No matter who you are, cleaning is a chore that needs to get done. Not only does it make your home look better, it’s crucial to maintaining a healthy environment by removing dust, allergens, and infectious agents.
Decades ago, people used to believe nothing was truly clean unless they could smell the chemicals. Thankfully that’s no longer the standard by which we measure cleanliness, because there are seriously scary chemicals in many conventional home cleaning products that are detrimental to your health and the environment.
In fact, there’s a growing movement to avoid these toxic chemicals and opt instead for eco-friendly and natural ingredients. This is known as green cleaning.
While it may seem like a recent trend, its roots date back to the 1960s. This was the decade when modern society first became aware of the impact of chemicals and pollutants on the environment and our health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was shortly after founded in 1970 to maintain and enforce standards that would protect the environment. Awareness of climate change arose during the 1990s, and by the 2000s “sustainability” had become a buzzword and green products had expanded from a niche counterculture to the mainstream market.
So why the rise of green cleaning? Because the dangers of conventional cleaning began to make themselves known. Let’s take a step back and talk about that first.
Harsh chemicals are highly effective cleaners, but they have significant drawbacks that harm human and environmental health. They get the job done, but at what cost?
There are currently over 80,000 chemicals used in the US, lurking in everyday items such as cosmetics, furniture, and—you guessed it—household cleaners. We know very little about these products that we breathe in on a regular basis and many have not undergone sufficient testing. Many chemicals are encountered at lower levels, but their cumulative use over time can build up exposure levels and lead to health problems. Common cleaning products can contain known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, allergens, asthmagens, and hormone disruptors. These toxins can lead to brain, liver, and kidney damage, reduce fertility and stunt childhood growth, result in visual disorders and memory impairment, and even cause cancer. Cleaning products are in the top five categories involved in reported toxic exposures, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
One of the biggest concerns is impact on indoor air quality. Chemicals can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxins that, without proper ventilation, can collect inside and cause respiratory and other health symptoms. Repeated exposure to VOCs has been linked to symptoms ranging from headaches, depression, allergies, and rashes, to decreased fertility and cancer. The EPA has actually found that chemicals in cleaners can cause a 3% greater chance of cancer than outside air. Pregnant women and people with asthma are at even more risk of adverse health effects with long-term consequences.
Most of these compounds are then released to the environment through evaporation of VOCs or rinsing down the drain. VOCs contribute to smog formation in outdoor air, and chemicals washed down the drain adversely affect water systems. These are especially damaging to the environment, as they pollute rivers, streams, and oceans, take a long to degrade into harmless products, and may not break down at all. They can even bioaccumulate in wildlife and enter the food chain, eventually making their way back to us through the seafood we eat.
So what’s the safer alternative?
Green cleaning essentially involves using only products that are free of harsh chemicals and toxins. These are better for your health and that of the environment. Luckily, there are many green products now on the market, from soaps to disinfectants, laundry detergents, and more. Many are inexpensive and can easily be found at places like Target and Costco for the same price as conventional products.
Beware of rampant greenwashing, however. Many labels use generic, vague terms like “natural” and “environmentally friendly” that don’t actually have any defined terms and are therefore meaningless. This has become such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission has issued guidance against making general environmental benefits claims.
There are no requirements for companies to list the ingredients in their products, but try to find the ones that choose to so that you can avoid toxins. These can sometimes be tricky to identify but, as a general rule of thumb, if you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t buy the product.
Quick tip: When searching for a disinfectant, choose green products that contain citric acid, peroxide, or lactic acid. They’re all effective sanitizers against most microbes.
Here’s what to look for when choosing something green:
- Organically or sustainably produced
- Unscented or natural fragrances
- Safe disposal or reuse
- Full disclosure and labeling of all ingredients
- Free of phthalates and phosphates
- Free of artificial dyes or fragrances
- Free of chlorine and hypochlorite
Unfortunately, government agencies have not adequately evaluated the safety of compounds found in cleaning products. But there are third-party organizations that test, classify, and label products, and their certifications do carry meaning. Look for products that have the following certifications on their packaging to ensure they’re actually green and not just greenwasher:
- EPA Design for the Environment (DfE)
- EPA Safer Choice
- Green Seal
- Cradle to Cradle
You can find additional health and safety information for products without certification from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit providing a comprehensive Guide to Healthy Cleaning that rates more than 2,000 products based on ingredients known to cause health problems.
If you’re more of a DIYer, you can also try making cleaning solutions from ingredients you already have in your home, such as baking soda, vinegar, and lemons. These are all natural cleaners. Many can be used for multiple types of cleaning, for instance vinegar can clean windows, toilet bowls, and mold stains. Clean Water Action has a great guide to common products and effective DIY alternatives. Creating your own cleaning products ensures you know what’s going into them and may even save you a buck or two.
Do these green cleaning products work? Yes, they do. You may find yourself scrubbing a little bit harder, but the benefits outweigh the cons. At the end of day, green cleaning will let you feel good about your home, your health, and the environment.
Looking to make the switch? Here are some of our favorite green cleaning brands.
Method is a staple in many American homes, for good reason: it’s cruelty-free, uses renewable energy and eco-friendly packaging, and sells safe cleaners, detergents, and soaps to leave your home clean.
Seventh Generation has been a leader in the green cleaning movement for decades, and produces everything from detergents, all-purpose cleaners, and wipes to diapers, tampons, and pads.
Mrs Meyers creates effective and lovely-smelling natural products that get the job done. They even have an ingredient glossary directly on their website so you can know exactly what has gone into each product.
ECOS is family-owned and operated, powered by 100% renewable energy, and creates green products through sustainable and mindful practices.
Puracy produces products guaranteed to be effective, free of harsh chemicals, and natural enough to break down safely in the environment.
Grove Collaborative is a subscription-service company that offers many household and personal care products, from their own label and other brands we love. You can opt for one-time deliveries as needed, or set up a recurring shipment of cleaning goods.