The more I scrutinise the behind-the-scenes practices of hotels, the more I want to retrain as a toxicologist. I may not wear a lab coat to work or have post-nominal letters, but I am a geek when it comes to thinking about the link between our exposure to chemicals when we travel and physical and cognitive health. It’s definitely time we upped the conversation around the hosts sidestepping chemicals when it comes to their gardens, groceries and their great-looking interiors. How deeply do we think about what’s making the toiletries so perfumed, whether the pillows are infused with flame-retardant PBDEs, or if that Instagram-perfect pool is overloaded with chlorine?
Praise be for the growing number of holistically minded hoteliers. Pesticides and parabens are the tip of the xenobiotic iceberg. It’s not just sud-making sodium laureth sulfate to skip in the shower, but also phthalates, often used to thicken lotions and make fancy shampoos smell sweet. Aromatherapy, this ain’t: so it’s kinder hotels that lay on amenities that hail straight from nature. At Borgo Santo Pietro in Italy, many of the ingredients for their 20-room hotel and Michelin-starred restaurants are sourced from their 220-acre biodynamic farm. They have a dedicated laboratory for its botanical skincare range, Seed to Skin. The in-house herbalist at Borgo Pignano, also in Tuscany, is so sceptical of conditioners being properly organic, they don’t provide one. At The Scarlet near Newquay, the spa’s Oula products take their name from the Cornish word for owl – the family behind the UK’s first sustainable boutique hotel obviously consider the fully traceable, ethically sourced contents the wisest option.
It’s hard remembering the names of every nasty, but there are stand-out zeros and heroes. Water babies have a raft of considerations, especially if snorkelling or diving. Oxybenzone or octinoxate in sunscreens are such ruthless coral killers that the islands of Tahiti have banned them. Elysian Retreat in the Whitsundays and Pumpkin Island in the Southern Great Barrier Reef are among the eco-aware Australian abodes insisting all unguents are reef safe. Look out for ozone- and ultraviolet-cleansing in the pool’s small print. Apart from stinging eyes, chlorine is an aggressor to asthma and allergies. Saltwater skips a need for hazardous disinfectants – Austria’s Naturhotel Forsthofgut is one of many stays inviting us to swim in gentler saline solutions.
Environmentally friendlier low-VOC paints are increasingly an interior-design consideration, as benzene and formaldehyde are among the volatile organic compounds found in traditional emulsions – you would rarely see this information on a hotel website next to facilities and rates. Scrutinise the wall colour at Bankside, an Autograph hotel in SE1, and their paintwork is as compelling as the specially commissioned art collection. It’s just not as sexy to shout about.
In countries that are big players in textile manufacturing (an industry which contributes 10 per cent to global CO2 emissions, according to UN figures) it is significant when a new hotel brand declares their cotton predominantly organic, from earbuds to bed linen.
I helped develop the spirit of sustainability of Salt Resorts; as part of this, we pondered Mauritius’ weedkiller problem and the fact the country has the highest rates of cancer in Africa. Since the World Health Organisation cites thousands of cotton workers dying a year from pesticide poisoning, knowing the unbleached dressing gowns at Salt of Palmar are made from a coffee-bean by-product and mattresses containing free-from-hazardous-flame retardants might have you sleeping better. Made from natural latex, rubberised coconut fibre, horsehair, cactus fibres and seaweed, Cocomat mattresses are always a good sign. As well as starring in their own hotels in their motherland, Greece, they feature in the likes of Terre Blanche in the South of France and the Equinox Hotel in New York’s Hudson Yards.
The tropical sanctuary behind Asia’s first vegan restaurant The Farm at San Benito in the Philippines was an early advocate of veganism and raw food. As well as evangelising about plant-based diets, their small batches of cold-pressed coconut oil spill outside of the kitchen to be the non-hydrogenated, non-refined base for all their bathroom and spa toiletries, and their non-toxic cleaning products.
My prediction is this next decade will see us wanting places that go the extra mile to minimise pollutants and potential poisons — from the food they serve to the furniture we sleep in. More housekeeping departments are staying spick and span by using old-fashioned vinegar or lemon juice, rather than phosphate-loaded detergents. Declaring itself Denmark’s first chemical-free hotel in a converted transformer station in Copenhagen is super-chic Herman K. They’ve treated their bedrooms with an invisible, scent-free titanium dioxide coating called “CleanCoat”. Thanks to this self-disinfecting technology, the surfaces only need to be wiped with electrolysed water. We’ve woken up to the fact the word “natural” being splashed across cosmetics to comestibles, doesn’t mean much unless it’s qualified or certified. So considering most chemicals take decades to break down, it’s worth seeking out and celebrating the hotels sparing our air, water and soil systems by striking otherwise-invisible and often-mysterious toxins from their supply chains.