“Green cleaning” means different things to different people. Some people look for eco-friendly brands of cleaning products. Others insist on making their own cleaners using common ingredients such as baking soda or vinegar. Whichever camp you fall in, you’ll find useful information here.
Keep in mind that there is no legal definition of such terms as green, natural, or eco-friendly. When it comes to cleaning your home, non-toxic cleaning may have a more precise definition, but green cleaning usually means more than that.
The life cycle of any product includes raw materials, manufacture, packaging, distribution, retailing, using the product, repairing or maintaining it, and disposal. Environmental impacts can occur all along the line.
The choice of green cleaning products affects numerous environmental issues including
- Use of natural resources
- Air and water pollution
- Exposure to toxins
- Climate change
- Ecosystem damage
- Waste disposal
Typically, green cleaning products contain no chlorine, phosphates, artificial fragrances, or artificial colors. They will typically come in biodegradable or recyclable packaging. Often, they will tout organically grown ingredients, sustainable farming practices, fair trade, or other features not directly concerned with cleanliness.
The EPA publishes a Safer Choice page that “helps consumers, businesses, and purchasers find products that perform and contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment.”
Some risks from cleaning products
Have you ever noticed that many writings about green cleaning, and particularly green cleaning ingredients, are more interested in instilling fear than providing useful information?
Some writings warn about toxic ingredients in commercial cleaners, as if “natural” ingredients pose no risk.
We need cleaning products to maintain an attractive and healthy home and workplace. But some common ones do contain potentially harmful chemicals.
Many cleaning products, for example, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through evaporation. Some VOCs are perfectly safe. Others can cause irritation or trigger allergic reactions—or contribute to smog outdoors.
Besides VOCs, the environmental impact of cleaning products comes from the chemicals that go down the drain and into the water supply. Some ingredients in can include corrosive substances, potential or actual carcinogens, ozone-depleting compounds, or toxic chemicals.
Using green cleaning products reduces these concerns. Reading product labels can help us identify the greener products, but they’re not perfect.
Actual risks from handling cleaning products are often uncertain but usually low. Professional janitors bear somewhat greater risk. They work with concentrates and need good training to handle them safely.
Federal regulations don’t require manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose all the ingredients. As much as consumer advocates urge stricter labeling rules, manufacturers counter that long ingredient lists would not leave room for other important information, such as how to use the products safely.
Requiring full disclosure of ingredients on a web page might be a step in the right direction, but how many people would look there? And how many would know what most of those chemical names represent?
Ingredients to avoid if possible
The Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) governs chemicals in consumer and industrial products. It requires an inventory of chemicals manufactured in or imported into the US. Currently, the inventory lists more than 83,000 chemicals. According to some estimates, the EPA has only tested about 300 of them for safety.
You can look for third-party certification. In addition to the EPA’s Safer Choice label, green cleaning products may bear the Green Seal or Ecologo. In addition, the Ecological Working Group identifies eco-friendly cleaning products that may not have certifications on their labels.
Here are some common ingredients that you don’t want in your cleaning products:
- 1,4-Dioxane, a suspected carcinogen used to make detergents—including, alas, some that claim to be non-toxic or eco-friendly
- Quaternary ammonium compounds, asthma triggers used to make spray cleaners and fabric softeners
- Chlorine bleach. Some housewives use bleach by itself, apart from an ingredient in another product. It causes respiratory problems and has been linked to cancer and neurological effects.
- Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen
- Perchloroethylene, a probable carcinogen and neurotoxin used to make home dry cleaning products, upholstery cleaners, and spot removers.
- Ammonia, a respiratory and skin irritant used in many different products
- Antibacterials, which contribute to antibiotic resistance and have been linked to endocrine disruption. Yet fear of germs is so rampant that companies still market antibacterial hand soap as if it were a good thing.
- 2-Butoxethanol, a skin and eye irritant used to make stain removers, degreasers, and oven cleaners
- Diethylene glycol monomethyl ether, a solvent banned in the European Union and linked to reproductive health issues.
- Fragrance, a wide range of VOCs added to many products to smell good or cover what would otherwise smell bad
Should you make your own non-toxic cleaning products?
The best answer to that question is that you can if you want to, but lots of people find that DIY cleaners are too much trouble.
Here are some ingredients commonly found in DIY green cleaning recipes. Many work well on their own. I use some of them that way regularly. For me, I’m not interested in collecting and labeling different spray bottles. If you’re like me, I have some suggestions for reliable brands of eco-friendly cleaning products later.
