A Guide to Healthy Cleaning
Four eco-friendly ways to make your home a toxin-free sanctuary.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
When I think back to my childhood, I realize I was likely awash in a cocktail of chemical compounds (sorry, mom!). Dryer sheets, air fresheners and a full cupboard of hard- hitting cleaners and equally harsh sprays were part of our daily routine, touted as solutions to help us scrub and scour our home free from any potentially “bad bugs.”
Thankfully, as I am raising my own children, a lot has changed, from our understanding of the science behind eco-friendly chemicals and products, to the products available to us as we seek to detoxify our homes and our world. And that’s a good thing: The average person spends 65% of their entire lifetime inside their home, according to a 2019 report from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, making it a frontline space in your quest to avoid exposing your family to unnecessary chemicals.
While the food industry has come a long way in creating transparency, this unfortunately isn’t the case with cleansers. In a 2011 study, researchers investigated 25 common cleansers, laundry supplies and personal- care products using gas chromatography and found they emitted 133 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 24 of which were classified as toxic or hazardous under US laws. The surprising parts? Only one of these compounds was listed in the ingredients, and products labeled “green” did not fare better than conventional ones.
Part of the problem lies in the scant regulation around ingredient disclosure. In the US, for instance, ingredients listed as “fragrance” aren’t required to be disclosed on some product labels and, in fact, can be made up of several hundred substances.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
1. Detoxify your cleaning supplies. Cleaning supplies fall under different federal regulations than those for food, but you shouldn’t need a biology degree to shop for eco-friendly cleansers. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the feel- good terms that imply a cleaning product is better for you and the environment, including “nontoxic,” “biodegradable” and “plant-based,” aren’t regulated at all, so approach them with the same caution and go deeper to verify. Choose cleansers that are verified by third-party certification programs, such as the EPA’s Safer Choice, Green Seal or ECOLOGO, and avoid aerosol sprays, which can contribute to respiratory illness. Check that your go-to cleansers are truly better for your body – and the planet – with the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning database at ewg.org.
2. Skip the antibacterial/ antimicrobial soap and wipes. One of the most exciting areas in the realm of next-level cleansing is the introduction of probiotics to the cleaning aisle, a top trend at last year’s Natural Products Expo West. A new generation of probiotic cleansers aims to give “bad” bugs the boot on home surfaces while allowing healthy bacteria to thrive, and companies like Counter Culture are embracing this new mindset. Even if you’re not ready to make the leap to probiotic cleansers, check your current cleaning lineup to be sure they get an “A” on the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning list. While triclosan, an antibacterial agent, has been largely phased out (due to concerns about its impact on aquatic life and potential endocrine disruption), the FDA still allows the use of benzalkonium chloride, widely used in hand sanitizers, which has been recognized by the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, among others, to contribute to the development of asthma.
3. Give DIY a try. Save money, protect your health and slash your impact! Sustainable staples that super-clean your surfaces, like baking soda, lemon juice and vinegar, are timeless swaps that help you effectively rid pathogens such as E. coli from your home. Essential oils like lavender and peppermint are great ways to freshen a room instead of traditional air fresheners, which can contain VOCs. And if you’re tired of tossing away disposable kitchen wipes, Sophie Uliano, New York Times best-selling author of Gorgeously Green and creator of the Gorgeously Green YouTube channel, offers this DIY recipe for disinfecting wipes for your kitchen or bathroom:
- Combine ½ cup distilled white vinegar, ¾ cup distilled water and 12 drops tea tree oil in a large Mason jar. Fold old, clean bamboo or cotton towels or rags into quarters and stack in container.
- Once soaked, use cloths to wipe down surfaces (wearing gloves to protect hands). Launder used rags, refold and replace in jar as needed. (If you are using bamboo-based towels, simply rinse well under hot water and return to the container.)
4. Opt for natural pest repellent solutions. Harvard’s Homes for Health states that many pesticides and herbicides can be toxic, suggesting you limit or avoid use. But if you’re like me and live on the edge of nature, where insects often attempt to come inside, consider swapping insecticides (that are potentially carcinogenic) for diatomaceous earth. Made from the fossilized remains of tiny ancient aquatic organisms called diatoms, this natural compound is labeled as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the FDA and deemed safe and nontoxic by environmental agencies.