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Top Tips for Green Cleaners

The Sierra Club Green Home offers these tips for green cleaners, starting with some DIY advice.

 

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It’s easy to make your own green cleaning supplies using basic ingredients such as baking soda, lemon juice, liquid castile (or vegetable-based) soap, vinegar, and salt. Though some take a little more elbow grease than conventional cleaners, they are a lot safer. Try some of these simple homemade green cleaning supplies:

  • Creamy soft scrub. This is a great mild abrasive cleaner, and can be used for most tubs, showers, toilets, countertops, and sinks, including stainless steel, Corian, Formica, engineered quartz, and glass. Should be used sparingly on fiberglass. Mix 1 cup baking soda with 1/4 cup liquid castile (vegetable-based) soap in a glass jar. You can add more soap if you want a creamier soft scrub. Stir. Add 2 teaspoons vegetable glycerin (available at most natural food stores and many drugstores) if you want it to keep it for up to a year; otherwise, it will harden. You can add a couple of drops of a favorite organic essential oil (extracted from plant parts) if you want a pleasant scent–or try almond or peppermint castile soap.
  • All-purpose green cleaner. Combine 2 cups white vinegar with 2 cups water in a spray bottle. Again, you can scent with a few drops of essential oil. As with all acidic solutions, do not use this on marble. It will destroy the finish and can even etch the surface. Another option is 3 tablespoons baking soda dissolved in warm water in a spray bottle.
  • Scouring powder. Mix 3 parts baking soda with 1 part borax (found in the laundry aisle). Keep handy in a shaker jar and sprinkle with some essential oil if you like. Borax should not be ingested, so store out of reach of children, and can cause skin irritation in some people.
More Advice
  • Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate! While cleaning with conventional cleaners, open windows and doors to allow air to circulate. This will reduce the buildup of chemicals.
  • Follow directions. If you must use a strong chemical, make sure you understand the safest possible way to use it.
  • Try microfiber cloths. Microfiber cleaning cloths are made to trap dirt and grime. They can absorb oils and hold many times their weight in water. They can eliminate or reduce the use of conventional cleaners for floors, furniture, and dusting–and can be used over and over. Made of synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, they are not a renewable resource, but then neither are most conventional cleaners.
  • Green your towels. Use cloth instead of paper towels. Good ones can easily be made by cutting up old T-shirts, towels, or sheets. If you prefer paper towels for certain tasks, make sure they’re made from post-consumer recycled fibers and free of chlorine bleach. If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin paper towels with 100% recycled ones, we’d save 544,000 trees!

When Shopping, Look For...

  • Warning labels. U.S. manufacturers don’t have to list all ingredients, but they are required to warn you about the dangers of certain cleaning products. “Danger” and “poison” labels are reserved for the most hazardous ones. Products with “caution” or “warning” are slightly safer. Cleaning products that don’t have any of these labels are generally the safest. Also look for specific hazard warnings such as “vapors harmful” or “may cause burns.” Be careful, though. Our current labeling system gives you a heads-up about certain short-term dangers, but it won’t help with chemicals with long-term effects, such as asthma or reproductive harm.
  • Honest advertising. “Natural,” “earth-” or “eco-friendly,” and even “nontoxic” aren’t regulated terms in the United States, so they don’t mean much. Look for specific claims such as “contains no phthalates,” “phosphate free,” and “biodegradable within 10 days.”
  • Minimalist packaging. Opt for products that don’t waste resources on excess packaging, or that use recycled materials.
Avoid
Benefits…

…to your health
Asthma and allergy sufferers frequently feel healthier after eliminating conventional cleaners.

…to your wallet
Homemade cleaners are easy on the wallet. If you decide to buy a cleaner, however, opting for one all-purpose cleaner (a green one, of course!) is a lot cheaper than buying a host of specialty cleaners.

…to the Earth
Saying no to conventional cleaners will reduce the amount of chemicals that wind up in our environment.

 

Ingredients and products you should try to avoid include:

  • Air fresheners. Conventional air fresheners can contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as d-limonene that can irritate your eyes, skin, and respiratory system and cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
  • Alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs). These chemicals are found in laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, and stain removers. They are “surfactants,” which form a bridge between chemicals that don’t readily mix, allowing products to remove dirt from surfaces. But unfortunately APEs break down into hormone-disrupting chemicals. They are found in household dust, and some pass through our sewage treatment plants to wind up in our steams and rivers. APEs and their breakdown chemicals in streams and rivers harm wildlife. The European Union and Canada have banned some types of APEs from cleaning products.
  • Antibacterial products. Antibacterial products are not any more effective than plain soap and hot water, except in situations involving immune compromised individuals. And they have serious downsides. The commonly used Triclosan is causing deformities in tadpoles in U.S. lakes and streams–and has recently been found in human breast milk. In addition, Triclosan may encourage the growth of “superbugs” by promoting the growth of bacteria that are resistant to it.
  • Chlorine Bleach. Sold by itself and as an ingredient in many household cleaners, chlorine bleach is irritating to the lungs and eyes and responsible for numerous poisoning incidents every year. Once in a wastewater treatment system, it reacts with other chemicals, potentially forming even more-harmful substances.
  • Fragrances. Skip that "mountain fresh" scent created by synthetic fragrances. Many air fresheners contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.
  • Glycol ethers. Found in glass cleaners, floor cleaners, and oven cleaners, some glycol ethers are reproductive toxicants. One of the more common one is 2-butoxyethanol (aka, butyl glycol or butyl cellosolve), which can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and liver and be absorbed by the skin from the air.
  • Monoethanolamine (MEA). A surfactant found in detergents, all-purpose cleaners, and floor cleaners, MEA may induce asthma attacks.
  • Petroleum distillates. Typically used as solvents, petroleum distillates are found in metal polishes and adhesive removers. They can cause temporary eye clouding, as well as long-term damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and eyes.
  • Phenol and cresol. Often found in disinfectants, phenol and cresol can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and kidney and liver damage.
  • Phosphates. Largely phased out of most laundry detergents, phosphates are still found in dishwashing detergents. The nutrients they add to our water systems can result in increased growth of algae and plants, as well as an increase in the bacteria that feed on the algae and plants when they die. These bacteria rob the water of its dissolved oxygen, killing fish and other aquatic organisms.
  • Spray cleaners. While convenient, spray cleaners are more closely linked to asthma and respiratory irritation than similar liquid cleaners. The fine sprays of droplets of cleaning products have been linked to increased risks of asthma, but using a similar cleaner in a non-spray form has not shown any increased risk. A simple switch can protect your respiratory health.
Common Mistakes
  • Believing what you see on the package. Don’t spend more on pretty pictures and vague claims about being earth-friendly. If you want to buy greener cleaners, make sure they’re really greener than conventional cleaners. Look for specific claims regarding the product’s “greenness.” Steer clear of problem ingredients. Check out reliable online resources, such as goodguide.com, before you go shopping.
  • Obsessing about germs. Despite all the hype, we don’t need antibacterials in everything from toothpaste to clothing, and really don’t need them in our cleaning products, because soap is safer and just as effective for most people.
Getting Started
  • It probably is the most earth friendly to use up the cleaners you already have, but you should get rid of any that you suspect are making you sick. Don’t pour them down the drain! They may well need to go to a hazardous waste site.
  • Do you really need a dusting agent, a window cleaner, a countertop cleaner, a tile cleaner, four different scrubs, and so forth? Try replacing some of your specialty cleaners with all-purpose cleaners.
  • Try a homemade cleaning recipe. Scared to get started? Try this: to clean your microwave, put some slices of lemon in 1 microwaveable cup of water. Heat on high for 3 minutes. Let sit for 3 minutes. Open up the microwave and wipe clean! The steam loosens any grime and the lemon kills germs and has a pleasant scent.

 

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Top Tips for Green Cleaners:  Created on December 2nd, 2009.  Last Modified on March 20th, 2010

 

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Other Articles by Jennifer Schwab

About Jennifer Schwab

Jennifer Schwab

As Director of Sustainability, Jennifer is responsible for all environmental information, education, and initiatives at Sierra Club Green Home.com.


Jennifer studied environmental design and sustainability at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, then completed her Master's in Urban Planning and Sustainable Design at the University of California -- Irvine.  Jennifer is a LEED Accredited Practitioner and serves on the USGBC Education Committee.  She also serves on advisory boards for the UC-Irvine Sustainability Leadership Program and the Healthy House Institute.  Jennifer consults on energy efficiency and sustainability for various corporate clients, restaurants, and hotels.


Jennifer serves as a member of the Board of Advisors for Source 44, a carbon footprint assessment company based in San Diego; and on the Board of Advisors for BlogWorld Expo, the largest social media tradeshow in the country.


She is a widely quoted media analyst appearing in hundreds of articles both in print and online.  She has been interviewed by NY Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Dwell magazine, CNBC, Good Housekeeping magazine, Fortune magazine, the LA Times, The Oregonian, Forbes, Self magazine, Kiwi magazine, the Examiner, EcoSalon, Consumer Digest, SheKnows, and Planet Green, among many others.  She has also appeared on NBC-U, Good Morning America, and Fox News.


Away from work, Jennifer can be found on the tennis court or in the Bikram yoga studio. She follows art and design avidly and is also a trained Cessna pilot. She also serves on the LA Museum of Contemporary Art Photography Selection committee.  You can find her innermost green thoughts as a contributor to the Huffington Post, LOHAS, BlogHer, Healthy House Institute, Intent.com, as well as on the home page of www.sierraclubgreenhome.com

 

 

Information provided by The Healthy House Institute is designed to support, not to replace the relationship between patient/physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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