Do Natural Cleaners Work? Get non-toxic solutions for keeping your home sparkling
By Chanie Kirschner Posted March 15, 2010 from Woman's Day Magazine
Q: I’ve read all this stuff recently about not using toxic cleaners to clean my house, especially with kids around. But do these natural cleaners actually clean? If I really want my tub to shine and my toilet to sparkle, I feel like I need to use some good old-fashioned bleach, don’t I? Which nontoxic cleaners get the job done the best?
A: I know this might be hard to believe, and it took me a while to internalize myself (seeing as I usually scrub past clean straight into obsessive-compulsive), but you don’t need to use toxic ingredients to disinfect your tub or toilet. And in fact, using these cleaners — even having them around — can be bad for you, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Let’s have a little chemistry lesson, shall we? What do you get when you mix chlorine and ammonia, two of the most common ingredients in household cleaners? That’s right, you got it — potentially poisonous gas. Now, you could avoid mixing these two ingredients or you could avoid having these two harmful substances in your house altogether by picking natural cleaners instead. How do you know what’s really natural?
Chemistry lesson over. Time for gym! (I’m making you work for this one.) Go find your go-to household cleaner. (I’ll wait.) Now — turn it around and look at the ingredient list. That’s it, keep turning … You won’t find it! Cleaning supply manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on the label, and that's part of the problem. Try to stay away from products that simply tout themselves as “organic” or “natural” without the specifics to back it up. Look for products that say “ammonia-free” or “chlorine-free” on the label. Some companies that make natural cleaners, like Seventh Generation and Ecover, do list their ingredients on the label, a sure sign that they’re not afraid to lay all their cards on the table.
The truth is, once you get it out of your head that you need your house to smell like a freshly sterilized hospital room, you'll find your best cleaning supplies right in your own pantry. Baking soda and vinegar will often work to clean just about anything, including toilet bowls, soap scum and kitchen sinks.
Have a clogged drain? Pour one cup vinegar, then one cup baking soda down the drain. Let it sit for a few minutes and follow with a cup of boiling hot water. Usually this’ll be just as effective as the most expensive drain cleaners, and drain cleaners can be one of the most toxic things in your cleaning cadre. They can be bad for your pipes, and they are the last thing you want your toddler mistakenly guzzling down when he can’t find his sippy cup (shudder).
What about everyday household cleaning? Mix 1 cup vinegar with 1 cup water in a spray bottle and you’re ready to go. For more serious disinfecting, try having one spray bottle of vinegar around and one spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide (make this one a dark bottle since light can change the properties of hydrogen peroxide). Research has shown that spraying these two nontoxic ingredients on your countertops can kill 10 times more bacteria than peroxide alone.
No matter what you choose, know that you’re doing the best thing for your family’s health. After all, why bother using toxic cleaners when the ones Mother Nature invented often work just as well?
Germs and Other Concerns
You may be worried about do-it-yourself green cleaners not being able to kill germs effectively. Researchers at Tufts New England Medical Center, on the other hand, worry that we’re killing too many microorganisms, saying that disinfectants found in household cleaners may contribute to drug resistant bacteria. The CHEC says that ordinary soap and water do the job well enough to keep our families safe, barring someone with a seriously compromised immune system.
For most of us, the best way to prevent the spread of harmful microorganisms is to wash our hands frequently. Also, disinfect any sponges you’re using weekly by boiling them in water for three minutes and then microwaving them for a minute or two. Launder dish rags every week.
Are Conventional Household Cleaners Harmful?
It's no secret that almost all conventional household cleaners contain some toxic ingredients. Many contain carcinogens or suspected carcinogens, as well. However, the danger the chemicals pose really depends on how often you use the products in which they're found and the length of time you're exposed to the fumes. Some of the effects are unpleasant but transient. Here's a list of some of the common chemicals found in household products and the symptoms they can cause.
- Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite): If mixed with ammonia, vinegar or other acid-based cleaners, it will release toxic chloramine gas; short-term exposure to this gas can cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems. Never mix bleach with these other substances.
- Petroleum distillates: Found in metal polishes, these chemicals can irritate the eyes and lungs; longer-term exposure can damage the nervous system, kidneys, eyes and skin.
- Ammonia: Can irritate eyes and lungs and cause headaches.
- Phenol and cresol: Found in disinfectants, and if ingested can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and kidney and liver damage.
- Nitrobenzene: Found in furniture and floor polishes, and if inhaled can cause shallow breathing; if ingested can cause poisoning and death. This substance has also been linked to cancer and birth defects.
- Formaldehyde: Used as a preservative in many household products, formaldehyde is a suspected human carcinogen that can irritate your eyes, throat, skin and lungs.
- Naphthalene: Found in mothballs, this suspected carcinogen may damage the eyes, blood cells, liver, kidneys, skin and the central nervous system.
- Paradichlorbenzene: Another chemical in mothballs, can harm the central nervous system, liver and kidneys.
- Hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate: Found in toilet bowl cleaners, these chemicals can burn the skin and cause blindness if splashed in the eyes, or can burn the stomach if ingested.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to use green cleaners is to keep potent toxins out of your home. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that many household cleaners contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde and harsh acids. Since indoor VOC levels are often two to five times greater than outdoor levels, humans can experience “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous systems” from indoor exposure to these chemicals, according to the EPA. “Some [VOCs] can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans,” the agency says. Most modern chemical cleaners are, quite simply, overkill, notes the nonprofit Children’s Health.