The passage of winter leaves behind a high concentration of allergens in the home. Months of people and pets spending more time indoors, combined with the lack of circulation of fresh air, creates particularly poor indoor air quality. Now is the perfect time to engage in some appropriately timed spring cleaning in order to eliminate accumulated allergens.
The deep cleaning that occurs with spring cleaning is important in maintaining an allergy-free home. However, cleaning products themselves are often culprits of damaging indoor air quality. As Jeanne McLughlin, a certified building biologist states, "The cleaner your home is, the more toxic it can be."
Why Green Cleaning?
Traditional cleaners may work quickly and effectively against household dirt and grime. But many of the chemicals in these cleaners are toxic. Their fumes and residues actually pollute the air in your home, exacerbating allergies, asthma, and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), not to mention the poisoning hazard they pose to children and pets.
Adverse reactions to chemicals in cleaning products vary. Exposure to common household cleaning chemicals can cause acute reactions like itchy and watery eyes or irritation to the nose, throat, and lungs when chemical fumes are inhaled. Coming into contact with the chemicals can cause skin irritation and burning. Needless to say, these possible reactions are of especial concern for those with allergies, asthma, and eczema.
Even if immediate reactions to the chemicals aren't a problem, long term exposure can cause the chemicals to build up in the body and can lead to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and other problems. For instance, many chemicals found in the home are endocrine disruptors because they act like hormones, or they are carcinogenic, among other things.
In the really big picture, household chemicals are flushed down our drains and find their way into the environment. While you may be more concerned with the health of you and your family than the environment at large, it's worthwhile to note that the chemicals that pollute the environment eventually make their way back into our homes.
A recent article in ScienceDaily called Earthworms Found to Contain Chemicals from Households and Animal Manure illustrates this. The solid byproduct of wastewater treatment - manure and biosolids - is used in fertilizer. Earthworms, who ingest the soil, accumulate the chemicals present within the soil. Researchers discovered that "earthworms studied in agricultural fields have been found to contain organic chemicals from household products and manure, indicating that such substances are entering the food chain."
Among the chemicals tested were active ingredients in common household products like antibacterial soaps, fragrances, and detergents.
From their use in the privacy of your own home, to their polluting of our waterways and finding their way back to our dinner tables, the chemicals we use in our cleaning routines may be doing a whole lot more than getting our homes clean.
What Green Cleaning Products Should Not Contain
Choosing cleaning products that do not contain harmful chemicals is an increasingly viable option. As awareness of the dangers of toxic chemicals grows and becomes more publicized, green cleaning products are not only gaining popularity, but are becoming increasingly effective and affordable.
All this is good news for allergic and asthmatic individuals, as well as those who suffer from MCS. Using green cleaning products guards against short-term irritation that can trigger allergies or asthma attacks or aggravate chemical sensitivities. In addition, green cleaning products protect against the development of chronic ailments like MCS.
So what's in typical household cleaning products that's so bad? Following is a summary of many of the toxic ingredients commonly found in household cleaners:
- Ammonia produces fumes that are highly irritating to the lungs, throat, eyes, and nose. It should not be used by people with asthma or other lung problems. Ammonia is commonly found in glass cleaners, but is also a base ingredient of many other cleaners such as metal polishes. Ammonia SHOULD NEVER be mixed with chlorine; the mixture produces a deadly gas called chloramine.
- Although many states have banned them, phosphates are mineral additives that soften the water. When phosphates enter the water supply, they create an overabundance of algae, which depletes the water's oxygen supply to the point that fish and other organisms die off. Phosphates are still present in many automatic dishwasher detergents.
- Petroleum-based chemicals are also widely present in cleaning products. Petroleum is readily absorbed into the skin and is a nerve-damaging chemical. Petroleum distillates are found in furniture polish, metal polish, and other cleaning products. Dish soaps are also often petroleum-based.
- Sudsing agents like diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) can react with nitrites (often used as a preservative) to produce nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic and can easily penetrate the skin, causing our bodies to absorb the toxins.
- Sodium hypochlorite, commonly known as bleach, is extremely caustic, and also produces harmful fumes. Bleach is found in many cleaning products, including all-purpose cleaners, mold and mildew cleaners, and cream or powder scrubbing cleaners, not to mention laundering products.
- Sulfates, found in toilet bowl cleaners, are known to trigger asthma attacks.
- Aerosol sprays produce tiny droplets that are easily inhaled into the lungs and absorbed through the skin. Propellants found in aerosol sprays are flammable, and fragrances, as discussed below, are also toxic.
- Fragrances made from synthetic chemicals are present not only in personal and beauty products, but also in cleaners, laundry products, and air fresheners. As many asthma and allergy sufferers know first-hand, synthetic fragrances can cause allergy and asthma attacks. In addition, the chemicals in fragrances are inhaled and absorbed into the skin and accumulate in the body over time.
