St. Petersburg, Florida--I try to cut down on my exposure to chemicals, including harsh chemicals in cleaning products.
I read a great story from Consumer Reports regarding chemical cleaners we use in our home. Most chemical cleaners have not undergone any type of federal safety review.
To make matters worse, they can be hazardous to our health.
It is especially important to pay close attention to the types of products you're using around kids and people with weakened immune systems.
I don't like to take chances so I've switched out all of my cleaners, detergents and air fresheners for safer, non toxic alternatives.
Homemade cleaners can be less toxic.
With some simple, reliable recipes and clean, empty containers, you can make your own less-toxic cleaners right at home using familiar household ingredients. The following is a list of basic ingredients, along with their common cleaning uses.
Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). This mild alkali powder can be used for a variety of household cleaning purposes, such as removing stains from tile, glass, oven doors, and china; cleaning the inside of refrigerators; helping to absorb odors; and removing baked-on food from pans. It also acts as a stain remover for fruit juices and other mild acids.
Borax. A powder or crystalline salt sold in most grocery stores, borax is a water softener and disinfectant. It makes an excellent freshener when added to laundry and is an all-around deodorizer.
Castile soap. A mild soap available in liquid or bar form that can be used for general-purpose cleaning. It was once made from olive oil, but now may include other vegetable oils as well.
Cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate).This common baking ingredient is a mild acid that can be used as a sink and bathtub stain remover. It can also be used to remove spots from aluminum cookware.
Hydrogen peroxide. A mild alternative to chlorine bleach that can be used for stain removal and mild bleaching and sterilizing. Available in drug stores and supermarkets.
Lemon juice. This familiar ingredient can be used to lighten stains and cut grease. It can also be used to remove tarnish can be used on brass, copper, bronze and aluminum (not to be used on silver).
Washing soda (carbonate of soda). A stronger alternative to baking soda, washing soda can be used as a water softener in conjunction with laundry detergents (gloves are recommended as it may irritate skin; not to be used with silks, woolens or vinyl).
White vinegar. Good for a variety of household cleaning tasks, vinegar may be used to help kill germs and deodorize, remove some carpet stains, and clean coffeemakers, chrome, cookware, and countertops. It can also be used to unclog drains. Note that while white vinegar has a slight scent while wet, when dry, it leaves no odor. However, don't use it on acetate fabrics, such as in some tablecloths, because it can dissolve the fibers.
To learn more about how to use these ingredients and others to make your own cleaners, consult the recipes below, which were adapted from the Children's Health Environmental Coalition's Recipes for Safer Cleaners.
[Please note that Consumer Reports has not tested these recipes]
- Countertops. For a “soft scrub,” mix baking soda and liquid soap until you get a consistency you like. The amounts don't have to be perfect. Make only as much as you need, as it dries up quickly.
- Ovens. To clean extra-greasy ovens, mix together 1 cup baking soda and 1/4 cup of washing soda, then add enough water to make a paste; apply the paste to oven surfaces and let soak overnight. The next morning, lift off soda mixture and grime; rinse surfaces well (gloves are recommended as washing soda may irritate skin).
- Microwave ovens. These can be cleaned with a paste made from 3 to 4 tablespoons of baking soda mixed with water. Scrub on with a sponge and rinse.
- Cutting boards. Disinfect them by spraying with vinegar and then with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. Keep the liquids in separate spray bottles and use them one at a time. It doesn't matter which one you use first, but both together are much more effective than either one alone.
- Tub and tile cleaner. Mix 1 2/3 cup baking soda, 1/2 cup liquid soap, and 1/2 cup water. Then, as the last step, add 2 tablespoons vinegar (if you add the vinegar too early it will react with the baking soda). Immediately apply, wipe, and scrub.
- A good all-purpose disinfectant. 2 teaspoons borax, 4 tablespoons vinegar, and 3 to 4 cups hot water in a spray bottle. For extra cleaning power, add 1/4 teaspoon liquid soap to the mixture.
