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Green Cleaning in Schools: The Green Mama Guide to healthy, safe, clean schools

You are a teacher or school administrator and you want to go green but aren’t sure where to start? The answer is probably right in front of your eyes: the soap next to the sink, the bottle of bleach for spraying down the tables, the window cleaner in the cabinet.

We spend 90% of our time indoors and our indoor air quality is poorer than our outdoor quality by 2 to 5 times.  Our school environments are no exception: in the US one half of all schools were found to have “problems linked to indoor air quality” according to the US EPA. These sick schools can make our children sick. Children are particularly susceptible to pollution because their organs systems are still developing, they aren’t as able to detoxify, and they breathe more rapidly (and more often through their mouths) than adults. Even subtle exposures during infancy and childhood can also be linked to radical outcomes, including cancers.

There are many factors that effect the indoor air quality of our schools: Building materials, furniture, and toys can all be major contributors to poor indoor air quality. Cleaning supplies is another major contributor and one of the easiest and most affordable to improve.

Cleaning/Sanitizing in a Childcare or School Setting

Understanding the terms

Cleaning/Sanitizing/Disinfecting are all defined terms. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that cleaning is the process that physically removes de­bris from the surface or area by scrubbing, washing and rinsing. It may be accom­plished with soap or detergent and water. A sanitizing product must kill 99.9% of germs identified on its label and a disinfecting product 100%.

In the U.S., a product must have an EPA registered number on the label to be considered a sanitizer or disinfectant for a childcare setting. In Canada, the product should bear a Drug Identification Number (DIN) or a Pest Control Product (PCP) number on the label.

In childcare settings, when and where cleaning versus sanitizing is mandated varies by state/province/territory. In general, however, sanitizing is expected in diaper changing areas and in food preparation areas (how often varies) and cleaning is expected on a regular basis throughout the childcare facility.

What counts as good, safe cleaning?

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 often involves a little elbow grease. This is where most childcare facilities are able to be more creative: basic soap and water being a good starting point. Other alternatives I’ve seen people use: vinegar, baking soda, Borax, lemon juice, Dr. Bronners soaps and cleaners, hydrogen-peroxide based cleaners (like Oxo-Brite), Bon Ami, and even micro-fiber cloths with just water.  As well as numerous other commonly shelved products e.g. a truly green all-purpose cleaner. READ labels! (And be on your guard for misleading or false green claims. Certifying organizations like Green Seal in the US or EcoLogo in Canada help to ensure green claims are true. Look for their logos as a starting point.)

Safe cleaning also means watching out for common polluters or toxins that wind up in our products (even in some products that are labeled as green). Safe cleaning products should not have caution, warning, or danger on their labels. In fact, the best and safest cleaning products you can both know what every ingredient on the label is AND you can eat it and be fine. 

What counts as good, safe sanitizing?

Knowing when to sanitize is probably the most important step in safe sanitizing. Many facilities are over-zealous with their sanitizing: bleaching floors, desks, and sinks indiscriminately. Much of the time, good cleaning practices are enough. For those areas and times (e.g. the diaper changing station or after Johnny gets a bloody nose) when sanitizing or disinfecting are necessary, what are the safest options? By far, the most common sanitizer used in childcare settings is bleach.  The little bottle with the bleach/water mixture is nearly ubiquitous at most school facilities. It is quite effective at sanitizing and disinfecting most non-porous surfaces and breaks down relatively quickly into harmless components. There are problems, however, with bleach.

Is chlorine bleach safe & are their effective alternatives?

The problems with bleach are multi-fold. The first is that it is a chemical irritant that can inflame the lungs and mucous membranes and has been linked to asthma. In its concentrated form it can cause (often severe) damage to skin and eyes and is toxic. Chlorine is very dangerous, and can even be fatal, if mixed with certain other chemicals such as ammonia. The manufacturing of chlorine is also considered a larger environmental issue as its creation and transportation (from plant of origin to your Clorox bottle) can be dangerous to humans and the environment.

There are alternatives that are considered safer and just as effective as bleach. Most of these safer option rely on hydrogen peroxide, oygen, or an essential oil e.g. a Thyme to do the sanitizing and seems to have fewer or none of the possible side-effects of bleach. As noted above, make sure whatever you find is a registered sanitizer with an EPA/DIN/or PCP number. Also, make sure that what you are getting is actually safer than bleach: looking for the Green Seal or EcoLogo certifications can help with this.

So, you want specifics on what to use instead of bleach?

Luckily, the Green Schools Initiative has done a lot of the research for you. Visit there site! Often! Read this article and download there directory of “Asthma-Safe Disinfectants” (I would call them green, but I like their use of asthma-safe). It includes specific brand name recommendations, all of which DO NOT contain bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds, pine oil, or ortho‐phenylphenol. You might be surprised to learn just how accessible some of these alternative sanitizers are: common green household cleaning companies e.g. Seventh Generation, Benefect, and CleanWell. I’ve also worked with clients who have used: Bio-Based: EPA-certified sanitizer and AHP technology disinfenctants.

What are the worst offenders in most school?

In most childcare settings, it is actually the commonly used items that are the worst for the health of the children and staff: antibacterial hand soaps, chlorine in dishwashing liquids, and fragrances in air fresheners or cleaning supplies. These are all known h
azards, even toxins, and are routinely used.  Here are a few, simple ways to get rid of the worst offenders:

  1. Use the smell test—don’t use it if it smells bad (or smells like your Aunt Mildred after coming out of the perfume aisle). Avoiding artificial fragrance is one of the most effect ways of limiting exposure to phthalates, VOCs, and neurotoxins. (Read this Ask the Green Mama about one school’s success changing old habits with stinky air “fresheners.” )
  2. Read labels—if you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce the ingredients, get rid of it. Some of the worst offenders: triclosan, triclocarban, alkylphenol ethoxylates, fragrance, perfume, styrene, chlorine bleach, quaternary ammonium compounds, pine oil, or ortho‐phenylphenol.
  3. Get rid of everything anti-bacterial—the American Medical Association (AMA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) all warn people off using anti-bacterial hand soaps. They have linked their use with the development of antibiotic resistant super-bugs and say that regular soap and water are just as effective at cleaning hands. (Here’s a one page sheet to help.)
  4. Use less—talk with your inspector about when and where sanitizers and similar products are needed and in what quantity and concentration. Keep all sanitizers out of reach of children and don’t use them when children are nearby.

There are great resources to help you navigate this topic.

In Canada, “Advancing Environmental Health in Child Care Settings” is a must read.  It is put out by the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment. Find it and other resources at:

In the U.S., visit the Eco-Healthy Child Care Initiative run by the Oregon Environmental Council at

And the above mentioned Green Schools Initiative which has information on many of The Green Mama’s favourites: healthier food for school children, safer indoor air quality for schools, and GREEN CLEANING.

To learn more about green cleaning or to get guidance on how to green your childcare facility without spending a lot of green visit

Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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