- Formaldehyde, in addition to being present in varnishes, particle board furniture, and adhesives, is also found in some furniture polishes. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen.
- Chlorine can be found in many dish soaps. Dishwashers can release these chemicals into the air in the form of steam when the dishwasher is opened at the end of its cycle, causing it to be easily inhaled. Chlorine fumes in general are also harmful.
How to Switch to Green Cleaning Products
When choosing to "go green," as many people call it, look for cleaning products that combine a natural and safe eco-friendly approach with a determination to make effective and convenient cleaning products. With the rising trend in alternative cleaning products, however, many companies may promote themselves as green without giving consumers adequate information and proof of their claims.
Here are a few matters to consider when choosing green cleaning products:
- Don't be gullible - just because a label reads "natural" or "green" doesn't mean it is. Such terms are unregulated, and therefore somewhat meaningless unless verified by testing or by disclosure of ingredients.
- Beware of "organic" cleaning products - in the food industry, organic means that no synthetic pesticides have been used when growing the food; however, in relation to cleaning products, the term simply means that chemicals are carbon-based - which includes some harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that release dangerous fumes.
- Read ingredients - actually listing their ingredients is one mark of a possibly good product. Specifically, look for products that contain plant-based ingredients. For example, Begley's Best Household Cleaner and Spot Remover ingredients are as follows: "100% plant-based. Derived from pine, citrus fruits, palm, maize, fermented sugar cane, and olive seeds."
- Look for what a green cleaning product DOESN'T contain - often, listing what it doesn't contain is a green cleaning product's way of communicating its safety and environmental friendliness. Knowing the harmful chemicals present in many traditional cleaning products is important so you know what to look for. EcoDiscoveries Natural Home Cleaning Products, for instance, specify that they contain "no chlorine, no petroleum solvents, no glycol ethers, no phosphates, no acids, no caustics, not tested on animals, unscented, no dyes."
Do-It-Yourself Green Cleaning Products
Another approach when aiming to switch to green cleaning methods is to use ingredients you already have at home, either mixing your own cleaning solutions from them, or using them straight.
Following are some green cleaning products you probably already have in your pantry:
- Lemon juice - cuts through grease, removes stains, and deodorizes. Lemon juice also acts as a bleaching agent when it is exposed to the sun. One example of using lemon juice is on wooden cutting boards: cut a lemon in half, sprinkle generously with salt, and scrub the cutting board with it. Using lemons in your cleaning routine also leaves a fresh, natural citrus scent.
- Baking soda - all-natural sodium bicarbonate is an excellent all-around cleaner that you can use all over the house. Use it to polish surfaces such as stainless steel without scratching. It also softens hard water and removes acidic stains. Baking soda is a natural deodorizer, and is great for use in the fridge, basement, or litter boxes, to name a few places. Sprinkling it over the carpet before vacuuming is also useful in absorbing odors. Mixing baking soda with water and spreading this mixture in the oven will loosen baked on grease and grime. Simply spread over soiled areas, let it sit overnight, and wipe clean. Safe to use around food, a baking soda and water paste is also ideal for cleaning the refrigerator.
- Distilled white vinegar - about as multipurpose as baking soda, vinegar is a natural deodorizer and disinfectant, and breaks up grease and dirt, lifts out mineral deposits, and helps cut through mold and soap scum. Use it as a spray, mixed with water, to clean windows, and even as a natural spider-repellant. Use it straight in a spray bottle to combat mold and mildew. Vinegar is also excellent for use in shower stalls and bathtubs, where soap scum is a problem. Mixing vinegar with organic salts will give it extra power and provide scrubbing action. Vinegar mixed with hot water is also an excellent floor cleaner for mopping. Vinegar is also an excellent glass cleaner.
- Olive oil - an excellent, all-natural treatment for wood. Use alone, or mix it with lemon juice for a safe and effective furniture polish.
- Essential oils - plant-derived essential oils may be used for added all-natural fragrance. Some essential oils have the added benefit of acting as natural disinfectants and even antifungal agents. Eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, and tea tree oils are some popular essential oils. (Be careful with them, though, because they are potent and may irritate the eyes and skin with direct contact. In addition, pregnant women should speak with a doctor before using them.)
Cleaning your home with green cleaning products does double-duty in protecting you from allergies, asthma attacks, and MCS. While eliminating allergens and creating a clean home environment, green cleaning products also make sure that your home's indoor air quality remains pure. Spring cleaning with green cleaning choices is a great way to get a jumpstart on maintaining the freshest, cleanest, and safest allergy-free home.