- Toilet bowl. Pour 1 cup of borax into the toilet before going to bed. In the morning, scrub and flush. For an extra-strength cleaner, add 1/4 cup vinegar to the borax.
- Drains. Prevent clogged drains by using hair and food traps. To de-grease and sweeten sink and tub drains, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda down drain, followed by 1 cup vinegar; let bubble for 15 minutes; rinse with hot water. You might have to repeat the procedure more than once or leave the baking soda and vinegar to “cook” overnight.
- General dusting. Best done with a damp cloth: Dry dusting simply stirs up dust and moves it around.
- Furniture polish. Mix olive oil and vinegar in a one-to-one ratio and polish with a soft cloth. Or look in a health-food store for food-grade linseed oil, often called omega-3 or flaxseed oil, rather than the type found in hardware stores to finish furniture. Linseed oil sold for furniture use often contains dangerous petroleum distillates to speed evaporation.
- Windows. Put 3 tablespoons vinegar per 1 quart water in a spray bottle. Some recommend using half vinegar and half water. For extra-dirty windows try this: 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap, 3 tablespoons vinegar, and 2 cups of water. Shake well. The best way to get streak-free windows? Use newspaper instead of paper towels to wipe them.
- Brass, copper, bronze and aluminum. To remove tarnish, rub metal with sliced lemons. For tough jobs, sprinkle baking soda on the lemon, then rub.
- Sterling silver. Put a sheet of aluminum foil into a plastic or glass bowl. Sprinkle the foil with salt and baking soda, then fill the bowl with warm water. Soak your silver in the bowl, and the tarnish will migrate to the aluminum foil. Rinse and dry the silver, then buff it with a soft cloth.
- A simple recipe of 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar (or lemon juice), and 2 cups hot water in a spray bottle can be spritzed in the air to remove odors.
FLOORS AND CARPETS
- Linoleum. For extra grease-cutting, try this formula: 1/4 cup washing soda with 1 tablespoon of liquid soap, 1/4 cup vinegar, and 2 gallons hot water. Put the washing soda in the bucket first and add the liquid ingredients; that way the soda won't splash out. Caution: Do not use this formula on waxed floors.
- Disinfect floors. Add 2 gallons of hot water to 1/2 cup of borax. Put the borax in the bucket first, then add water slowly to avoid splashing. •Wood floors. Add 1 cup of vinegar per pail of hot water.•Carpeting and rugs. To soak up and eliminate odors, sprinkle baking soda over the surface of the carpet and let it stand for 15 to 30 minutes before vacuuming.
- Laundry brightener. Add 1/2 cup of strained lemon juice during the rinse cycle.
- Fabric rinse. Add 1/4 cup of white vinegar during the washing machine's rinse cycle to remove detergent completely from clothes, eliminating that scratchy feel. (Note: This will not leave your clothes smelling like vinegar.)
- Detergent booster. To reduce the amount of laundry detergent you need to use (especially if you have hard water ) add baking soda or washing soda. These minerals soften the water, which increases the detergent's power. For liquid detergent, add 1/2 cup of soda at the beginning of the wash. For powdered detergent, add 1/2 cup of soda during the rinse cycle.
- Bleach. Use hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine bleach.
- Dry cleaning. Many delicate “dry clean only” items can be washed at home by hand. In general, it's best to use cool water and a mild liquid soap. Squeeze or wring gently and lay flat to dry.
- Use a stiff brush, a non-ammonia detergent, and hot water to scrub mold off nonporous surfaces. Use a stiff-bristle toothbrush to get between tiles. You can also use a paste of baking soda and water. Don't rinse. And remember to wear gloves and a protective mask, since mold spores can be inhaled.
BUYING AND USING COMMERCIAL CLEANING PRODUCTS
A growing number of less-toxic commercial cleaning products are now available in stores and online. However, because manufacturers are not required to list all of their ingredients, unless they are active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous, it can be a challenge to find the least-toxic formulations. The following steps can help:
1. Know the warning labels. All household cleaners that contain known hazardous chemicals must carry a warning label that spells out potential risks, along with precautionary steps and first-aid instructions . In general, the more serious the safety warning on a product, the more likely that it poses risks to your health and the environment . Products labeled “Poison” or “Danger” are more toxic than those labeled “Warning” or “Caution”:
“Danger” refers to products that are corrosive, extremely flammable, highly toxic, or poisonous . Commercial toilet-bowl, oven, and drain cleaners often bear this label .
