Apr 12, 2019
by Sophia Ruan Gushée
Many people ask me:
I spent many years researching―and too much time and money searching for―green cleaning products that work. In short: It's hard to generalize, and it's hard to know which cleaning products work and are truly safe.
Why is it so hard?
Often, it's challenging to get sufficient information to determine if chemical free cleaning products work, and if "organic cleaning products" are truly non harmful cleaning products. Federal laws protect confidential business information, so manufacturers are not legally bound to disclose all their chemical ingredients or all the potential health problems that they may cause (EWG 2015j), which I explain in my book A to Z of D-Toxing.
In addition, we should be mindful of "unintentional toxicants" that can be present in cleaning products. For example, in late 2011, the environmental group Women’s Voices for the Earth discovered small amounts of the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in popular laundry products, including those that were labeled “fragrance free” and “sensitive” (Scranton 2011). Activists persuaded the manufacturer to reformulate the products to drastically reduce levels of 1,4-dioxane.
Further, there isn’t unbiased oversight ensuring that cleaning products are safe for our homes. Federal approval of a product’s formula is not even required. What is known of conventional cleaning products raises concern. For example, corrosive cleaners can cause burning of the skin and eyes; and a popular one, household bleach, is the most common cleaner accidentally swallowed by children.
Furthermore, unintentional mixtures can create toxic by-products. For example, ammonia can create a deadly gas when mixed with chlorine. And chlorine is highly reactive and can create various unintentional toxicants:
According to Jeffrey Hollender and Geoff Davis, authors of Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe & Healthy, Non-Toxic Cleaning, companies can legally sell cleaning products with almost any ingredient and with any formula. And there are no legal upper limits on toxic ingredients and impurities (Hollender et al. 2006). These toxic ingredients have several opportunities to enter our bodies: ordinary use, accidental ingestion, absorption through skin (during the product’s use or upon later contact with contaminated surfaces), and inhalation of polluted air.
Conventional cleaning products can off-gas volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants. EPA studies found that cleaning fumes can linger long after the cleaning is completed (National Geographic 2008). Moreover, conventional cleaning products can leave chemical residues on surface areas and contaminate dust, which then can be ingested after they contaminate hands and food. A non toxic surface cleaner is a great alternative to customary cleaning solutions.
So it’s hard to know what’s in our cleaning products, and therefore what health issues they may contribute to. However, from what scientists do know, I'm concerned. Some ingredients are known respiratory irritants, carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and neurotoxins and are linked to chronic and long-term effects. Cancer, asthma, birth defects, and respiratory impairment have been linked to cleaning products, as is explained further in A to Z of D-Toxing.
If you're comfortable with unknown risks from unknown ingredients that may be present in your cleaning products, and the unknown risks from how those ingredients may interact with other household exposures, then below are tips on selecting safer cleaning products.
During the years that I was buying "off the shelf" "natural organic cleaning products," I was assuming that the companies claiming to be non toxic cleaning brands could become my go-to source for non chemical household cleaners. After years of learning that this was not true, I finally discovered a cleaning approach that I'm really comfortable with and that I've been using for about a decade: a simple, do-it-yourself approach.
A to Z of D-Toxing lists Household Repeat Offenders, or specific risky ingredients that tend to be in many household products. The list is long, and identifying truly harmless cleaning products is complicated!
As a result, my cleaning solutions are simple. I have peace of mind using mixtures made from a short list of ingredients that have a long track record of safety: baking soda, white vinegar, castile soap, hydrogen peroxide, and hot water. This approach gets the job done and really simplifies my shopping list. A few professional cleaning ladies have made the point of telling me, “These ingredients work great, and I feel much better using them!”
For over ten years, I have been cleaning with the cleaning supplies below. It works as well as any off-the-shelf cleaning product, but it does take adjusting. Once I got into the groove, I fell in love. I am rest assured that this is the most nontoxic cleaning approach for my family. And I love how it streamlines my shopping list and shaves my budget for cleaning supplies! An added bonus has been the realization that most of the ingredients below are also helpful for natural self-care remedies (like baking soda and essential oils in our bath water) and non toxic pest management (insects are deterred by some scents, like peppermint essential oil).
If you try this do-it-yourself approach, pursue it with a playful mood. Pretend you're a scientist who is curious about the different concoctions that can fight your cleaning challenges. It's also a wonderful conversation topic with the kids.
With any of the ingredients above, please research online the materials you will be applying them too because some of the ingredients above can damage certain materials. For example, never use vinegar on a natural stone like marble. And be mindful that a steam cleaner can dry out natural wood floors and cabinets.
To see my shopping list of household staples―including my cleaning supplies―please register for my free intro to the D-Tox Academy. Just click here.
Parts of this article include excerpts from my book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures.
Access Sophia's shopping list for her household staples. They're her favorite low toxic items that she can't live without. Also see which EMF protection products she uses.