Baking or washing soda
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and washing soda (sodium carbonate) are similar. Washing soda is more alkaline and therefore more powerful. You can probably use either one in most recipes for cleaning or deodorizing. They are very versatile and have many other uses. One or the other may be preferable for some of them.
At its simplest, soap is made from lye and fat. In most soaps, it’s animal fats. Castille soap has for centuries been made with olive oil instead. Many soaps available today contain petroleum distillates, foaming agents (such as sodium laurel sulfate), antibacterial agents, or fragrance. None of those ingredients are necessary for soap to do its job.
Liquid soaps are handy, but it’s easy enough to find recipes to make liquid soap by grating bar soap.
For cleaning, use distilled white vinegar. To my taste, it’s not fit for an ingredient in food, and the better-tasting vinegars are more expensive. Vinegar is especially good for dissolving mineral deposits.
Soda and soap are alkaline. Vinegar is acidic. Do not combine vinegar with either alkaline. They will only neutralize each other, and the combination won’t do anything. Vinegar and soap together curdle. Vinegar and soda together make a spectacular fizz leaving something like salt water.
That general rule has one important exception. If you pour a solution of soda and hot water into a clogged drain and chase it with vinegar, the fizzing action will help break up the clog.
Vinegar kills germs, but not enough to use it as a disinfectant.
Lemon juice is also an acid. You can cut a lemon in half and scrub surfaces with it. Otherwise, the juice has many of the same uses as vinegar and the same results if mixed with alkaline products.
Olive oil or vegetable oil
You’ll find these as ingredients in furniture polishes.
Essential oils make your home-made cleaners smell good. By definition, they are volatile organic compounds, but not among the nasty ones. They’re less likely to trigger allergies or irritate your nose or throat.
PIX: rubbing alcohol (new)
Unlike vinegar and lemon juice, alcohol (specifically isopropyl or rubbing alcohol) is a disinfectant. A 70% solution works better as a disinfectant than a 99% solution. It works as well as bleach without damaging to your lungs.
Still, it can irritate your nose, throat, skin, or eyes. Repeated high exposure can have even more serious health consequences. It’s also highly flammable. So long as you use due care, it’s safe to use.
Traditional chlorine bleach is a toxic substance and health hazard. You can use oxygen bleach for all the same things more safely.
You can buy products called oxygen bleach. Baking soda and hydrogen peroxide work in many of the same ways.
Besides being an oxygen bleach, hydrogen peroxide is a disinfectant. It is also a versatile cleaning agent.
Corn starch makes a good non-abrasive scrubbing agent. It also absorbs grease.
Salt likewise makes a good non-abrasive scrubbing agent.
Borax has a long history and many uses. It was long necessary as a laundry booster, but detergents have gotten better in recent decades. When I first started looking for it, I had to go to three stores before I found any. Almost immediately, I was seeing it everywhere.
Besides boosting laundry detergent, it is antifungal and a good deodorizer. You’ll find it in many DIY cleaner recipes.
It’s a natural product, but natural isn’t the same thing as either green or safe. In fact, borax has lately raised enough safety concerns that the UK has banned it. You can find plenty of scientific papers that point in both directions.
Plenty of other cleaning products in this section are just as hazardous if used carelessly. Others can damage some of the surfaces you want to clean. I use borax and have no intention to stop.
Some trusted brands of green cleaning products
All these and other brands of green products use possibly dangerous chemicals in some of their formulas. Jeffrey Hollander, founder of Seventh Generation, was fired by his board for not creating a truly sustainable brand. He later admitted as much in an important speech. He said that the most Seventh Generation or any other brand had accomplished was being less bad.
Natural, organic, and plant-based don’t mean safe or risk free. You might find the citrus-based oil limonlene, pine oil, or the foaming agent coconut diethanolamide on labels. All these ingredients are potential skin irritants.
The attempt to market truly sustainable cleaning products only started quite recently. Research will help companies come ever closer to that goal. Until then, consumers (but not product developers) must be content with less bad. Nothing any better exists yet.
Shop related products:
Magic Dishwashing Gloves with Scrubber, Silicone Cleaning Reusable Scrub Gloves for Kitchen, Bathroom (Green,1 Pair: Right + Left Hand)
Bambooee Paper Towel Replacement 30-Sheet Roll, As Seen on SharkTank, We plant a tree with every roll sold
Identifying greener cleaning products / US Environmental Protection Agency
Non-toxic home cleaning / Eartheasy
Why buy greener products? / US Environmental Protection Agency