“Caution” or “Warning” are catchall terms for many other hazards, so scan for specifics, such as “Vapor harmful,” “Causes burns,” or “May be fatal or cause blindness if swallowed.”
“Irritants” refer to substances that cause injury or inflammation on contact.
“Corrosives” refer to chemicals that destroy tissue.
“Sensitizers” are ingredients that can cause allergic reactions and chronic adverse health effects that become evident only after continuing exposures.
“Chronic Health Hazards” may include effects ranging from sterility and birth defects to cancer.
2. Don't assume that environmental and health claims are true. In many cases, manufacturers can make claims that are neither independently verified nor regulated. Among the most common claims found on cleaning products are the following:
- Nontoxic. This implies that the product will cause no harm to the consumer or environment. However, there is currently no standard definition for this term, and unless otherwise specified, there is no organization independently verifying the claim .
- Natural. Though widely found on commercial cleaning products, the term “natural” doesn't necessarily mean much. There's no standard definition for this claim in industry, so manufacturers can use it as they please. What's more, just because something is “natural” doesn't mean it's less toxic, or non-irritating. Even cleaners that are safe enough to eat, like lemon juice, can be irritating to the eyes or skin.
- Environmentally friendly. While this label implies that the product or packaging has some kind of environmental benefit or that it causes no harm to the environment, there is currently no standard definition for the term. Unless otherwise specified, there is also no organization independently verifying this claim.
- Biodegradable. This term is somewhat meaningful, but it can be misleading. “Biodegradable,” which implies that a product or its packaging will break down in nature in a reasonably short period of time, has been only loosely defined by the federal government.
To learn more about other common environmental and health claims found on household cleaning products, visit our Eco-labels site.
3. Check the ingredient list. Since manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients in their cleaning products, unless they are active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous, it can be difficult to know exactly what you're buying. And bear in mind that unlike food package labels, when a cleaning product's ingredients are listed, the order doesn't necessarily represent relative amounts. Companies that claim to disclose their full list of ingredients include Ecover, Trader Joe's and Seventh Generation. Visit our Green Ratings to see how they performed.
4. Avoid harmful ingredients whenever possible. Certain chemicals found in cleaning products can pose health and/or environmental risks. To minimize these risks and to choose the best cleaners for your household, avoid the ingredients listed below. [Please note this is not an exhaustive list, and more ingredients will be added as they come to light.]
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). When they're released into the environment, these chemicals can break down into toxic substances that can act as hormone disrupters, potentially threatening the reproductive capacity of fish, birds, and mammals. A recent U.S Geological Survey study found that 69 percent of streams tested in one Southeastern U.S. locale contained these potentially dangerous byproducts. See our Green ratings for a list of laundry detergents that don't contain NPEs. Found in many cleaning products, especially detergents, stain removers, citrus cleaners, and disinfectants.
- Antibacterials. Some may cause skin and eye irritation, and certain types, such as triclosan, now found widely in the environment, may cause environmental harm by contributing to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria . Recent studies have also suggested that triclosan could form dioxin, a carcinogen, in the presence of sunlight, and chloroform, a probable human carcinogen, in the presence of chlorinated water. What's more, there's a growing consensus that antibacterial household cleaners won't keep you any safer from infectious illnesses than regular types. These findings may stem in part from the fact that most infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria. In fact, experts say, it's not the type of cleaner that matters in combating germs, but the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning; plain soap and hot water are generally enough to do the job. Found in a variety of household cleaners; many products that carry the “antibacterial” label are actually disinfectants (see disinfectants below).
- Ammonia. Poisonous when swallowed, extremely irritating to respiratory passages when inhaled; can burn skin on contact. (Note: Never mix ammonia-containing products with chlorine bleach. That produces a poisonous gas.) Found in floor, bathroom, tile, and glass cleaners.
- Butyl cellosolve (also known as butyl glycol, ethylene glycol, monobutyl). Poisonous when swallowed and a lung tissue irritant. Found in glass cleaners and all-purpose cleaners.
- Chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite). Extremely irritating to the lungs and eyes. (Note: Never mix chlorine bleach products with ammonia. That produces a poisonous gas.) Sold by itself and found in a variety of household cleaners.
Note: Consumer Reports has rated several automatic dishwashing detergents, which claim to be chlorine-free, as “good” to “excellent” in overall performance. See our Green Ratings to compare performance of these detergents.
- d-limonene. Can irritate the skin. Found in air fresheners.
- Diethanolamine (DEA) & triethanolamine (TEA). Can produce carcinogenic compounds, which can penetrate the skin when combined with nitrosomes, an often-undisclosed preservative or contaminant. Found in sudsing products, including detergents and cleaners.
- Disinfectants. This is a catchall term for a variety of active ingredients, including chlorine bleach, alcohol, quaternary compounds, and pine oil and ethyl alcohol. They are regulated by the EPA as pesticides and all have some health effects. Most can also cause problems in waterways by killing helpful bacteria. Found in a variety of household cleaners; many products that carry the “antibacterial” label are also disinfectants. May cause watery eyes and respiratory tract irritation. Found in a variety of cleaners and air fresheners.
- Hydrochloric acid. Can severely burn skin, irritate eyes and respiratory tract. Found in toilet bowl cleaners.
- Naptha. Can cause headaches, nausea, and central-nervous-system symptoms with overexposure. Found in furniture and floor polish and glass cleaners.
- Petroleum-based ingredients. Many ingredients are derived from petroleum, including some of those above such as APEs and naptha, and they're commonly found in many cleaning products as surfactants. Other toxic ingredients derived from petroleum, including formaldehyde, can also be present at trace levels in cleaning products. Found in a variety of household cleaners.
- Phosphates. Can reach waterways and contribute to the overgrowth of algae and aquatic weeds, which can kill off fish populations and other aquatic life. Found in automatic dishwasher detergents and some laundry detergents.
Note: Consumer Reports has rated several automatic dishwashing detergents, which claim to be phosphate-free, as “good” to “excellent” in overall performance. See our Green Ratings to compare performance of these detergents.
- Sodium hydroxide (lye). Corrosive and extremely irritating to eyes, nose, and throat and can burn those tissues on contact. Found in drain, metal, and oven cleaners.
- Sulfuric acid. Can severely damage eyes, lungs, and skin. Found in drain cleaners.
5. If you're concerned about specific ingredients in a product, call the company. The manufacturer's name and address must be listed on all cleaning products so that consumers can contact them with questions, comments, or problems. While manufacturers are not required to disclose all of their ingredients, unless they're active disinfectants or known to be potentially hazardous, you can try to request a material safety data sheet (MSDS), which contains information on the more-toxic ingredients or formulations used. Manufacturers may also post MSDS reports on their Web sites. You can also search for safety information on brand-specific products and their ingredients by visiting the National Library of Medicine's Household Products Database. The guide includes the potential health effects of more than 2,000 ingredients contained in 6,000 common household products.
Play it safe. Whether you're using commercial or homemade cleaners, it's important to follow safety precautions. Avoid splashing household cleaners on your skin or in your face and check labels to see if respiratory masks, rubber gloves, goggles, or other protective measures are recommended. People with heart or lung disease and pregnant women should try to avoid products that contain chemical solvents. And since contact lenses can absorb vapors and hold them against the eye, causing irritation or eye damage, anyone who normally wears contacts should remove them and put on eyeglasses before handling such products5. If you find that the cleaners you're using irritate your nose, eyes and/or lungs, follow your instincts and stop using them. Finally, be sure to clearly label containers of homemade cleaners, and keep all cleaners out of reach of children and pets.
Consumer Reports & Heather Van Nest