This may sound a bit strange, but I happen to love cleaning. There’s something about it that’s just very therapeutic and calming to me. It’s often said that our physical surroundings are a reflection of our inner state of mind. And I know for myself that when I’ve properly cleaned and organized my bedroom, kitchen, living room, bathroom, etc., I always feel more mentally alert and on top of things.
Of course, part of the reason that I enjoy cleaning so much is that I get to use natural products that smell good and don’t pollute my indoor environment. Just as I savor eating healthy vegan food because I know it’s not only delicious, but that it’s good for me, I love cleaning with natural products because they both smell amazing and contain no harmful chemicals.
With spring upon us, it seemed like a good time to share a round up of my favorite cleaning products. But first, I must belabor the imperative of using natural products instead of un-natural products. Because as straightforward as it may seem to many of us that natural products are the way to go, the vast majority of folks are fairly oblivious to the hazardous effects of using mainstream cleaning products.
Maybe they assume, as I did before I switched to all natural cleaning and beauty care products, that someone somewhere is overseeing the hundreds of chemicals that find their way into the marketplace, and making sure that they’re safe.
But here’s the unfortunate truth:
No one is doing that
The cleaning industry – which includes companies such as Clorox, Proctor and Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson – is “self-regulated,” which we can assume is gobbledygook for the health implications of their products aren’t considered, given how toxic the majority of their products are. These companies do not need permission from the FDA to release new products, nor do they need to explicitly state what the ingredients are on the labels.
So why should the ingredients in cleaning products be of concern to us? The answer is two-fold.
Reason #1 – While it’d be nice to believe that these companies only have our health, happiness, and well-being at heart, the reality is that they only care about the bottom line.
Reason #2 – Each mainstream cleaning and cosmetic product is essentially a toxic soup of chemical ingredients; a complicated concoction cooked up in a Frankenstein-ish chemical experiment. And we, as well as the ecosystem and wildlife, are the subjects.
Chemicals in mainstream cleaning products
I’ve talked at length on the blog about the problems with mainstream cosmetics. Here’s a brief overview of the gnarly chemicals commonly found in home cleaning products and why we should be concerned.
- Monoethanalomine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) – Sudsing agents that create carcinogens when they interact with nitrites in the form of preservatives
- 1,4-dioxane– Established carcinogen
- Dichlorobenzene – Carcinogenic; associated with lung damage and asthma
- Alkyelpheon ethoxylates (APE’s) – Mimic estrogen and have been implicated in breast cancer.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), ammonia, and bleach – Can cause chronic respiratory problems
- 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE, or butyl cellusolve) – Skin and eye irritant, implicated in blood disorders and reproductive damage
- Formaldehyde and chloroform – Known carcinogens
- Phtalates – Endocrine disruptors, associated with reproductive problems such as reduced sperm count in men
- Triclosan – Hormone disruptor
- Coal tar dyes – Can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead, leading to nervous system damage; may cause cancer
- Synthetic fragrances derived from petroleum – Carcinogenic; can cause reproductive problems and damage to the central nervous system
The sneaky thing about these products is that their health effects aren’t immediately obvious. It’d be one thing if people just dropped dead from spraying Febreze, for instance. But the chemicals used in cleaning products don’t work like that. Rather, they’re bioaccumulative – meaning that concentrations build up in the tissues of our body over time. And as a result, it can be almost impossible to link a health problem to any specific chemical or product.
However, this we do know: cancer is major epidemic in our society and these unregulated toxins sure can’t be helping the situation.
To make matters worse, these chemicals go down the drain where they eventually make their way into the ecosystem, contaminating groundwater, rivers, and oceans and negatively impacting wildlife.
Our once-pristine, beautiful planet is gradually becoming a toxic waste dump, thanks to human activity such as agribusiness and plastic pollution, and toxic residues from cleaning products – referred to hazardous materials or HazMat at waste facilities – are poisoning the air, water, and soil.
So the answer, obviously, is to go natural. But before you head over to Whole Foods get some “organic” replacements for your toxic cleaning products, here’s some buyer beware info.
The problem with “natural” cleaning products
Weirdly, many companies are masquerading as “green” companies, while they peddle products containing the very same toxic ingredients as their un-green counterparts.
