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Cleaning Products That Are Environmentally Friendly

Give your house a healthy glow using environmentally friendly cleaning products

Green household cleaning

When we get out the rags and the wash buckets, we have the best of intentions. Cleanliness is a virtue, right? And healthy too! Well, if you use conventional cleaning products, perhaps not. Have you ever cleaned your shower or oven and then had teary eyes, burning nasal tissues, an itchy throat, a headache, or dizziness? Guess what? All of these symptoms and more could have been caused by chemicals commonly found in household cleaners. Some cleaners even contain suspected carcinogens and reproductive and developmental poisons. Some are thought to cause asthma. According to the American Thoracic Society, using conventional household cleaning sprays once a week may increase the risk of developing adult asthma, and may be responsible for one in every seven adult asthma cases. The higher the concentration of cleaning products in indoor air, the greater the risk that a child will develop asthma.

Some conventional household cleaners also sully the environment with ingredients that can contaminate the air, water, and soil when they are manufactured, used, and thrown away. Cleaning products with phosphates, for example, can cause “dead zones” in lakes and streams. Triclosan, a chemical used in antibacterial cleaners that has been shown to interfere with thyroid function in animals, is now polluting more than 60% of U.S. streams.


Top Tips

At home

  • Make your own. It’s easy to make your own environmentally friendly cleaning products using basic ingredients such as baking soda, lemon juice, liquid castile (or vegetable-based) soap, vinegar, and salt. Though some take a little more elbow grease than conventional cleaners, they are a lot safer. Try some of these simple homemade green cleaning supplies:
    • Creamy soft scrub. This is a great mild abrasive cleaner, and can be used for most tubs, showers, toilets, countertops, and sinks, including stainless steel, Corian, Formica, engineered quartz, and glass. Should be used sparingly on fiberglass. Mix 1 cup baking soda with 1/4 cup liquid castile (vegetable-based) soap in a glass jar. You can add more soap if you want a creamier soft scrub. Stir. Add 2 teaspoons vegetable glycerin (available at most natural food stores and many drugstores) if you want it to keep it for up to a year; otherwise, it will harden. You can add a couple of drops of a favorite organic essential oil (extracted from plant parts) if you want a pleasant scent–or try almond or peppermint castile soap.
    • All-purpose green cleaner. Combine 2 cups white vinegar with 2 cups water in a spray bottle. Again, you can scent with a few drops of essential oil. As with all acidic solutions, do not use this on marble. It will destroy the finish and can even etch the surface. Another option is 3 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in warm water in a spray bottle.
    • Scouring powder. Mix 3 parts baking soda with 1 part borax (found in the laundry aisle). Keep handy in a shaker jar and sprinkle with some essential oil if you like. Borax should not be ingested, so store out of reach of children, and can cause skin irritation in some people.
  • Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate! While cleaning with conventional cleaners, open windows and doors to allow air to circulate. This will reduce the buildup of chemicals.
  • Follow directions. If you must use a strong chemical, make sure you understand the safest possible way to use it.
  • Try microfiber cloths. Microfiber cleaning cloths are made to trap dirt and grime. They can absorb oils and hold many times their weight in water. They can eliminate or reduce the use of conventional cleaners for floors, furniture, and dusting–and can be used over and over. Made of synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, they are not a renewable resource, but then neither are conventional cleaners.
  • Green your towels. Use cloth instead of paper towels. Good ones can easily be made by cutting up old T-shirts, towels, or sheets. If you prefer paper towels for certain tasks, make sure they’re made from post-consumer recycled fibers and free of chlorine bleach. If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin paper towels with 100% recycled ones, we’d save 544,000 trees!

When shopping, look for

  • Warning labels. U.S. manufacturers don’t have to list all ingredients, but they are required to warn you about the dangers of certain cleaning products. “Danger” and “poison” labels are reserved for the most hazardous ones. Products with “caution” or “warning” are slightly safer. Cleaning products that don’t have any of these labels are generally the safest. Also look for specific hazard warnings such as “vapors harmful” or “may cause burns.” Be careful, though. Our current labeling system gives you a heads-up about certain short-term dangers, but it won’t help with chemicals with long-term effects, such as asthma or reproductive harm.
  • Honest advertising. “Natural,” “earth-” or “eco-friendly,” and even “nontoxic” aren’t regulated terms in the United States, so they don’t mean much. Look for specific claims such as “contains no phthalates,” “phosphate free,” and “biodegradable within 10 days” when shopping for environmentally friendly cleaning products.
  • Minimalist packaging. Opt for environmentally friendly cleaning products that don’t waste resources on excess packaging or that use recycled materials.

Avoid
Ingredients and products you should try to avoid include:

  • Air fresheners. Conventional air fresheners can contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as d-limonene that can irritate your eyes, skin, and respiratory system and cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
  • Alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs). These chemicals are found in laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, and stain removers. They are “surfactants,” which form a bridge between chemicals that don’t readily mix, allowing products to remove dirt from surfaces. But unfortunately APEs break down into hormone-disrupting chemicals. They are found in household dust, and some pass through our sewage treatment plants to wind up in our steams and rivers. APEs and their breakdown chemicals in streams and rivers harm wildlife. The European Union and Canada have banned some types of APEs from cleaning products.
  • Antibacterial products. Antibacterial products are not any more effective than plain soap and hot water, except in situations involving immune compromised individuals. And they have serious downsides. The commonly used Triclosan is causing deformities in tadpoles in U.S. lakes and streams–and has recently been found in human breast milk. In addition, Triclosan may encourage the growth of “superbugs” by promoting the growth of bacteria that are resistant to it.
  • Chlorine Bleach. Sold by itself and as an ingredient in many household cleaners, chlorine bleach is irritating to the lungs and eyes and responsible for numerous poisoning incidents every year. Once in a wastewater treatment system, reacts with other chemicals, potentially forming even more-harmful substances.
  • Fragrances. Skip that” mountain fresh” scent created by synthetic fragrances. Many air fresheners contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.
  • Glycol ethers. Found in glass cleaners, floor cleaners, and oven cleaners, some glycol ethers are reproductive toxicants. One of the more common one is 2-butoxyethanol (aka butyl glycol or butyl cellosolve), which can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and liver and be absorbed by the skin from the air.
  • Monoethanolamine (MEA). A surfactant found in detergents, all-purpose cleaners, and floor cleaners, MEA may induce asthma attacks.
  • Petroleum distillates. Typically used as solvents, petroleum distillates are found in metal polishes and adhesive removers. They can cause temporary eye clouding, as well as long-term damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and eyes.
  • Phenol and cresol. Often found in disinfectants, phenol and cresol can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and kidney and liver damage.
  • Phosphates. Largely phased out of most laundry detergents, phosphates are still found in dishwashing detergents. The nutrients they add to our water systems can result in increased growth of algae and plants, as well as an increase in the bacteria that feed on the algae and plants when they die. These bacteria rob the water of its dissolved oxygen, killing fish and other aquatic organisms.
  • Spray cleaners. While convenient, spray cleaners are more closely linked to asthma and respiratory irritation than similar liquid cleaners. The fine sprays of droplets of cleaning products have been linked to increased risks of asthma, but using a similar cleaner in a non-spray form has not shown any increased risk. A simple switch can protect your respiratory health.

Benefits…

…to your health
Asthma and allergy sufferers frequently feel healthier after eliminating conventional cleaners.

…to your wallet
Homemade cleaners are easy on the wallet. If you decide to buy a cleaner, however, opting for one all-purpose cleaner (a green one, of course!) is a lot cheaper than buying a host of specialty cleaners.

…to the Earth
Saying no to conventional cleaners will reduce the amount of chemicals that wind up in our environment.


Common Mistakes

  • Believing what you see on the package. Don’t spend more on pretty pictures and vague claims about being an environmentally friendly cleaning product. If you want to buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, make sure they’re really greener than conventional cleaners. Look for specific claims regarding the product’s “greenness.” Steer clear of problem ingredients. Check out reliable online resources, such as goodguide.com, or our Green Directory, before you go shopping.
  • Obsessing about germs. Despite all the hype, we don’t need antibacterials in everything from toothpaste to clothing, and really don’t need them in our cleaning products, because soap is safer and just as effective for most people.

Getting Started

  • It probably is the most earth friendly to use up the cleaners you already have, but you should get rid of any that you suspect are making you sick. Don’t pour them down the drain! They may well need to go to a hazardous waste site.
  • Do you really need a dusting agent, a window cleaner, a countertop cleaner, a tile cleaner, four different scrubs, and so forth? Try replacing some of your specialty cleaners with all-purpose cleaners.
  • Try a homemade cleaning recipe. Scared to get started? Try this: to clean your microwave, put some slices of lemon in 1 microwaveable cup of water. Heat on high for 3 minutes. Let sit for 3 minutes. Open up the microwave and wipe clean! The steam loosens any grime and the lemon kills germs and has a pleasant scent.
  • Use our Green Directory to find an environmentally friendly cleaning product retailer in your area!

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