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Natural Awakenings

The Dirt on Cleaning: Choose to Have a Green, Clean, Toxin-free Home

May 01, 2010 03:00AM ● By Erin Switalski

Despite what our mothers told us, a clean home isn’t always a healthy one. The laundry detergents, tub and tile sprays, air fresheners, drain cleaners and antibacterial soaps that promise “fresh and clean” may hide unseen and undisclosed dangers.

According to Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), a national women’s environmental organization, there are some 85,000 chemicals contained in products in the consumer marketplace, and only a fraction have been tested for their impact on human health. Labeling on cleaning products is not regulated, and not every manufacturer voluntarily discloses ingredients. To safely power through household dirt and bacteria without using questionable chemicals, try WVE’s green cleaning tips.

The Environmental Working Group’s analysis
of 20 common cleaning products used in California
schools found hundreds of airborne contaminants
not listed as ingredients by manufacturers. A test that
chose three green-certified classroom cleaners versus
three common conventional cleaners cut the total
number of air contaminants detected from 66 to 15.

Use fewer products. An all-purpose cleaner can handle many cleaning jobs around the house. It is not necessary to use a different product for each room (bathroom cleaner, kitchen cleaner, etc.). Check out the National Geographic Green Guide list of all-purpose cleaners at

Never mix products. Chemicals in cleaning products can have dangerous reactions with one another. For example, combining bleach and ammonia creates deadly chloramine fumes.

Use less toxic products. Avoid products marked “Danger” and “Poison,” and reduce the use of those labeled “Caution.”

• Avoid products containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially if anyone in the home has asthma. Aerosol sprays, cleaners and disinfectants, moth repellents and air fresheners are likely to contain VOCs.

• Avoid chemicals linked to reproductive harm. Products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as butoxyethanol and other glycol ethers include: all-purpose, glass, oven, tub/tile, carpet and floor cleaners; degreasers; stain removers; floor strippers; and metal polishes. The surfactant alkyl phenol ethoxylate (APE) is found primarily in: laundry detergents; non-chlorine sanitizers; deodorizers; floor care products; and multi-purpose, carpet and toilet bowl cleaners.

• Seek products that have been certified by an independent institution such as Green Seal ( or EcoLogo (

Avoid air fresheners. They contain fragrances and other irritants associated with watery eyes, headaches, skin and respiratory irritations, asthma and allergic reactions. They may also contain VOCs and the known carcinogens, benzene and formaldehyde.

Reduce the use of disinfectants. Exposure to antimicrobial chemicals has been linked to potential health impacts, and their overuse has contributed to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.”

Scientists agree that soap and water are effective for most routine cleaning jobs, and research has demonstrated that safer alternatives, such as vinegar and borax, have antibacterial properties. Two simple solutions to prevent bacteria growth on sponges and cloths are microwaving sponges for one minute and regularly laundering washcloths.

Make nontoxic cleaning products. Simple and inexpensive ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and borax can be used in many different ways for effective cleaning. Adding essential oils such as lavender or rosemary infuses a fresh scent and boosts antibacterial properties. Have fun learning to make natural cleaning products by buying ingredients in bulk and throwing a green cleaning party with friends (free Green Cleaning Party Kit at

Finally, WVE suggests we buy products from manufacturers that disclose ingredients on the label. If the ingredients aren’t listed, call the product’s customer service number and ask the company to disclose them. It’s a good way to ensure that our homes stay clean—and healthy.


Download a free Safer Cleaning Products fact sheet at

Erin Switalski is the executive director of Women’s Voices for the Earth ( WVE’s Safe Cleaning Products Initiative is a national effort intended to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals in cleaning products. Sign the petition at For more information on chemical policy reform, visit




(Suggested uses: hard surfaces like countertops and kitchen floors, windows and mirrors.)
2 cups white distilled vinegar
2 cups water
20-30 or more drops of essential oil (optional)

Tip: Warm in microwave until barely hot to boost cleaning power for tough jobs. (Only microwave in a glass container.)

(Suggested uses: kitchen counters, stoves, bathroom sinks, etc.)
2 cups baking soda
½ cup liquid Castile soap*
4 tsp vegetable glycerin (acts as a preservative)
5 drops antibacterial essential oil such as lavender, tea tree, rosemary or any other scent preferred (optional).
Mix together and store in a sealed glass jar; shelf life is two years.

Tip: For exceptionally tough jobs, spray with vinegar first—full strength or diluted, scented—let sit and follow with scrub.

*WVE recommends using a liquid Castile soap that does not contain sodium lauryl (laureth) sulfate (SLS) or diethanolamine (DEA), which may have harmful side effects.

Option 1 – Sprinkle toilet bowl with baking soda, drizzle with vinegar, let soak for at least 30 minutes, then scrub with toilet brush.

Option 2 – Put ¼ cup borax in toilet bowl and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Swish with a toilet brush, then scrub. Add a few drops of pine oil to increase disinfecting. (Note: Some people are allergic to pine oil.)

Tip: Let ingredients soak longer for even easier scrubbing, especially on persistent stains like toilet bowl rings.

½ cup baking soda
½ cup vinegar

Pour baking soda down the drain and follow with vinegar. Cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Flush with boiling water.

Tip: Prevent the shower from clogging by using a drain trap to catch hairs.

1 cup soap flakes
½ cup washing soda
½ cup borax

Make soap flakes by using a cheese grater to grate a favorite pure vegetable soap. Mix ingredients together and store in
a glass container. Use 1 tablespoon per load (2 for heavily soiled laundry) and wash in warm or cold water.

Adjust for soft water by using:
1 cup soap flakes, ¼ cup washing soda and ½ cup borax. For hard water, use 1 cup soap flakes, 1 cup washing soda and
1 cup borax.

Tips: Add ½ cup white distilled vinegar to the rinse as a fabric softener. For a whitener, use hydrogen peroxide rather than bleach. Soak dingy white clothes for 30 minutes in the washer with ½ cup of 20 percent peroxide. Launder as usual.

Source:; for additional recipes, visit


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