Indeed, some – scratch that, most – of the big players in the “all-natural / organic” cleaning industry are using questionable chemicals in several of their products. These brands include Seventh Generation, Method, Ecover, Honest, Citra-Suds, and Mrs. Meyers. Between all of these companies, some of the problematic ingredients are:
- SLS – Potentially carcinogenic synthetic sudsing agent
- SLES – Synthetic sudsing agent frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, an established carcinogen
- Cocamidopropyl betaine – Skin irritant
- Methylisothiazolinone – Skin irritant and suspected neurotoxin
- Limonene – Skin and respiratory irritant
- Citral – Known allergen and irritant
- Ethanol – Solvent which allows chemicals to penetrate more deeply
So if you can’t trust “green,” “natural,” or “organic” companies to sell un-harmful products, then who can you trust? You can trust yourself, and more specifically you can trust your gut instinct. That’s pretty much it.
These days, whenever I consider purchasing a product from a company I haven’t bought from before, I take in their graphic design – is it overly-polished, contrived, or gimmicky? – the copy on their website – does it come across as disingenuous or scammy? and just the overall vibe that I get from them. And then I check in with my gut, and I ask myself 1. are they trustworthy and 2. are they providing a worthwhile product. Finally, I read the ingredients and look up any words or terms I haven’t heard before.
If there is a term I’m unfamiliar with, I type in the ingredient + toxic into the search engine on my iPhone to see if anything comes up.
I’ve also found the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s online database of cleaning products to be helpful. It gives specific details about a product’s ingredients and health and environmental concerns relating to them.
Finally, I also like to check Gimme the Good Stuff’s glossary. It does a great job of explaining the different toxicants using clear, down-to-earth language.
Innocent until proven guilty (?)
In the U.S. marketplace, cleaning and cosmetic products are innocent until proven guilty. In other words, companies won’t be told by the FDA or USDA to have ingredients removed unless they’ve been unequivocally shown to have negative health effects on us the consumers.
The FDA and USDA’s approach to chemicals in household products runs counter to precautionary principle, defined on Dictionary.com as: the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.
My perspective is that not only should we avoid chemicals that are potentially dangerous, but that we really don’t even need them in the first place. Most of the ingredients we need for life in general can be found in nature. We’re better off when we eat foods that come directly from the earth; not packaged foods that contain preservatives and chemicals. Similarly, we don’t need all these complicated chemicals to do something as simple as cleaning!
Product round up: keeping it simple
There are lots of new cleaning products being marketed as “natural” today, but as you may have guessed, I find most of them to be not that great.
Sometimes the best solutions are those that have stood the test of time. As you’ll see below, I use a few products that are new to the marketplace, but rely primarily on old-school ingredients such as castile soap, vinegar, and baking soda.
For general cleaning up around the house, I’ll use the following solution:
If you’re looking for a pre-made spray, Better Life all-purpose cleaner is a good option.
For hand and dish soap, I just use Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap. The different aromas, derived from natural essential oils, are super-refreshing and invigorating, and always have the effect of lifting up my mood. Right now, I’m using and loving the peppermint scent, but I switch it up every time I get a new bottle.
For dishwasher detergent, I’ve found Better Life dishwasher gel to be the best, because unlike more popular brands of “natural” detergent, it doesn’t include dodgy synthetic cleaning agents, fragrances, or preservatives.
There’s nothing quite like having fresh, clean clothes, that you mindfully washed and folded yourself. I like The Laundress signature detergent, a luxurious formula which smells amazing and does a great job of cleaning my clothes.
I don’t normally use a fabric softener, but when I do, I’ll break out The Laundress fabric conditioner, which has a slightly musky and spicy scent.
For cleaning my bathroom, I use my own special antiseptic solution: 1 tablespoon of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap; 1 tablespoon of baking soda; 3 drops of tea tree oil; and water. I just combine the three ingredients in spray bottle and shake it vigorously. It’s then ready to go!
I scrub the tiles of my shower with generous sprays of my disinfectant formula and a “Grunge Buster” brush, along with copious amounts of water.
For a toilet bowl cleaner, I mix 2 tablespoons of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap, 2 tablespoons of baking soda, 8 drops of tea tree oil, and 1 cup of water in a mason jar. I first shake the concoction, then pour most of it in the toilet bowl, scrub it with the brush, flush, then pour in the rest, scrub again and flush.
Essential old school ingredients
Here’s a glossary of the ingredients I use in my DIY solutions. I always make sure I have these on hand.
White vinegar – White vinegar can serve as a cleaning product for many different purposes – from getting dirt and germs off of vegetables to removing mildew on shower heads to deodorizing your closet. I use it for laundry, along with Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap, as well as for when I need to soak a particular item.
