I treat our tent a few times a year with a waterproofing spray because we love to go camping. I was very disturbed to read last month in the New York Times that waterproofing sprays can be very dangerous to the respiratory system. What do you suggest that we use instead? And for our boots in the winter?
Yes, waterproofing sprays as they exist now are a good example of win-lose products: They might do the job of repelling water on leather, tents, and other materials, but they can cause health and environmental harm.
Some good news is that there is a new breakthrough product on the horizon that mimics the leaf of the lotus, nature’s most repellent surface. The other is that some natural ingredients provide win-win waterproofing solutions. They work quite well and are also fine for health and the environment.
Michigan health officials issued an advisory for waterproofing products in spray cans because of numerous reports of serious respiratory illness in people and their pets. The chemical culprit causing is a Teflon-like chemical called fluorpolymer and its chemical relatives.
Fluoropolymers were banned in Canada for two years and since then they have plans to regulate, restrict or ban the entire class of the chemical. In 2005, EPA’s science advisory board recommended that fluoropolymer be classified as a likely human carcinogen.
Unfortunately, once we have floropolymers in our bodies it circulates there for years. If all new exposures to fluorpolymers were stopped, it would take us 4.4 years to excrete half of the fluoropolymers that have accumulated in our organs and tissues!
In my book, a zero-fluoropolymer lifestyle is the way to go, the only win-win for health and the environment, so we need to make do with the pretty good, but less than perfect, natural alternatives until the lotus-leaf repellent is considered safe and on the market.
Waterproofing Chemical Alternatives
Lanolin, beeswax, and linseed oil are often used as natural waterproofers. A fourth ingredient that works well as a waterproofer is to use straight jojoba oil. Linseed oil and beeswax seem to provide the most long lasting results, although lanolin or joboba are nice for a quick waterproofing of your boots; you just might need to repeat frequently. For any approach, make sure you thoroughly cover all exposed material that is to be waterproofed.
Lanolin is the pale-yellow natural oil secreted from the oil glands of wool-bearing animals. It’s a wax, not a fat, that’s naturally water-repellent. Because lanolin is often recommended for treating cracked nipples of breastfeeding women it is readily available in pharmacies. To waterproof leather, wipe off all dirt first and then simply rub lanolin into the leather like you would any other waterproofing treatment.
Beeswax is the glandular secretion of honeybees. It was used by the military in WWII to waterproof canvas tents, belts, and more. Ancient Greeks used beeswax and resin to waterproof the hulls of their ships.
Clean the material to be waterproofed, and then consider one of these waterproofing formulas:
Ingredients: Equal parts beeswax, tallow, and neatsfoot oil (available online).
Combine ingredients in a pan and heat slowly until melted. Rub onto the material to be waterproofed with a clean rag.
Ingredients: 4 oz. beeswax,
4 oz. resin or rosin (available in music stores),
1 pint vegetable oil.
Follow directions for Recipe 1, above.
This formula should last for a year. Don’t use it for suede or thin leather. Ingredient: Beeswax.
Heat beeswax until melted. Apply a thick coat to the material to be waterproofed with a clean rag. Make sure to cover all exposed areas. Let set overnight before buffing.
Flax or Linseed Oil
Linseed oil is derived from the flax plant. In the 18th and 19th centuries, linseed was commonly used to waterproof tarps and military packs. A century ago, fabric was coated in linseed oil to make oilcloths for kitchen tables. However, using linseed oil to waterproof fabrics results in stiff and heavy cloth.
Use raw linseed oil (make sure not to mistake linseed oil with chemical dryers as pure linseed oil.)
Apply with a rag. Wipe off excess 30 minutes later or so. Let set until dried (24 hours or so), and repeat.
Jojoba, commonly available in health food stores, is a liquid wax. Apply straight jojoba oil with a rag and buff.