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Green Cleaning for the Home: Three Steps to a Safe & Healthy Clean

The Green Mama’s Tips: A safe, healthy, green clean in 3 easy steps

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or a lot of science to see how the chemicals in cleaning supplies might end up in our children. Living with a two-year-old makes it all too clear while green cleaning might be important for health. Today, my daughter decided to finish off her eggs with a little chew on the table. Later, she got under the table and ate a few blueberries off the floor. At least, I hope they were blueberries.  You’ve gone to the trouble of finding the healthiest products for your home, now you don’t want to undo all your good work by using “bad” cleaning products.


Green cleaning versus bad cleaning products

“Bad” cleaning products are ones that pollute your indoor air quality or, even worse, are so poisonous that they are sold with skull and crossbones and must be locked away for fear that a precocious child will get hold of them.  You may have wondered:  “How safe is it really to dump something with ‘WARNING! Poison’ on the label down the drain or onto the floor?” Indeed traces of these very chemicals can end up surviving multiple water treatments and cause harm both to aquatic life and, ultimately, to human life when it shows up downstream in someone’s water glass. Even if these chemicals make it no further than the kitchen floor, they can off-gas toxins into the air inside our homes. Besides being poisonous in concentration, they can also make us sick in dilution.

The long list of chemicals to avoid includes :

  • lung or respiratory irritants (ammonia, butyl glycol, chlorine bleach, and sodium hydroxide),
  • suspected hormone disruptors or linked to reproductive abnormalities (APEs and phthalates found in many fragrances), and
  • those that produce toxins (chlorine bleach) or carcinogens (DEA, some fragrances).
  • Almost all of these can be deadly if swallowed.

When thinking about the worst offenders for cleaning products, you might be surprised at what can harm your health. The chemicals in dishwashing detergent, for instance, can be particularly harmful because the hot air vaporizes the chemicals and releases them into your home. The EPA also warns against many air fresheners which can continuously release pollutants (e.g. neurotoxins and allergens) into your air. Disinfectants added to your multipurpose cleaners often contain warnings about being wiped down with water after being applied, especially if you use them on counters, cutting boards, or tables. If you are doing this, you are increasing your chances of absorbing these chemicals through your skin or along with your food.

Three Steps to a Real Green Clean

1. Cleaning means elbow grease!

Cleaning is the first defense against the spread of germs.  In today’s culture, we often overlook the importance of this step in our rush to go straight for the “big guns” of sanitizing or disinfecting.  If a surface isn’t clean it can’t effectively be sanitized. Good cleaning involves a little elbow grease and some basic ingredients like soap, water, vinegar, baking soda, micro-fiber cloths, and maybe a EcoLogo certified multi-purpose cleaner. You don’t need anything poisonous to get your house really clean. In your own home or in an institutional setting, like a daycare or school, disinfecting may also become an issue. Don’t overdue it! (Learn how to safely clean a childcare facility or school and meet government guidelines.) There is no proven benefit to disinfecting every surface in your home. In institutional settings there are strict guidelines to follow about what needs to be disinfected and how often.

2. Don’t be so paranoid of a few microbes: understand the science

Microbes are everywhere (including billions of them that make up the human body, so you don’t need to fear them. They aren’t all bad, indeed most of them are beneficial.) And microbes such as bacteria and viruses can’t live on dry surfaces with a humidity of less than 10%, according to PopSci. These microbes like food particles, mucus, and moisture. So watch out for your kitchen sponge (which can be rid of most microbes by microwaving it for three minutes or boiling it in a pot of water).  The hot water from your tap is not hot enough to sterilize.

If you are really worried about sanitizing your home, for instance after a flu, give it a thorough clean (nothing fancy needed, just elbow grease). Disinfectants kill germs on a surface. They only work if you’ve already removed the germ habitat with cleaning. Once this is done, use the safest, least toxic, most appropriate product. White vinegar or 3 percent hydrogen peroxide applied after cleaning and left to sit for 10 minutes will kill flu viruses and salmonella. To disinfect against E. coli and listeria, heat either vinegar or hydrogen peroxide to 55°C (130°F) and leave on for a minute. Both tea tree oil and oregano oil have also been found to contain antimicrobial properties. The sun also disinfects, so hang clothes to dry, open windows, and pull out those pillows for a little sun magic.

If you decide to buy a commercial cleaning product or disinfectant, read the label closely. Make sure the product lists all of its ingredients, has a meaningful third-party certification such as ECOLOGO or Green Seal, and is biodegradable. Do a quick scan to verify it’s free of the most harmful ingredients, such as ammonia, coal tar, dyes, or fragrances

3.  Making your own green cleaning products controls chemical exposure and saves money

DIY cleaning is the best way to control the chemicals in your products while also saving money. Learn how.  Or, if you opt for buying some or all products,  look for products with meaningful third-party certifications such as EcoLogo or GreenSeal, products that use NO synthetic perfumes or fragrance, and products that are biodegradable.

Getting started with green cleaning is as easy as having baking soda, vinegar, hydrogen-peroxide or oxygen based cleaners, microfiber cloths, and maybe a bit of lemon or tea tree essential oil around. With these you can’t go too wrong, but read more green cleaning recipes.


Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie. Photo by Vanessa Filley.




5 responses to “Green Cleaning for the Home: Three Steps to a Safe & Healthy Clean”

  1. Maria says:

    I didn’t realize how much trouble I had with the synthetic fragrances until I switched to DIY green cleaning products. It’s so much better.

  2. Marta Ford says:

    Trying to
    think whether vinegar or lemon is the ultimate green cleaning weapon. Favorite
    vinegar cleaning tricks: the vinegar
    and hot water microwave cleaning trip;the vinegar and baking soda drain
    cleaner trick

    Best regards!