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Wednesday
Oct162013

Why Use Non-Toxic Cleaners?

We all like the idea of a sparkling clean, germ-free, fresh-smelling home. To that end, we tend to use a sizable array of products: air fresheners, soaps, detergents, bleaching agents, polishes, glass cleaners, oven cleaners, etc. Today, we’ll revisit our Clean Living series to address just that--household cleaners. Knowing that toxins can enter our bodies through inhalation, ingestion, and absorption, do you think about the safety of the cleaners you use on a regular basis? Understanding the health risks can suddenly make that sparkling mirror, shiny countertop, and spotless floor lose a bit of their luster. Today, we’ll look at the health risks associated with common household cleaners, the ingredients to look for and avoid, and some non-toxic alternatives that can preserve your health—and budget. 

What You Should Know

First, let’s look at the big picture. The average household contains around 62 toxic chemicals. What’s even more surprising is no safety standards or regulation exist around these chemicals! Cleaning product chemicals vary in the type of health risk they pose. They may cause immediate responses such as skin or respiratory irritation. They may also cause or contribute to more chronic, long-term risks such as neurodegenerative conditions or hormone disruption, which can lead to diabetes, obesity, infertility or cancer. Fragrances added to many products, commonly found in laundry-related items, can trigger respiratory-based symptoms like headache, sneezing and watery eyes in individuals with allergies or asthma. 

My own family actually experienced a scary chemical exposure several years ago.  My husband was determined to clean our oven in preparation for upcoming guests.  The oven was still slightly warm from dinner when he decided to engulf it with a conventional oven spray cleaner. Within minutes, he was gasping. My toddler and I quickly ran to open the window for fresh air. That night, my husband woke up violently ill. He threw up multiple times, and we realized his body was trying to get rid of the toxic chemicals he inhaled.  

When we consider the health risks posed by the cleaning products we use, we need to look at not only single, acute impacts such as my husband’s but also the frequency and duration of our everyday exposure to these chemicals. Using a commercial product on rare occasion because you ran out of your homemade product, for example, is much different than if you work for a maid service and are exposed to these products multiple times a day.

What You Can Look For

The good news is we have many options. Below are specific ingredients to avoid and others that are safer for use in your home.

Ingredients/Labels to Avoid

  • Phthalates (found in fragrances and labeled “fragrance”)
  • Perchloroethylene/PERC (found in carpet cleaners/spot removers)
  • 2-Butoxyethanol (found in window, kitchen, multipurpose cleaners)
  • Ammonia (found in polishing agents and glass cleaners)
  • Chlorine (found in scouring/bleaching products, toilet bowl cleaners)
  • Sodium hydroxide (found in oven cleaners & drain openers)
  • Sodium Hypochlorite (found in bleaching products)
  • Diethanolamine/DEA or Triethanolamine/TEA
  • Products that state “Danger, Warning, Poison or Caution” 
  • Products labeled with “fragrance/s”

Ingredients/Labels to Opt for Instead

  • White distilled vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Liquid Castille soap
  • Beeswax
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Borax
  • Olive Oil
  • Products labeled “no solvents or phosphates”
  • Products labeled “plant-based”
  • Products labeled “no petroleum”

Bring a somewhat skeptical eye to products labeled “green,” “natural,” or “eco-friendly,” since these claims won’t ensure they’re free from toxins. You’ll want to look specifically at the full label for the above ingredients or indicators. I have always heard from my natural health mentors, “If the ingredients are safe enough to eat, it’s safe enough to use in your home or on your body.” That’s admittedly an “ideal” standard to aspire to, but it can be a very easy way to identify safe products.

What You Can Make Yourself

As mentioned, you can certainly seek out healthier cleaning products to purchase, or you can opt to make your own and save money in exchange for a modest time investment. I always like to have “back up” commercial products for when I run out of the homemade version and don’t have the time right then to mix up more. Some over-the-counter suggested brands include Seventh Generation, Ecover, Bon Ami, Earth Friendly, and Naturally Yours. Below are some recipes for commonly used cleaning supplies for your home.

Multi-purpose cleaner (for kitchen, bath, windows, mirrors)

Mix the following ingredients, and store in glass spray bottle.  

  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • ¼ cup baking soda (or 2 tsp borax)
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice – helps with fingerprints and smudges on glass
  • ½ gallon filtered water

Spot Remover/Carpet Cleaner

Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Spray directly on the stain and let sit several minutes. Clean with a brush or sponge, using warm, soapy water.

*For a serious spot/stain, mix ¼ cup each of salt, borax, and vinegar. Rub the paste onto the stain and let sit for several hours. Vacuum.

Disinfectant (not anti-bacterial)

Mix 2 tsp borax with 4 Tbsp white vinegar and 3 cups of hot water.  

*For a stronger solution, add ¼ tsp liquid castile soap.

Wood Floor Cleaner

Mix equal amounts vegetable oil (cheap is good for this purpose!) with white vinegar. Rub in well with a cloth towel.

Tile Floor Cleaner

Mix 1 cup white vinegar with 1 gallon filtered water. After mopping the floor, rinse with clear water.

Furniture Polish

Use a microfiber cloth. If needed, add ½ cup white vinegar with 1 tsp olive oil to assist with “polishing.”

Air Fresheners

  • Use a diffuser with essential oils.
  • Grow live houseplants to help absorb odors (and airborne toxins!).
  • “Decorate” with fresh flowers for a natural floral scent.

I would love to hear from you! Do you currently use non-toxic products in your home or make your own? Have you been thinking about it? Please share your personal recipes, tips and questions. Thanks for reading, everyone!

Written by Cindi Lockhart - Sr. Program Manager of Health and Nutrition Coaching

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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