Cleaning the house is a dreadful chore that ranks somewhere between organizing the garage and receiving a swift kick to the backside on my list of “Things to Put Off for Another Week.” Nevertheless, keeping a clean house is necessary to reduce the build up of harmful bacteria and allergens. As much as it pains me to admit, professional house cleaning services like Merry Maids recommend cleaning toilets and wiping surfaces at least once per week. But before you break out the mop and gloves, take stock of your cleaning products and consider the impact they have on your family and the environment.

Toxic and over-packaged

Many household cleaning supplies – from window spray to toilet bowl cleaner to fabric softener – contain harmful chemicals including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone, ammonia and bleach. According to the American Lung Association, the following products can contain toxic substances:

What are the “other ingredients” that make up 90.5% of this toilet bowl cleaner?
  • Aerosol sprays
  • Air fresheners
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Detergents and dishwashing liquids
  • Dry cleaning chemicals
  • Rug and upholstery cleaners
  • Furniture and floor polish
  • Oven cleaners

Not only can these products can cause skin irritations and lead to more serious health problems including respiratory illnesses and cancer, they also pose a risk to the environment as toxic chemicals evaporate into the air or wash down the sink into the local water supply.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs found in cleaning products can contribute to smog while phosphorus and nitrogen runoff can lead to nutrient-loading in soils and water bodies. To make matters worse, cleaning products are often packaged – and over-packaged – in plastic which, if not properly recycled, will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years.

Identifying Green Cleaning Products

Finding truly environmentally friendly cleaning products isn’t easy. Not only are several products containing harmful ingredients greenwashing with buzzwords like “organic” and “green,” U.S. law does not require manufacturers to identify all the ingredients in their products. Just look a bottle of Lysol Power Toilet Bowl Cleaner (pictured above) – its active ingredients are listed as 9.5% Hydrochloric Acid and 90.5% “other ingredients.” What are those other ingredients and what impact do they have on the environment?

In a 2010 study by Steinemann AC, et al., researchers found that only 1 of the 133 VOCs identified in the study was actually listed on the product labels of laundry products, cleaning supplies, air fresheners and soaps they analyzed.

So how are we supposed to find safe cleaning products without knowing their ingredients?

The Safer Choice label. Image submitted by Safer Choice.

To start, review EPA’s list of 2,000 Safer Choice cleaning products. Formerly known as Design for the Environment, or DfE, the Safer Choice label is carried on products whose manufacturers voluntarily met the program’s standards for safer ingredients, packaging, performance and pH. Safer Choice products can be found online and in many stores.

Another place to look is an article by Liza Corsillo in New York magazine’s “The Strategist,” which compiled a list of natural cleaning products recommended by green cleaning experts. The list contains everything from earth-friendly floor cleaners to dish soaps. As you scroll through the list, you’ll probably notice a theme. Many of the products are based around vinegar, baking soda and citrus. Well, that’s because these three ingredients can be used to swipe and scrub most messes.

Vinegar and baking soda are your friends

As it turns out, one part white vinegar and two parts water (tweak the recipe as you see fit) is the basis of a very effective surface cleaner. Toss in some lemon juice or a few drops of your favorite essential oil for VOC-free fragrance. Making your own vinegar-based cleaner in a reusable spray bottle cuts down on cost and pollution from plastic packaging.

Because it’s a mild abrasive and deodorizer, baking soda can be used to clean carpets, car upholstery and ovens. And now, for some FUN in the cleaning world (finally), mix baking soda and vinegar together to clear out a clogged drain using a science fair volcano!

While sifting through hundreds of cleaning products to find ones safe for humans and the environment is certainly challenging, it is by no means necessary. Weekly wipe downs can be performed with ordinary ingredients like white vinegar, water and baking soda, while more intensive cleaning can be tackled with Safer Choice products.