The weather Gods here in the Bay Area may not have gotten the message, but today is the indeed first day of spring. And while for some that just means that it’s the time of year when you have to bring 47 different layers with you every time you leave the house due to the indecisive weather — freezing in the morning, 80 degrees by lunchtime and a freak rainstorm at 2pm (welcome to everyday in San Francisco, by the way), for others it’s a time for renewal and fresh starts.
And fresh starts also means it’s time for perhaps my favorite part of spring, because I’m weird like that — spring cleaning. Unfortunately most of the conventional cleaning products are petroleum based and contain harsh cocktails of chemicals that can be bad for both your health and the environment.
Not only do many common household cleaning supplies contain allergens and irritants, they also contain many ingredients that have been linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive disruption and neurotoxicity. Some of the biggest culprits are below:
- Phthalates – Phthalates are found in many fragranced household products like air fresheners, dish soap, and most likely anything else that you see with the word “fragrance” listed on the label. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors, meaning that they can have adverse effects on the male reproductive system.
- Perchloroethylene or “Perc” – Perc is found in most dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet/upholstery cleaners. It’s also a neurotoxin accodring to the chief scientist of environmental protection for the New York General’s office, and the EPA has classified it as a “possible carcinogen.”
- Triclosan – Triclosan is found in most liquid dishwashing soaps and hand soaps labeled “antibacterial.” Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that can promot the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Studies have also linked it to endocrine disruption and is listed as a probable carcinogen.
- Quaternary Ammonium Compounds or “Quats” – Quats are often found in fabric softener and most household cleaners labeled “antibacterial.” Similar to triclosan, they help breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They are also a skin irritant and suspected of being a cause of respiratory disorders.
- 2-Butoxyethanol – 2-Butoxyethanol is found in many window, kitchen and multipurpose cleaners. It is a member of the “glycol ethers,” which, according to the EPA can cause sore throats when inhaled, and at high levels can contribute to narcosis, pulmonary edema, liver and kidney damage. Law also doesn’t require 2-butoxyethanol to be listed on a product’s label.
- Ammonia – Ammonia is commonly found in polishing agents and glass cleaners. It is also an irritant, especially for those with asthma, lung issues and breathing problems. It can also create a poisonous gas if mixed with bleach.
- Chlorine – Chlorine is found in scouring powders, toilet bowl cleaners, mildew removers, laundry whiteners. In the short term, chlorine can be a respiratory irritant, in the long term, it can potentially be a thyroid disruptor.
- Sodium Hydroxide or Lye – Sodium hydroxide can be found in oven cleaners and drain openers. If it’s inhaled, sodium hydroxide can cause a severe sore throat. And that same corrosive nature that is cleaning the oven and clearing those drains, can also cause severe burns if it touches your skin or gets in your eyes. f it’s inhaled
To add to the problem, the chemicals in household cleaners also have an impact on the environment. Most chemical cleaners break down into harmless substances during treatment or soon after, however others definitely do not. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency names phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia among other chemicals, under the term “Volatile Organic Compounds” (or “VOCs”), as the world environmental hazards in household cleaners. These chemicals are not removed from water by waste treatment and instead enter our waterways. This can threaten water quality, fish and other wildlife. In some cases, they can also contribute to smog.
Additionally, since most of the chemicals in cleaning products are petroleum based, they contribute to the depletion of the non-renewable resource. And last, but not least is the packaging. Many products come in plastic packaging — which contributes to our plastic problem, which I’ve written about before.
Luckily that are many natural product and methods to get the job done without all of those toxic side effects. First, here are some general tips and tricks:
- Look for simple detergents and soaps with shorter ingredient lists or products that use plant-based ingredients (that is, if the ingredients are listed, often times they are not).
- Beware of “greenwashing.” Just because a product says it’s “green,” “natural,” or “biodegradable,” doesn’t always mean it’s nontoxic. And although, “organic” at the grocery store refers to foods grown without synthetic pesticides, in chemistry it refers to chemicals that are carbon-based (which can include VOCs), so it doesn’t mean much when it comes to cleaners.
- Watch for any labels that have words such as “Danger,” “Warning,” or “Caution.” Products labeled “Danger,” or “Poison,” are typically most hazardous; “Warning,” typically signals moderately hazardous; and “Caution,” should be considered slightly toxic. You can also look for phrases such as “may cause skin irritation,” flammable,” “vapors harmful,” or “may cause burns,” as a tell-tale sign that there are some iffy ingredients.
- Look instead for labels that say “solvent-free,” “no petroleum-based ingredients,” “no phosphates,” etc. Also, look for specifics. Instead of just “biodegradable,” look for products that give a time limit, i.e. “biodegradable in 3 to 5 days.”
- You can also look for these three labels:
- Green Seal Certified – Green Seal provides credible, science-based environmental certification standards. Products and services must meet the requirements in Green Seal standards in order to achieve certification. The standards are based on a life cycle approach, considering such impacts as those from raw material extraction, manufacturing, use and re-use or disposal.
- EcoLogo – EcoLogo is one of the oldest and most trusted eco-labeling programs. The voluntary standard helps manufacturers and consumers easily identify environmentally preferred products, and tells the story of a product’s environmental performance throughout its entire life cycle. It indicates the product has undergone rigorous scientific testing and exhaustive auditing to prove its compliance.
- Safer Choice – Safer Choice is the EPA’s label for safer chemical – based products. To be eligible for the label, a product must comply with the Safer Choice Standard which has very stringent human health and environmental criteria.
- Avoid antibacterial products for home use. And, if you absolutely must use hand sanitizer (hello porta potty at your local spring festival), choose one that is alcohol based, and without triclosan.
