Cleaning Without Toxins

The Green Mama’s tips on how to clean better
cleaning tools, rubber gloves, rags, lime and baking soda in a bowl

Are you worrying about germs around your home and wondering if your home is clean enough? It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or research to see how the chemicals in cleaning supplies might end up in our children and cleaning without toxins should be on your radar. Living with a two-year-old makes it all too clear. Today, my daughter decided to finish off her eggs with a little chew on the table. Later, she got under the table and ate a few blueberries off the floor. At least, I hope they were blueberries…

Toxins in cleaning products

You’ve gone to the trouble of finding the healthiest products for your home, and you don’t want to undo all your good work by using “bad” cleaning products. “Bad” cleaning products are ones that pollute your indoor air quality or, even worse, are so poisonous that they are marked with a skull and crossbones and must be locked away for fear that a precocious child will get hold of them.

You may have wondered: “How safe is it really to dump something with ‘WARNING! Poison’ on the label down the drain or onto the floor?” Indeed, traces of these very chemicals can end up surviving multiple water treatments and cause harm both to aquatic life and, ultimately, to human life when it shows up downstream in someone’s water glass.

What toxins, exactly?

Even if these chemicals make it no further than the kitchen floor, they can off-gas toxins into the air inside our homes. Besides being poisonous in concentration, they can also make us sick in dilution. The long list of chemicals to avoid includes many that are lung or respiratory irritants (ammonia, butyl glycol, chlorine bleach, and sodium hydroxide), others that are suspected hormone disruptors or linked to reproductive abnormalities (APEs and phthalates found in many fragrances), and those that produce toxins (chlorine bleach) or carcinogens (DEA, some fragrances). Almost all of these can be deadly if swallowed.

You might be surprised at what can harm your health. The chemicals in dishwashing detergent, for instance, can be particularly harmful because the hot air vaporizes the chemicals and releases them into your home. Many health agencies and studies (see this article in Building and Environment) also warn against many air fresheners which can continuously release pollutants (e.g. neurotoxins and allergens) into your air.

Disinfectants, including bleach, added to your multipurpose cleaners often contain warnings about being wiped down with water after being applied, especially if you use them on counters, cutting boards, or tables. If you use bleach or one of these other disinfectants and don’t wipe down the surface after use, you are increasing your chances of absorbing these chemicals through your skin or along with your food.

Clean less, clean safely

Cleaning well means using safe ingredients and using them appropriately. Cleaning more in this case is not better, and can actually be dangerous.

First, just clean

Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and food debris on a surface. Good cleaning involves a little elbow grease, warm water, and soap. Cleaning doesn’t necessary kill germs, but removes them and thus lowers the risk of spreading infection.

Then, stop. Do you really need to disinfect? Only move on to step #2 if you really need to disinfect. When might you need to disinfect? Say after you cut chicken on your cutting board or if everyone has had a horrible flu.

Microbes are everywhere, but bacteria and viruses can’t live on dry surfaces with a humidity of less than 10%, according to PopSci. Microbes like food particles, mucus, and moisture. So watch out for your kitchen sponge (which can be rid of most microbes by microwaving it for three minutes or boiling it in a pot of water). The flu virus, on the other hand, hanging out on a door handle will just die on its own after 2 to 8 hours. Or, you can decide to disinfect.

Only disinfect after cleaning

Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill germs on a surface. Alone, it doesn’t clean or necessarily remove any germs and it isn’t effective if you haven’t cleaned first. Always disinfect with the safest, least toxic, most appropriate product.

Vinegar is the least toxic, most biodegradable, safest product for most cases says Professor Peter Collignon, infectious disease physician at the Australian National University’s Medical School. Vinegar alone applied after cleaning and left to sit for 10 minutes will kill flu viruses, E. coli, and Salmonella. To disinfect against Listeria as well, the vinegar must be heated to 150° F according to a recent study done at Colorado State University. Another great disinfectant is the sun. Hang clothes to dry, open windows, and pull out those pillows for a little sun magic on warm days.

Other disinfectants that can be safer, healthier, and easier on the environment include hydrogen peroxide (best to use it only for laundry as a safer alternative for brightening whites), sunlight, oregano oil, and tea tree oil. Oregano oil can protect against E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria according to a study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology; sunlight can kill pathogens, such as those that cause diarrhea; tea tree oil can be used as an antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal.

If you decide to buy a cleaning product or disinfectant look for products that rely on the ingredients above rather than chlorine bleach or other harmful chemicals with long, incomprehensible names. Make sure the product you buy lists its ingredients, has a meaningful third-party certification such as EcoLogo or Green Seal, uses NO synthetic perfumes or fragrance, and is biodegradable. Many cleaning products can now be found in cardboard boxes, reusable glass containers, or in plant-based plastic bottles.

The truth is that you don’t need to go to war with microbes in your home—some are actually harmless or even good for you. You may also have heard some “age-old wisdom” about how to fight bacteria in your home—much of this advice is nothing more than myth. Check out some of these homemade cleaning alternatives that are safer and even cheaper than commercial brands and relax knowing that you can make your home safe, healthy, and clean enough.

*Originally published January 12, 2016