Mean and Green

Natural Cleaners that Wage Serious War on Dirt

One thing's for certain about modern-day housecleaning—everybody's got a different definition of clean. Some like antiseptic smells, blue-dyed solutions and “new chemical breakthroughs.” Others prefer the aroma of natural fruits and spices, and the simplicity of lemon juice and baking soda.

There are products that appeal to every sense and sensibility. Now add to this already over-crowded supermarket aisle over 700 products laden with antibacterial agents, which a germ-anxious public has recently sent flying off the shelves. Even the conservative American Medical Association has expressed concern that these agents may contribute to the spread of newer and stronger forms of dangerous bacteria-born disease, like Salmonella and E. coli.

“Conventional household cleaners also contain a host of irritating or toxic agents,” adds Todd Larsen of Co-op America, a national nonprofit that encourages eco-friendly business and purchasing. “These include agents like propylene glycol, whiteners, colorants, perfumes and surfactants that don't easily biodegrade in soil and water.” Such chemicals can also be triggers for developing Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a debilitating blow to the immune system that leaves its victims unable to venture out into many manmade environments. “And then there's the fact that many conventional cleansers are made with petrochemicals that damage ecosystems,” Larsen says.

It's no wonder concerned shoppers are turning to eco-friendly cleansers in order to safeguard their health and the environment. According to the Illinois-based Earth Friendly Products, the nontoxic household cleaners industry has topped $5.5 billion and continues to flourish. For battles with cat urine and compost slime, magic marker and grease, rest assured there's a cleaning arsenal you can count on when the going gets dirty.

General Cleaning Solutions

The simplest way to capture your reflection in glass is with good old vinegar and water. Though not as fragrant as other options, vinegar and newspaper gives the squeakiest clean to mirrors, shower doors, windows and countertops. It can even go in your car's washer fluid reservoir. But for really smeared stains like lipstick, grease or hairspray, orange-based cleaning sprays like Citra-Solv Cleaner and Degreaser work exceptionally well. A multi-purpose solution, Citra-Solv tackles food, scuff marks and soap scum with relative ease, is not tested on animals, uses natural citrus extracts and is biodegradable with recyclable packaging ($2.49).

For super scummy spots, tough grease stains and tall windows, Citrus Magic's Focus Liquid Cleaning Gel ($3.69) is a safe bet. Not runny whatsoever, the gel stays in place when you spray it and is great for wall and wallpaper grime, crayon marks and grease. Plant-derived, the gel contains no phosphates, no animal testing, is biodegradable, made from renewable resources, and wrapped in # 3 plastic packaging (only recyclable in some areas). It is, however, dyed bright yellow.

Dishwashing Zen

To tackle tough jobs from the college cafeteria to Thanksgiving dinner, you'll want a product that cuts washing time and doesn't leave hands raw from the scrubbing. Though there's many a pleasant lemony product on the market, a consistently top performer is Sun and Earth's Hypoallergenic Dishwashing Liquid. Made with citrus and coconut oil blends and very competitively priced, it forms tough suds that dispatch grease and food debris with equal effectiveness. It's free of perfumes and dyes, has recyclable packaging and is appropriate for the chemically sensitive. A sampler pack of Sun and Earth products available via its website ($14.99) includes an all-purpose cleaner, laundry detergent and liquid soap.

For food-smeared sinks and countertops that need a bit more abrasive action, Earth Friendly Products Cream Cleanser ($3.35) is a good buy, and powdered Bon Ami Cleanser (89 cents) is a tried-and-true favorite. Bon Ami, on the market since 1887, contains no chlorine, phosphates, perfumes or dyes, is biodegradable, and its packaging contains at least 75 percent recycled material, 60 percent post-consumer. For milder jobs, simple baking soda and a squirt of lemon juice will do, but the cream cleanser cuts down on polishing time for tough sinks and fixtures, and works fabulously on gummy price tag residues to boot.

Fabrics, Clothes and Carpets

Producing that sparkling-white look of clothing that's been through the wash with bleach, and getting deep-down mildew smells out of wet towels and clothes, remains a perennial challenge for any detergent. Shadow Lake's citrus-based laundry detergent, Citra-Suds, makes short work of both those problems ($7.99). The light fruity smell lends laundry a fragrant aroma without being perfumey, and its cleansing power is dramatically boosted with an oxygenating agent called Oxi-Clean.

Dissolved in hot water, Oxi-Clean crystals neutralize organic stains like food, dirt and grease. But the true beauty of this product lies in its versatility. Oxi-Clean can be added to laundry to eliminate chlorine bleach, applied to carpets for comprehensive cleaning and spot removal, and is great for jewelry, upholstery, curtains, tile grout, mops, concrete, stucco, siding, wood decks and outdoor furniture, too. (It even works on dentures.) A six-pound tub is available for $19.95 from the company's website.

Toxic Toilets and Wood Warnings

Toilet bowl and oven cleaners, wood polishes and stain removers are the most hazardous household cleaners, so priority should be given to replacing them first. Earth Friendly Products' Toilet Cleaner ($3.10) gives your porcelain throne the smell you never dreamed it capable of with ingredients like cedar oil, citric acid and coconut surfactants, and works as well as its more toxic, artificially blue counterparts. Orange oil spray cleaners and vinegar also do the job on stubborn stains.
For keeping those wooden bookshelves and banisters polished, try an electrostatic cloth to pick up dust, then wipe with olive oil and lemon juice. For sheer convenience and less mess, however, Vermont Soapworks Liquid Sunshine does a great job of sprucing up wooden floors, furniture and linoleum, and is free of artificial colors, fragrances and animal by-products. Not tested on animals and easy on the chemically sensitive, it comes in 16- and 32-ounce bottles ($5.99 and $9.99) using a coconut oil, rosemary and aloe blend.

Cleaning Up Loose Ends

You could spend a lifetime on the quest for a spotless household, but the aforementioned products and companies should cut down considerably on that timeframe. A few more with extensive lines worth exploring are Ecover, Lifekind Products and AFM Enterprises, which also boast natural ingredients safe for the Earth and the chemically sensitive. And Lynn Marie Bower, author of Creating a Healthy Household, offers explanations, recommendations and resources for every aspect of home maintenance, from fabric softeners to central vacs, in her comprehensive reference guide.

Next time you don your rubber gloves and roll up your sleeves, remember that everything you use to clean your home ultimately pours right back into the environment. If your cleaning products are made with petrochemicals an

d harsh agents, you're contributing to an entirely different mess that's going to be a whole lot harder to clean up.