According to U.S. Poison Control Centers, cleaning products account for nearly 10% of all toxic exposures (with an alarming 206,636 calls in the year of 2000 alone) -- and over half of these involved children under six years old. Some ingredients in household cleaners do not and should not be mixed with ingredients in other household cleaners, as the result can be strictly poisonous. It’s difficult for consumers to determine what products are safe to use together on household surfaces, as many chemical ingredients are undisclosed, simply listed as “preservative” or “cleansing agent” on the label.
Common household chemicals can cause a range of human health problems -- with acute ailments including shortness of breath, coughing, sneezing, migraines, and rashes, and long-term side effects correlated with asthma, allergies, and even cancer. These toxic household ingredients not only threaten consumers, they also threaten the world we live in. In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey found that 69% of the nation’s streams were contaminated with detergent residues. These chemical agents, called surfactants, have been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen, and when they come in contact with fish and other wildlife, reproduction and survival rates are seriously compromised.
MAKING A GREENER CLEANER
The good news is that making green household cleaners yourself is not only feasible, but also simple and cost-effective. Ounce for ounce, making your own cleaner at home is only one-tenth of what the same product would cost at the grocery store! Most cleaning formulas can be made in minutes (seconds, really) with common ingredients you already have around the house. Take a deeper look at some of the types of chemicals in common household cleaners. Learn what they do, why they are harmful, and what some natural alternatives are.
The bad: Cleaning agents in household products can be derived from any number of chemicals or plants. The main type of cleaner is called a surfactant. These are responsible for cleaning, emulsifying, and foaming -- all actions that result in “cleaning.” Petroleum, one of the most common surfactants, is toxic to the nervous system, lungs, eyes, nose, and throat (not to mention that it is a non-renewable resource!)
The good: All that’s really needed to clean up dirt is a good acidic base, such as lemon or vinegar, and a sudsing agent, such as liquid castile soap. These can be used on their own or together for ultra dirt-cleaning power.
Formulas to try:
To clean up grease: cleaning expert Annie Berthold-Bond recommends applying a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of washing soda, 2 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon liquid soap, and 2 cups of hot water with a spray bottle.
To freshen the air: Mix 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and 2 cups hot water in a spray bottle. Add desired essential oil drops and shake well. Spray into air to remove odors.
The bad: Added to laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and surface cleaners of all sorts, fragrances cause acute (or immediate, short-term) respiratory infection, migraines, allergies, and asthma. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has found one-third of traditional fragrances used in these cleaning products to be toxic to humans.
The good: Baking soda truly is the panacea it has been talked up to be. Not only is it effective at scouring and cleaning, it’s effective at deodorizing surfaces and spaces. Sprinkled on rugs, left in the refrigerator, or added to cleaning recipes, it will remove all sorts of odors in the household. And rather than use artificial fragrances to make your rooms smell lovely, experiment with essential oils, which can enhance your cleaning products with scents of flowers, herbs, and citrus. Oil of lemon or orange, rose, lavender, rosemary, cinnamon, and peppermint are all excellent choices for making your household a place of health and comfort. Just a few drops into your greener cleaner recipes is all it takes.
Formulas to try: To Deodorize: Sprinkle baking soda or cornstarch on the carpet or rug, using about 1 cup per medium-sized room. Vacuum after 30 minutes.
The bad: Corrosives are the active ingredients in drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and toilet cleaners -- the chemicals are so strong that they can burn the skin, explode, and cause internal burns. What may be strong enough to singe your bathroom’s ceramic tile into cleanliness may not be the same thing you want to be using on your hands and inhaling.
The good: Baking soda and salt are two of the strongest (and safest) ways to scrub out grime from household surfaces. Depending on the toughness of the scouring job needed, experiment with different amounts of water to make a cleaning base thin or as thick as a paste.
Formulas to try: To clean the bathroom and toilet bowl: Soap and water, or baking soda for scrubbing soap scum and toilet bowls, work for most bathroom cleaning needs. Scrubbing shower tiles with a toothbrush of baking soda-water paste will help remove mildew and its stains.
The bad: The most common antiseptic used for killing bacteria is bleach, a well-documented toxin known to cause respiratory problems, internal and external burns, and react hazardously with other household chemicals.
The good: Bleach isn’t the only thing that kills bacteria -- natural acidic products work just as well on most household germs. Lemon juice and vinegar are the most commonly germ-killers used in green cleaners, but grapefruit seed extract is also very potent. Essential oils of lavender, clove, tea tree, and orange are also particularly helpful and can be added (just a few drops!) into your cleaning formula.
Formulas to try: To kill germs on surfaces: Make your own disinfectant by mixing 2 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of liquid soap and 20 to 30 drops of tea tree oil or other essential oils recommended above.
The bad: Made primarily of ammonia, glass cleaners are a strong irritant to the eyes and lungs -- so much so that people with lung problems are advised to avoid them altogether.
The good: Once again, a bit of natural acid in water is all it takes for a greener cleaner. Just as in cooking, when they say “lemon cuts fat,” so does it work on household surfaces. These natural acids quickly wipe up smears, smudges, and marks on glass. Add a drop or two of your fave essential oil for an extra finishing scent.
Formulas to try: To clean glass: Mix 2 tablespoons of white vinegar with a gallon of water, and dispense into a used spray bottle. Squirt on, then scrub with newspaper, not paper towels, which cause streaking. To polish furniture: Mix 1 cup lemon juice with 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp water; lightly apply to furniture using a soft cloth. Let sit for a couple of minutes, then buff. To clean wood floors: Make a solution of 1/4 cup white vinegar and 4 cups warm water (adding a drop or two of desired essential oils!). Put in a spray bottle, then spray on a cotton rag or towel until lightly damp. Then mop your floors, scrubbing away any grime.