Ironically, many of the products on the market that are designed for household cleaning actually add chemical contaminants to the air around you, the water outside, and potentially your own body—if you inhale them or absorb them through your skin.
What Are the Risks?
Which Products Are Safe?
- Full disclosure:
Seek out products from companies that name every ingredient on the package or on their website – you’ll easily be able to discover whether they are safe. Such cleansers can be hard to find, though, as manufacturers are not require by law to list specific ingredients on their labels. If you can’t find any with detailed ingredient listings, select products that tell you what’s not inside—for example “No ammonia,” “No chlorine,” “No petrochemicals,” and “No sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate.”
- Endorsement by a respected agency or organization:
Independent groups such as Green Seal, Cradle to Cradle, the Leaping Bunny, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program analyze products and certify that their ingredients do not pose a risk to health or the environment.
- Avoid products making vague or unsubstantiated claims:
Words like “natural,” “eco-friendly,” and “non-toxic” aren’t backed up by any federal or industry regulations, so they can mean almost anything – or nothing. Similarly, “biodegradable” sounds earth-friendly, but in truth, every substance will break down in time, under the right conditions.
- Don’t buy cleansers containing surfactants:
Such as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), DEA, and TEA; nerve-damaging butyl cellosolve; chlorine; ammonia; fragrances containing phthalates; the antibacterial triclosan; and petroleum-based ingredients. (Green Guide #2) Stay away from 1,4 dicholorobenzene (a volatile organic compound also known as 1,4 DCB): It’s what puts the odor into mothballs and can also be found in air fresheners and insecticides – and it can trigger asthma.
What Are the Alternatives?
- Windows: DIY goddess Martha Stewart suggests mixing equal parts white vinegar and hot water, and applying with a good quality squeegee.
- Kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry: You put it in your homemade cookies and you probably have an open box absorbing odors in your refrigerator too. Green living expert Annie B. Bond suggests some other uses for baking soda: Sprinkle it on a damp sponge or cloth, and it can be used as a gentle, nonabrasive cleanser for countertops, sinks, bathtubs, ovens, and on fiberglass. Add a cup to your washerload, and it will neutralize odors. (Use it as an air freshener and carpet deodorizer too!)
- Carpets and rugs: If you’re dealing with a season’s worth of dirt, sand, or salt on rugs that aren’t fastened to the floor, take the rug outside and beat it with a broom. To attack stains before they’ve set, try dousing the soiled area with club soda, then blot with a rag. If you’re dealing with a big spill, cover it with cornmeal (hint: in terms of amount, think “dump” rather than “sprinkle”), wait 5 to 15 minutes, and vacuum. To make spot cleaner, put one-quarter cup liquid soap and one-third cup water into a blender and mix until foamy. Spray the mixture on the spot, then rinse with vinegar. To deodorize: sprinkle baking soda or cornstarch on the carpet (use about a cup per medium-size room), wait 30 minutes, then vacuum.
- All-purpose cleaning: Here’s a quick and easy recipe that may replace your conventional all-purpose cleanser. Mix one-half cup of borax with one gallon of hot water. Make sure the borax dissolves completely. Apply, then wipe clean with a rag. (For one spray-bottle’s worth, use one-eighth cup of borax and a quart of hot water.)
- Furniture: Dust and polish your wood furniture with a mixture of one-half cup white vinegar and one teaspoon olive oil.
- Metal: To polish copper and brass, add white vinegar to 2 tablespoons of salt to make a paste (adding flour will reduce the abrasiveness, if desired). Apply with a rag and rub clean. To polish stainless steel, apply baking soda with a damp cloth. Scrub stubborn spots with white vinegar.