Going Green and Keeping Clean: Indoor Edition

You want to stay environmentally conscious, but can that really extend to your cleaning habits? Turns out, it's as easy as opening your pantry door.

By Alyson McNutt English | Updated Nov 12, 2013 8:21 PM

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Green Cleaning Inside

Photo: pinkyhasabrain.com

Searching for a cleaning product nowadays can be a complicated matter. All sorts of different specialized cleaners line the shelves, each promising a unique cleansing benefit for your home.

But if you really want a healthier home, it’s time to ditch the dozens of toxic cleaners and go simpler—and greener—for the health of your family and your environment. Need convincing? Our primer on greening your grime-busting is a good place to start.

Green Cleaners’ Effectiveness
One of the first questions most people have about greener cleaners is simple: Do they work? In short, the answer is yes. “People have this idea green cleaners don’t work as well, but that’s not the case,” says Emily Main, senior editor at National Geographic’s Green Guide . “The fact that a company like Clorox is now getting into the green cleaning business is a good testament to the fact the natural ingredients being used works as well as other counterparts.”

Many people protest they just don’t feel like their house is clean unless they have used something like bleach or ammonia to scrub it down, but Main says natural options like vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are just as effective without being toxic polluters. “Hydrogen peroxide is used to clean wounds in hospitals,” she says. “So, why would you think it wouldn’t work in your kitchen?”

And while many people associate the smell of bleach with the idea of clean, some green experts says we’re fooling ourselves if we think bleach means better health.  They say that green cleaners will still get your home sparkling and kill off harmful bacteria, but that using bleach, ammonia, and harsh anti-bacterial soaps can expose families to incredibly toxic products and actually lead to stronger strains of bacteria that are harder for immune systems to ward off.

Toss the Toxins
Many people think if a product is used in the home setting, it can’t really be that bad. That’s a dangerous misconception, says Lori Bongiorno, author of the book, Green, Greener, Greenest . “Conventional cleaning products contain some of the most hazardous chemicals most of us encounter on a daily basis, and the toxic residues remain on surfaces and clothing,” she says. “Despite our excessive phobias about germs, humans don’t need to live in a completely antiseptic environment.”

Instead of using tons of chemicals to clean, make an investment in a really high-end HEPA-filtered vacuum, says Annie Bond, Maid Brigade green living expert and author of the book, Home Enlightenment: Practical, Earth-Friendly Advice for Creating a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home and Lifestyle .

“One of the best investments you can make is a vacuum with several filters to remove the smallest particles from your floors,” Bond says. “Vacuums with multiple layers of filtration are more effective at removing microscopic particles like dust mites, mold, pet dander and pollen.”

Consequences to the Planet
While it’s clear that most conventional cleaners are toxic to human health, there are also serious environmental offenders in your cleaning cabinet. Main says if she could get people to stop using any two cleaners, she would recommend they toss conventional dish and laundry detergents because of their devastating impact on waterways.

“People tend to think chemicals from detergents get removed in wastewater treatment plants,” she says. “But they don’t get removed as well as biological matter, and they build up in rivers and streams.”

Main says chemicals like phosphates, which are banned in laundry detergents but not dishwashing detergents, get washed into waterways and deprive the water of oxygen. This ends up killing all the plants and fish that live in those habitats. Phthalates are also a problem, she says. “Phthalates are used in almost everything,” she says. “They’re also building up in waterways, and they’ve been detected in the fatty tissue of fish. The phthalates end up feminizing the fish and they can’t reproduce, which causes population problems.

Natural Alternatives
One of the other common misconceptions about greener cleaning is that it’s more expensive. That’s just not true, says Bond. “Usually non-toxic cleaning is considerably cheaper because you can use kitchen cupboard ingredients for a number of tasks,” she says.

What should you have on hand if you want to start cooking up your own green cleaning? Main says there are eight main products that can clean most anything: baking soda, borax, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice, olive oil, castile soap, and washing soda. Main recommends Dr. Bronner’s castile soaps. Washing soda is less common than the other ingredients, but it can sometimes be found near the baking soda or in the laundry aisle. Arm & Hammer is one manufacturers of washing soda, and it can sometimes be found in smaller brand names, as well.

If it all sounds too simple, it really isn’t. “People think they need a lot of different cleaners when they really don’t,” Main says. “One good all-purpose cleaner will do the job as well as 20 individual cleaners.”

Smart Shopping
If you don’t want to make your own cleaners, you can buy greener cleaning products commercially. Brands like Clorox Green Works and Method are sold at most stores, says Main, who also recommends more traditional green brands like Seventh Generation, Biokleen, Ecover, and Dr. Bronner’s.

Finally, beware of “greenwashing” when shopping for cleaners. Because more people than ever are looking to clean in a healthier way, companies may label their products to appear greener than they actually are and, because companies aren’t required by law to list the ingredients in their product, it can be tough to tell what’s really better and what’s just the same old product.

“There are terms we really caution against,” Main says. “ ‘Biodegradable,’ ‘eco-friendly.’ and ‘natural’—these terms are meaningless. We recommend people look for what’s not in a cleaner instead. Look for labels that say things like ‘no chlorine bleach’ or ‘no synthetic fragrances or dyes.’ ”