An hour or two of cleaning around the house can make your home feel like an oasis — one where everything is neat, tidy and sparkling clean.
However, depending on what products you’re using, all that work to rid your house of dirt and germs might actually be creating a different type of mess. Many of those spray bottles stashed under your sink contain harsh chemicals that can be hazardous to people and pets — and to the environment.
It’s a concern that’s been picking up steam. Take a close look the next time you’re browsing cleaning products in the store, and you’re likely to see a growing display of options aimed at people seeking a “greener” cleaning experience.
Leslie Reichert, a green cleaning expert and author of “The Joy of Green Cleaning,” says people are quick to see the hazards of some cleaning products if they bring a new baby or small child into a home. The rest of us, not so much.
“Where’s the first place that people go to ‘childproof’ their home?” she says. “Usually under the sink, because that stuff is dangerous, poisonous and could hurt somebody. The problem is that we’ve never connected the dots that the same stuff under the kitchen sink is what we’re spreading on our floors and tables.”
What’s the Worry?
Concerns about cleaning products generally fall into two broad categories: How the chemicals they contain can trigger or exacerbate health problems, and how they can hurt the environment when they’re rinsed down the drain or tossed in the trash.
Some ingredients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, can end up affecting water quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And chemicals that give off those unpleasant smells — VOCs or volatile organic compounds — can impact indoor air quality. Plus, all those bottles and cans household cleaners come in can end up in landfills. The materials they are made from are sometimes tough to recycle and not exactly environmentally friendly.
Meanwhile, environmental and health advocates such as the Environmental Working Group, which studies the content and impacts of cleaning products, say there’s growing evidence that shows household cleaners can cause problems ranging from asthma to birth defects.
The organization says many name-brand cleaning products contain chemicals known to cause cancer, including formaldehyde. People exposed to them regularly — janitors, for example — are particularly at risk. A New York Department of Health study found that babies born to women who worked as cleaners had a higher rate of birth defects than those with mothers in other occupations.
Linda Mason Hunter, a healthy home expert and author of “Green Clean” says many typical cleaning products come with risks that stretch from their production to their disposal.
“Commercial cleaning products are some of the most toxic products in the marketplace today, containing everything from carcinogens to neurotoxins to reproductive toxins,” she says.
Experts say children, pregnant women and pets are among the groups that can be most susceptible to problems. This has prompted some schools and state and local governments to come up with new regulations for classrooms and day cares, and enlist the help of green-cleaning consultants.
Carol Westinghouse, a green-cleaning consultant and president of Vermont’s Informed Green Solutions group, says she’s helped day care centers figure out how to replace harsh disinfectants with alternatives that have been deemed safe and effective by environmental groups.
“When we look for safer products, we look for products that have been certified by one of the certification organizations,” she says. “We look at Green Seal and the EPA’s Safer Choice program.”
For products to use at home, Westinghouse advises consumers to look for the same types of certifications. The Environmental Working Group and others provide online ratings and information about products’ ingredients, which can often be hard to track down. Currently, manufacturers aren’t required to list ingredients on packaging.
Green-cleaning advocates say they expect to see this change as more people call on companies and government officials to share information about the safety of products. But in the meantime, those of us looking to break away from commercial products have two options: Pick and choose from “natural” products on store shelves, or make the stuff ourselves.
Cheerleaders of the green cleaning movement, like Reichert, say the reasons to bottle up your own cleaning potions are plentiful. First, it’s relatively cheap and easy, with many recipes demanding only a few ingredients you already have stashed in your pantry.
For example, shine up your oven by combining a cup of baking soda and two cups of white vinegar in a spray bottle. Or tackle your sink with a quick-foaming cleanser made of just a half-cup of baking soda, a tablespoon of cream of tartar and one-quarter cup of vinegar.
Reichert says the trick is getting past the baked-in notion that many of us have: We need to defeat germs with the most chemical-smelling cleaners possible, because they must be the most effective. The reality, she says, is that bacteria are everywhere, even after we spread the harsh stuff on it.
“We don’t have to kill the germs to make sure things are clean,” she says. “True disinfectant can’t disinfect for very long — within seconds, there’s millions of germs back.”
Your germ-killing method can be just as effective using a cleaner made of white vinegar, rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, Reichert says.
Still, she knows much of cleaning is psychological. That scent of lemon or flowers in your soap or spray just screams, “This room is clean!” To get that same benefit, Reichert suggests adding a few drops of essential oil into your DIY cleaning products. Tea tree oil is a natural disinfectant, and lemongrass is appealing, as well.
If making products from scratch seems overwhelming, Reichert suggests taking it one room of the house at a time. First stop: The laundry room, where common detergents and other products can leave people with itchy, irritated skin.
Reichert says detergents typically work by latching into the fibers of clothes, which can end up irritating the skin. All that detergent can also make clothes stiff, which is why many of us to throw in fabric softener.
“You pour the fabric softener in it, and that creates static. So you throw a dryer sheet in there — more chemicals — and your clothing and your laundry becomes a chemical cocktail,” she says.
Her solution? Use what your grandparents or great-grandparents opted for to wash their clothes: plain, old-fashioned soap.
The other route to green cleaning is through the sometimes-confusing mix of newer products claiming to be more friendly to people and the environment. There are brands fully committed to that sector of the market, such as Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyer’s. Some traditional brands, such as Clorox, have jumped on the wagon to offer green product lines. Clorox now sells “Green Works” products, which the company claims are 95 percent to 99 percent “naturally derived.”
Mason Hunter says shoppers should be savvy about the words used to market the products. “Natural,” for example, doesn’t have a legal definition, so the label can be applied to a wide range of products.
Your best bet: “plant-based.”
“As opposed to products filled with human-made chemicals, plant-based cleaners are definitely an improvement when it comes to health,” she says. “But you may need a bit more elbow grease, or knowledge about how to use them.”
Westinghouse suggests paying close attention to the active ingredients, such as hydrogen peroxide. She also advocates searching for products that leave specific ingredients out, like added scents. Those options are usually labeled “unscented” or “free and clear.”
“When we look for a product for child cares and schools, we look for a product that doesn’t have any added scents or dyes, because we don’t know who could be at risk for asthma or other respiratory issues,” she says.
It can still be tricky. Experts caution that green cleaning products at the store won’t fix all problems — something unscented might still come with harmful chemicals, for example. But exploring those options is a great start.
“I think if you start looking at some of the greener products and start trying them, at least that’s a step in the right direction,” Reichert says.