Liquid castile soap – This is the closest thing you find to straight up soap. It’s derived from vegetable oil, rather than synthetic detergents. My favorite brand is Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 liquid castile soap , which is a blend of coconut, olive, hemp, sustainably-sourced palm kernel, and jojoba oils. I use it for most of my cleaning needs including: washing my hands, washing the dishes, cleaning out my water canteens, and doing my laundry. Castile soap can also be combined with white vinegar, baking soda, and / or tea tree oil, along with some water, to create a powerful all-purpose spray.
Dr. Bronner’s is the only green cleaning product company that I implicitly trust. A certified B corporation (meaning that it’s passed rigorous standards for environmental and social policies), Dr. Bronner’s sources only organic ingredients from Fair Trade alliances, while providing help and support to its supply chain communities. The president of Dr. Bronner’s, David Bronner, is a long-time vegan so he gets major points in my book for that alone.
Baking soda – Also known as sodium bicarbonate, baking soda is a salt that works as a strong but natural and gentle cleanser, foaming agent, and deodorizer. I find that it adds more power to my DIY formulas, and as aforementioned, I like to combine it with castile soap, tea tree oil, and water to make an all-purpose solution.
Tea tree oil – Tea tree oil can be an effective antiseptic cleaning agent, and is a good oil to have on hand anyways, as it helps with all sorts of ailments from minor cuts to dandruff. It’s also a great scent to diffuse in your home for a fresh, crisp scent that’s evocative of the woods.
For cleaning purposes, mix 2 teaspoons of tea tree oil with 2 of cups water, and you’ve got yourself an outdoorsy-smelling anti-septic cleaner! I also like to add 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap.
Towels, sponges, garbage bags, and other cleaning accoutrements
Why sponges are gross and to be avoided
Far from being cleaning tools, sponges are actually the dirtiest and most difficult to clean objects in the kitchen, according to microbiologists. Their moist, porous surface is an ideal place for bacteria to accumulate and breed.
I for one had long been wary of sponges because they just had a mildew-y look about them. It turns out that the reason that they look disgusting, is that they are disgusting. They typically contain 10 million bacteria per inch! According to an NSF International survey of U.S. homes, 86% of sponges had yeast and mold, and 18% had staph bacteria, which can cause skin and respiratory infections, as well as food poisoning. To make matters worse, sponges are made with plastic, which is not biodegradable.
I use dishcloths that are made from a blend of bamboo and microfiber. Bamboo is sustainable, fast-drying, and inherently antimicrobial. So the odds of bacteria camping out in a bamboo dishcloth are slim to nill.
When I need to really scrub pots, pans, etc. I’ll use my Full Circle Be Good dish brush, which is made from bamboo and recycled plastic.
The more I learn about plastic’s hazardous environmental effects, the more I’m becoming aware that our use of it is one of the very worst ways that we affect the environment.
Plastic garbage bags typically go into in landfills, where they don’t biodegrade, though they do eventually fragment and coalesce with rainwater to create leachate, which poisons soil, groundwater, and streams.
Instead of using plastic bags in the kitchen, I rely on BioBag products. BioBag is a Scandinavian company that makes biodegradable plastic-like bags made from plant starches, vegetable oils, and compostable polymers. For the kitchen, I use the tall kitchen bag, and for the bathroom I use the 3 gallon bags. I also double-bag the 3 gallon bags for carrying my sweaty workout clothes after a Bikram yoga class!
I try to use dish towels as much as possible to clean the kitchen because they have less of an environmental impact, but sometimes paper towels are necessary. In that case, I use Seventh Generation paper towels, made with recycled paper.
The icing on the cake – light a soy wax candle
I think it’s important that we pause for a moment to note how nice our kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, etc. looks when we’ve done a thorough cleaning of it.
To mark that I’m done with my cleaning for the day, I like to light a natural soy wax candle. Candles create a soothing, home-y ambiance and signal to me that it’s time to relax and take in all the work that I’ve done.
You can find a varied selection of scented soy wax candles infused with essential oils in the store section of my site as well as on Etsy. Some of my favorite brands for natural candles are: Haus Interior, Hamptons Handpoured, Smells Like Canada, and Chi Candle.
When they pay for a product that contains hazardous ingredients, most people aren’t aware of the fact that they’re pawns in a mass experiment. But not everyone is drinking the toxic kool-aid. Some concerned people, including myself, are paying attention. And hopefully, from now on, you will too 🙂
Products featured above, from left: Now Tea Tree Oil // Spectrum Organic White Vinegar // Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Castile Soap // Better Life All-Purpose Cleaner // The Laundress Signature Detergent // Bob’s Red Mill Baking Soda