- Instead of products with “fragrance” listed, look for fragrance free, all-natural and products using essential oils.
- Watch your packaging. To reduce package waste, look for the largest container available, and look for bottles that use recycled plastic. You can also look for concentrated formulas which, since they are less dilluted, require less packaging and less fuel to ship.
- Instead of taking your “dry clean only” items to the dry cleaner, try a “wet cleaner,” which uses water-based technology rather than chemical solvents.
- Make vinegar and baking soda your new best friends (see below DIY cleaners for more).
Okay, okay, so now to the good stuff. Below are some of my favorite brands/products for getting down and dirty (or the opposite, depending on how you want to look at it):
Eco-Me uses only ingredients that are food-grade and plant-sourced, such as vinegar and sugar-based cleaning agents. Their products are free of harmful chemicals (bye, bye phosphates and chlorine), no harsh fumes, no sulphates, no distillates and no perfumes or dyes. And, they pretty much have you covered for every room of the house.
Certified B-Corp, Method Products, was a pioneer of premium environmentally-conscious and design-driven home, fabric and personal care products. Their mission is to inspire a healthy, happy home revolution with cleaners formulated to “hurt dirt without doing harm to people, creatures or our planet.” They use green chemistry and practice a Cradle to Cradle philosophy, which means that for every product they consider the past, present and future implications and monitor everything from the environmental quality of their products to how they manufacture them.
Once reserved in my mind for dirty hippies (that were probably actually quite clean in hindsight), Dr. Bronner’s is ruled by six Cosmic Principles that define their most important relationships and guides them in everything they do:
- Work Hard! Grow!
- Do Right By Customers (meaning they strive to make the best soaps using fair trade and vegan ingredients with no synthetic preservatives or foaming agents)
- Employees Like Family (i.e. be kinda, reward generously and support good and healthy living)
- Be Fair to Suppliers (meaning they build relationships with organic farmers and producers, pay fair wages and excellent working conditions)
- Treat The Earth Like Home (i.e. they do not waste and do not harm the land, people or animals)
- Fund & Fight For What’s Right! (meaning the company strives to be an engine for positive change)
Their 18-in-1 Pure-Castile soaps are good for just about any cleaning task (from dishes, to laundry to mopping to face, body and hair) with no synthetic preservatives, detergents or foaming agents. They also carry Sal Suds to clean all of the hard surfaces in your home. Their soap is also concentrated, so a little goes a long, long way.
Bon Ami was originally developed as a gentle alternative to the gritty quartz-based scouring powders on store shelves in the 1880s, where they used feldspar (an unused mineral from quartz) and made a cleanser that polished the dirt away with scratching. Today, the company offers a range of products, all made using green chemistry, that are biodegradable and free of phosphates and chlorine. Their ingredients are simple, effective, non-toxic and hypoallergenic. And their packaging is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic.
Biokleen was started in the 1980s, before “natural” was trendy, when a sales executive for a chemical supply company didn’t feel right about the negative health and environmental impacts of toxic-rich cleaners. He started Biokleen as a natural and effective alternative and have grown to offer a full line of cleaners for every room. Today they are guided by a commitment to people, animals and our planet, and harness the power of nature to produce plant and mineral based cleaners that really work. They also are focussed on being green throughout their manufacturing process, from installing skylights to naturally heat and illuminate their plat to manufacturing with cold water to reduce both their gas reliance and output.
Ecover is on a mission to pioneer clean, saying, “When we think about cleaning up, we don’t just mean your dirty laundry, we believe in protecting the planet with every product we make.” Started in 1979, by a group of “eco-pioneers,” the company took inspiration from nature and learned that through fermentation they could turn sugars into alcohol that could then be used as a solvent to dissolve oils and other stains. They introduced the world’s first phosphate free laundry detergent and have continued to be inspired by nature ever since, always looking for new ways to do things and new ways to reduce their impact. Today they offer 35 products, use plastic derived from sugarcane in their packaging and are opening a new manufacturing facility that is anticipated to be the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified plant in the industry.
For even more, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Top Green Cleaning Products. And, in addition to these brands, there are also a lot of alternative ingredients and DIY cleaning recipes out there. See below for a just a few:
- Instead of fabric softener or dryer sheets, use vinegar (white vinegar is best, so as not to stain. It removes soap residue in the rinse cycle and helps prevent static cling in the dryer.
- Vinegar is also your best choice for general cleaning. Toilet bowls. Whitening clothes. You name it, there’s probably a vinegar mixture that will take care of it.
- For scrubbing, use baking soda. You can clean your oven using a baking-soda paste.
- To unclog drains, you can also try pouring a cup of baking soda and vinegar down the drain and plug it for 30 minutes. After the bubble dies down, run hot water down the drain to clear debris.
- Use tea-tree oil as an alternative to chemical disinfectants. It’s also an antibacterial and antifungal. Mix a few drops of tea-tree oil and a tablespoon of vinegar with water in a spray bottle for a safe, germ killing, all-purpose cleaner. Add a couple of drops of lavender essential oil for scent.
- To clean mirrors and windows, use newspaper diluted with vinegar instead of using window cleaner.
- Use vodka to polish your metal and mirrored surfaces (and I won’t judge if you take a few swigs while you’re at it, cleaning can get tough). Toothpaste will work to polish your silver.
- For more DIY recipes, check out The Naturally Clean Home: 150 Super-Easy Herbal Formulas for Green Cleaning by Karen Siegel-Maier or Super Natural Home: Improve Your Health, Home, and Planet–One Room at a Time by Beth Greer, and this Non-Toxic Home Cleaning guide from Earth Easy is a great online resource.