Who doesn’t love it when their home is nice and clean? It’s spring cleaning time, that time of year when you throw open your windows, throw on some gloves, and throw out everything you don’t need. This year, start by throwing out your usual cleaning supplies, because whether you know it or not, they are full of chemicals that can do more harm than good. April 22nd is Earth Day, the perfect time to green-up your cleanup. Here are our tips on what ingredients to avoid, natural alternatives for a clean, healthy home, and a list of some of the safest cleaning products for you and the environment.
The Good, the Bad, and the Eco-friendly
The problem with many cleaning products is that they are often unsafe, relying on harsh chemicals to get the job done. Many of these ingredients are not biodegradable and accumulate in the soil and in the ocean. They also build up in our bodies, affecting development and causing illness. But if a product is labeled ‘green,’ ‘natural,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ or ‘non-toxic,’ that means it must be safe for you and the environment, right? Unfortunately, no. Many products that are marketed as safe are anything but!
8 Toxic Ingredients to Watch For & Green Alternatives
The ingredients found in cleaning products can pose a variety of health hazards. Some might have immediate effects, like watery eyes, skin or respiratory irritation, or even cause chemical burns; others might have long-term effects leading to chronic conditions or even cancer. When reading the labels of your cleaning products, look for and avoid these eight ingredients.
These chemical compounds are endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormones and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects. They enter the body via skin absorption or inhalation. Most scented products including air fresheners, soap, and fabric softeners contain phthalates. If a product lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, it likely contains phthalates because companies are not legally required to disclose what exactly comprises their signature “fragrance.”
Green Alternatives: Choose unscented, fragrance-free, or all-natural and organic cleaning products. Use your favorite essential oils in diffusers to help your home smell nice. Instead of using smelly soaps, clean food smells from your hands with a solution of water and lemon juice.
PERC is a neurotoxin and potential carcinogen that has been at the center of legislation that aims to completely eliminate its usage because of the associated health risks. It is most often found in dry-cleaning chemicals, spot removers, and carpet/upholstery cleaners, and it typically enters our system via inhalation.
Green Alternatives: Take your dry-cleaning to an eco-friendly cleaner that uses a safer wet-cleaning method or CO2 cleaning. Instead of using a spot remover, pre-treat with a fragrance-free, non-toxic detergent, or rub castile soap directly on the stain before washing. Use a 50/50 solution of hot water and regular white vinegar to clean carpets naturally.
An antibacterial ingredient, triclosan is often found in dishwashing detergent and hand soaps. It is a possible carcinogen, and the EPA is currently investigating whether triclosan may also be an endocrine disruptor.
Green Alternatives: Avoid antibacterial overkill and choose detergents and soaps that have few ingredients. Use diluted lemon juice to clean stains from cutting boards and kill germs. Rub the juice full strength onto the stain, and allow it to sit until the stain fades; then, rinse well and dry. Or add a few drops of lemon juice to dishwashing detergent to boost grease-cutting power.
4. Quarternary Ammonium Compounds/“QUATS”
Used for their antibacterial properties, QUATS are a skin irritant that have been linked to contact dermatitis and respiratory disorders such as asthma. They are found in fabric softeners – both the liquid and dryer sheet forms – and in other “antibacterial” cleaners.
Green Alternatives: Use white vinegar as a laundry rinse to soften clothes and prevent static cling. You can also try reusable wool dryer balls to help soften clothes as they dry. Miss the fragrance? Try a linen spray with essential oils, or add a few drops on a clean washcloth, let dry, and toss it in with the clothes to be dried. There are also dryer bags filled with lavender that can give your clothes a pleasant scent.
A type of glycol ether, this solvent found in window, kitchen, and all-purpose cleaners is another tricky ingredient that doesn’t have to be listed on the label. It’s so potent, in fact, that the EPA sets strict guidelines about its use in the workplace; however, when used in an unventilated area like a small bathroom or kitchen, your exposure can easily exceed the safety threshold. It can cause sore throats and can also contribute to narcosis, pulmonary edema, and severe liver and kidney damage.
Green Alternatives: Plain old white vinegar diluted with water can provide the streak-free shine you want and work double duty as a disinfectant and grease-cutter. Don’t like the smell of vinegar? Put a few tablespoons of lemon juice and water into a spray bottle instead. Half a lemon can help get hard water stains off shower doors. Baking soda and other natural, mildly abrasive cleaners also do a good job of getting surfaces clean.
A longtime cleaning standby found in glass cleaners and polishing products, ammonia can cause and aggravate respiratory conditions such as bronchitis and asthma. NEVER use ammonia and chlorine together or in the same room; the fumes can combine to form a poisonous gas!
Green Alternatives: Use up that bottle of cheap vodka you would never drink by using it as a spray for metal or mirrored surfaces. And shine your silver with good old toothpaste, which is much safer and always around the house. Half a lemon and some salt can clean even the most heavily discolored brass (real brass, not brass-plated) as well as chrome and copper pots. Be careful with antiques, and always test a small spot before scrubbing away.
This is one chemical we just can’t seem to escape, whether it’s in our shower water or in the pool; however, minimizing exposure is a good idea because it causes respiratory irritation and is suspected of being a thyroid disruptor. It can be inhaled or absorbed through skin and is often found in laundry whiteners, kitchen cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, and mildew removers.
Green Alternatives: Use baking soda or limestone products for scrubbing. A half-cup of lemon juice in the toilet bowl, swished with a toilet bowl brush, can freshen and sanitize your toilet. Vinegar can disinfect and remove lime and calcium deposits in toilet bowls, and borax powder or natural oxygen brighteners can whiten clothes as well as bleach. Don’t forget the sun, either; hanging whites out to dry can get them bright white.
8. Sodium Hydroxide
Also known as lye, this caustic chemical is found in drain openers and oven cleaners and can cause severe burns on skin or in eyes. If inhaled, it can cause sore throat or respiratory irritation.
Green Alternatives: Make a paste using three parts baking soda and one part water to clean your oven. It may take a little more work, but you won’t have to deal with the toxic fumes. Scrub grills and grates with lemon juice and salt to get them nice and clean. Pour a cup of baking soda and a cup of vinegar down the drain, followed by hot water, to unclog, or use a plumbing “snake” – which you can use over and over again – to manually clear the drain.
A Note On Purchasing Non-Toxic Cleaning Products
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducts regular reviews of cleaning products and grades them from A to F. The results often show that even products produced by the same popular ‘natural’ and ‘non-toxic’ brands could fall across a broad range. So be sure to check in periodically as they continue to update their list to see which products are coming in with an A rank as being the safest options for you and your family.
Spring cleaning doesn’t have to be risky business. Being more careful about the products you use around the house can make a big difference in your health and well being while reducing the number of harmful chemicals we release into the environment. A healthy home is home base for a healthy life, so take care of your home as you would yourself!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.