Dear EarthTalk: I want to use cleaning products that are healthier for the environment, but I worry that baking soda and the like won’t really get my tub and toilet germ-free. Should I continue using bleach products in the bathroom?
— Margaret Pierce, Columbia, MO
When it comes to household cleaning products, most mainstream brands make use of chlorine bleach, ammonia or any number of other chemicals that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health.
Ammonia is a volatile organic compound that can irritate the respiratory system and mucous membranes if inhaled, and can cause chemical burns if spilled on the skin. Bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, which can cause eczema and other skin ailments as well as breathing difficulties if inhaled. And when it reacts with other elements in the environment, toxic “organochlorines” can form, damaging the ozone layer and causing health issues such as immune suppression, reproductive difficulties and even cancer.
Fortunately, growing public concern about the health effects of toxic exposure have led to an “explosion of environmentally friendlier and non-toxic products,” says the health information website, WebMD. “There are many products in this category—from laundry detergents and fabric softeners to multi-surface and floor cleaners, to tile and bathroom cleaners—that are…safer for people and the planet.”
WebMD warns that while many are indeed safer, others are “greenwashed,” meaning they are “marketed as natural while still including suspect chemicals.” How does one know? “Get in the simple practice of looking at product labels to see if the cleaning manufacturer is clearly disclosing all ingredients,” reports WebMD. “If it is not…it could mean the manufacturer is trying to hide a particular suspect ingredient.”
Also, just because a product has an eco-certification printed on its label doesn’t necessarily mean it should be trusted. To make sure, check the Eco-Labels section of Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices website, which gives the low-down on what labels really mean and whether they are backed up by government regulations. Another good resource is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database, which provides ingredient lists for thousands of products on U.S. store shelves.
If you want to play it safe and natural when cleaning your home, WebMD suggests using white distilled vinegar—it kills mold and mildew, eliminates soap scum and sanitizes, all in one fell swoop—to clean windows, tile, cutting boards and countertops. Another effective yet gentle natural cleaner for countertops and bathtubs is baking soda, especially when mixed with a few drops of mild soap. Borax can be called in for tougher stains. If you’re interested in cleaning greener, there are many sources of natural cleaning recipes online. Or check out the cleaning products aisle at your local natural food store, where you will find a wide range of cleaning formulations from the likes of Seventh Generation, Ecover, Green Works and Earth Friendly Products (which sells a “Safeguard Your Home” retail pack that includes one each of a window cleaner, an all-purpose cleaner, a dishwashing liquid, an automatic dishwasher gel, a laundry detergent and a fabric refresher), among many others.