Cleaning Products for a Healthy Home

Keeping a clean home and a healthy home should go hand in hand; learn how to skip the harsh chemicals while still getting a powerful clean.

| September 2018

  • Consumers are presented with many choices for strong, effective cleaning products, but often at a risk to the environment and personal health.
    Photo courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
  • Although there are many great cleaning products on the market, it is not always clear what ingredients and/or potency they carry, making it difficult to establish a toxin-free home.
    Photo courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
  • According to the ratings on by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the majority of all-purpose cleaning products score poorly on disclosure of ingredients and toxicity.
    Photo courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
  • Labeling for safe cleaning products has benefited consumers greatly, but since so few have been certified, consumers are still left scouring the isles.
    Photo courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
  • Sometimes simplicity is safest. Making cleaning products at home, with simple ingredients can prove cost-effective without sacrificing the cleaning quality.
    Photo by Unsplash/@daiga_ellaby
  • “Building A Sustainable Home” by Melissa Rappaport Schifman encompasses the logistics of choosing windows, insulation, appliances, lighting, and other materials for making a sustainable home.
    Cover by Mona Lin and Paul Crosby

Building A Sustainable Home (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018), by Melissa Rappaport Schifman, is a guide to sustainable materials and design options on the market for making an energy-efficient, green home. Schifman founded Green Intention LLC and is an Editor at Rise. She lives in a LEED Gold Certified home and works to establish LEED certification in residential and commercial buildings. The following excerpt discusses how you can establish a clean home that is both healthy and environmentally friendly.

Nobody actually goes into a store and asks for the most toxic cleaning product on the shelf — we just want to get the job done. Tough chemicals do the job of cleaning pretty well; that is how they are marketed. So, what is wrong with household cleaners? The big picture answer is that there are at least 83,000 chemicals on the market today, and they are not well regulated. Exposure to chemicals is linked to health problems such as cancer, birth defects, asthma, allergies, skin reactions, and reproductive disorders. Sometimes illnesses stem from overexposure (acute), which is an immediate one-time reaction that can trigger chronic illness; sometimes illnesses come from long-term exposure that builds up over time.

The problem is, we do not know! Why? First, ingredients often are not disclosed. Unlike packaged food, cosmetics, and personal care products, manufacturers of cleaning supplies are not required to list the chemical ingredients on consumer product labels (though many do). Second, even if we do know the ingredients, it would be very difficult to conduct a controlled experiment, because there are too many uncontrolled variables (we aren’t just exposed to one chemical in our lifetime), and we do not typically conduct experiments on humans. The US Congress enacted legislation to regulate the safety of chemicals with the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, which has been governing chemical policy since then through the EPA. The EPA itself recognizes that current chemicals management law needs to be strengthened.32 In a nutshell, the EPA can only restrict chemical usage if it is proven to be unsafe — and that takes time, money, and data that is difficult to obtain. Many people argue that the EPA should not allow chemicals to be included in household products unless and unti they are proven to be safe. That’s an example of the precautionary principle, and how the European Union manages chemicals. But that’s not how it is in our country.

So, we need to take it upon ourselves to understand what products are safe and which ones to avoid. With the overwhelming number of choices on the shelf, how?  One resource I have relied upon in the past is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) online Guide to Healthy Cleaning.

Their guide provides information and safety assessments for over 2,500 products, 197 brands, and more than 1,000 ingredients across the categories of all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergents, dishwashing, floor care, and bathroom, kitchen, and furniture cleaners. EWG translates final product scores into letter grades familiar to most readers. An “A” indicates very low toxicity to health and the environment and extensive ingredient disclosure. An “F” means the product is highly toxic or makes little to no ingredient dis­closure. A “C” indicates an average cleaner that poses no overt hazards and provides some disclosure of ingredients. The EWG Guide to Healthy Cleaning published the results of their tests on 513 all-pur­pose cleaners. What is disturbing is that over 60 percent scored a D or F, and only 22 percent scored a B or A. (Note that EWG does not test or score for the effectiveness of the cleaners.)

So, what can we do? One solution is to make our own cleaners. The all-purpose cleaner I like to make and use at home requires the following:

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For those who don't have the time or inclination to make their own cleaners, why not make a deal with some like-minded friends, family or neighbors? As mentioned in the article, the recipe will make 16 bottles at a cost of $1.21 per. That seems like a good opportunity for a trade, or even just to give away. 2 or 4 bottles for each household should last for some time. These days, companies are constantly changing their formulas and it's difficult for consumer organizations to keep up, as the author found in the case of Simple Green. Unless it was an extremely simple product whose ingredients never change (like baking soda, vinegar, or bleach), I'd have difficulty trusting that the reviewed formula was the same thing I was buying. Even Pine Sol no longer contains pine oil. When I buy cleaning products, I either buy the simplest thing (often vinegar or baking soda) or I buy something with the full understanding that it's probably a toxic mess and something to be used in extreme moderation.

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