black mold.
  • Extremely pungent and unpleasant stink.
  • Slimy, discolored vegetables.
  • A bad taste.  If your taste buds are offended, be safe and spit it out!

If you follow the safety guidelines, you can explore the world of fermented foods and maybe even make your own food combinations to surprise family and friends! (Who wouldn't like a delicious jar of well-preserved food?)

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash