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Green Cleaning Tips

Fortunately, using the safest household cleaners doesn't have to be hard on your wallet.

Cleaning day is bad enough without having to worry about the list of strange-sounding ingredients that comprise many of the products we use. Surfactants? Phosphates? Phenols? Most of us just want our homes to look and smell nice for a few minutes before we dirty them up again.

While any cleaner will have some impact on the environment, many common household products contain extremely toxic substances that can be easily avoided. By making informed choices, we can limit our exposure to unhealthy chemicals and irritants, lessen our impact on the environment, and even save money in the process.

What Makes a Cleaning Product "Green"?

An increasing number of cleaning products now boast environmentally preferable qualities. This is great news! But how do we know which product is truly the safest and best to use? Is something better just because it says "green" and has a picture of the Earth on the label?

The Consumers Union, an independent group that researches consumer marketing practices, has evaluated numerous environmental terms on product labels and found them to be meaningless. These terms include: eco safe, environmentally friendly, environmentally preferable, environmentally safe, green, and nontoxic. A product using any of these terms may actually be a good choice, but there are no standards to define them, no way to verify if the assertion is true, and no organization enforcing any of the claims. It is solely the manufacturer's choice to use any of these terms to sell a cleaner.

Unlike food producers, cleaning product manufacturers aren't required to disclose all the ingredients. Only one U.S. organization, the independent nonprofit Green Seal, has developed comprehensive standards for environmentally preferable household cleaners. However, no manufacturers have actually applied for this certification, and most shoppers don't even know that certification standards exist. Until certified "green" products become more commonplace, consumers are on their own to evaluate products and their environmental claims.

Make It Yourself

The only sure way to know what's in your sprays and scrubs is to make them yourself from simple ingredients. This is also great for the wallet—homemade cleaners are almost always significantly cheaper than even the cheapest manufactured brands.

Most effective home recipes can be mixed in a minute or two; in fact, many require no preparation at all. Plus, you can save time and space by using many of the same staple ingredients over and over for a variety of purposes. White vinegar, baking soda, borax, and olive oil are all commonly used in home recipes, and odds are you already have many of these items in your kitchen or laundry room. Baking soda alone can be used for dozens and dozens of jobs, from scrubbing counters and deodorizing the fridge to freshening carpets and clearing drains.

While home recipes are widely regarded as effective, some may require more soaking time or elbow grease than commercial cleaners. Consulting a book that explains how recipes work is highly recommended. Popular options include Clean and Green and Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond; Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan; and The Naturally Clean Home: 101 Safe and Easy Herbal Formulas for Non-Toxic Cleansers by Karyn Siegel-Maier. On the web, offers many of Berthold-Bond's home recipes and advice—for free!

It is important to remember that even though you are using simple ingredients, homemade cleaners are not "nontoxic." Anything can be toxic when consumed in a large enough quantity. And a cleaner that is safe enough to eat (like lemon juice) can be still irritating to the eyes or skin. Always use established recipes from a reputable source, store mixed cleaners away from children, and label your concoctions in case of accidental ingestion.

One final word of caution: Never, ever mix ammonia with chlorine bleach. (More on these ingredients below.)

Commercial Products

While blanket claims of being "green" are difficult to substantiate, a few guidelines can help in making informed choices about commercially packaged cleaning products.

First, choose and use disinfectants wisely. Unlike a cleaner which removes dirt, a disinfectant kills microorganisms (such as bacteria) which may spread disease. Many people are led to believe that antibacterial products produce a "cleaner" clean, but it is actually regular soap that removes dirt. A disinfectant renders a surface sterile. These harsher products should be used sparingly, especially if you have a septic system, which relies on bacteria to function properly. One of the most common disinfectants, chlorine bleach, contains dangerous chemical compounds that are extremely toxic to human health. Oxygen bleaches have not been proven to have the same disinfecting capabilities as chlorine bleach. Instead, look for a hydrogen peroxide bleach, and remember to leave it on for at least ten minutes to kill germs—merely spraying and wiping will expose you to harsh chemicals without necessarily getting the job done.

Another good rule of thumb is to support companies that disclose all ingredients. Shopping for cleaners would be a lot easier on everyone if we knew what was in them. A few progressive companies including Ecover and Seventh Generation claim to disclose all ingredients, even though they are not required by law to do so—a model for other manufacturers.

Similarly, choose products that give the most specific information on ingredients and environmental claims. The term "biodegradable" suggests that a product will decompose in nature, but doesn't indicate the rate or extent of decomposition. It is better to choose a product that states that it "biodegrades completely in three days." The same goes for individual ingredients—"citrus-derived fragrance" is better than just "fragrance."

Perhaps most crucially, avoid products that are highly toxic to the environment, human health, or both. Here is a short list of problematic ingredients that are easily avoided, compiled from Green Seal, Seventh Generation, and Washington Toxics Coalition resources:

  • Corrosives. Avoid products labeled "Danger. Corrosive." Corrosives include some of the most dangerous chemicals in the home, such as lye, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid, and sulfuric acid—the active agents in many drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and toilet cleaners. These chemicals can burn the skin, cause internal burns if ingested, and explode if used incorrectly.
  • Chlorine bleach. Chlorine bleach is irritating to the lungs and eyes and contains trace amounts of organochlorines—extremely persistent and toxic chemical compounds known to cause cancer in animals, among other serious health problems. When mixed with ammonia, chlorine forms a potentially deadly gas.
  • Ammonia. Many home recipes and commercial products contain ammonia, but it is a strong eye and lung irritant and should particularly be avoided by anyone with asthma or other lung sensitivities.
  • Phosphates. Phosphates are naturally occurring minerals used in automatic dishwashing detergents as a water softener. When released back into the environment, phosphates can cause algae blooms in lakes and ponds that kill aquatic life. Look for "phosphate-free" dishwashing detergents, try a homemade recipe of half borax and half washing soda instead, or skip the dishwasher and use a dishpan and regular dish soap instead.
  • Petroleum products. Many surfactants (cleaning agents) are refined petroleum products that are linked with health problems and require environmentally harsh methods to extract and distill. Seventh Generation estimates that "the average household contains 63 different synthetic organic chemical products which total approximately 10 gallons of potentially hazardous petrochemicals." A few specific ones to avoid: diethylene glycol, nonylphenol ethxylate, and butyl cellosolve.

As a final tip, if you're unsure of a product, Mark Petruzzi of Green Seal recommends that you call the toll-free phone number on the package and request as much information as possible. "Don't be afraid to ask specific questions like, 'Can I use this around asthmatics?' or 'Does this contain endocrine disruptors?'" he advises. If a company does not provide a satisfactory answer, decide whether it's worth doing business with that company.

Cleaning your home shouldn't be a HAZMAT operation. With a little care, common sense, and a few basic ingredients, your home can be sparkly clean and healthy—without breaking the bank.

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