Most household cleaning agents contain harmful chemicals that can cause a range of health problems. One set of ingredients in these cleaners is especially problematic, because they are known to cause cancer in humans and animals: formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers. Sometimes formaldehyde is not actually used as an ingredient in cleaning solutions, but is present as a by-product. For this reason, it does not appear in the list of ingredients; instead, you’ll know that a product contains formaldehyde if you see the names DMDM hydantoin, or 1,4 dioxane listed among a product’s ingredients. It may also be present if other chemical ingredients like formalin, formalith, methanol, methyl aldehyde, methylene glycol, methylene oxide, paraform, or BFV appear in the ingredient list.
Formaldehyde releasers, on the other hand, emit formaldehyde as a result of other chemical processes, or are generated as a by-product of chemicals that were produced or synthesized from formaldehyde. There are over 30 known formaldehyde releasers, the list includes chemicals like quaternium-15, ureas (a group of preservatives), and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
Exposure to formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers produces a range of health problems. Some are relatively mild, like wheezing, skin irritation, and burning sensations in the nasal passages (if inhaled). On the other hand, acute and long-term exposure is known to cause cancer (formaldehyde is found in so many products we use or are in the presence of everyday). The connection between formaldehyde exposure and cancer is so strong that the EU banned its use in 2007, the US Department of Health and Human Services labeled it “known to be a human carcinogen” in 2011, and a number of government agencies around the world have lowered limits for exposure to this toxic chemical. Still, it continues to be used in a large range of household and personal care products, including children’s personal care products.
Because of the presence of formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers, and other toxic chemicals, many people have begun to switch to using “green” or “eco-friendly” products to clean their homes. However, consumers have to beware of “greenwashing” when purchasing these products. Greenwashing refers to the (widespread) practice of companies claiming that their products are more environmentally friendly than they really are. In some cases, the names of certain products are deliberately crafted to fool consumers into thinking a product is eco-friendly, because so many people just look at the name or claims on a bottle and believe that they are buying something safe for their homes.
Green and Prosperous has recently posted a recommended product page that includes, among other things, household cleaners that are truly eco-friendly but also effective. The page is up now but still under development. If you have any suggestions for green cleaning products you use and love, let me know in the comments box and I’ll check it out myself and add it to the product page if it really is green.
On the other hand, you can always make your own green cleaning products.
A couple of generations ago, it was common for families to use common household ingredients to clean their homes. These ingredients were much less toxic than their commercial counterparts, and just as effective (in most cases). Some of these are ingredients that you probably have in your home right now.
By making your own household cleaners, you can not only have more control over the ingredients that go into them, thereby reducing your exposure to hazardous chemicals, you can also save money in the process (especially by buying them in bulk).
Here are a few of my favorite homemade cleaning products:
- Vinegar: it’s great as a disinfectant and cleaner on a wide range of surfaces. Use it to disinfect the cutting board you use to chop meat: spray undiluted vinegar on the board surface and let it sit for 10 minutes, then rinse. It’s also effective at cleaning windows, piano keys, and stainless steel and aluminum surfaces (for stainless steel and aluminum, mixing it with a bit of baking soda to make a paste is even more effective). Pour a cup of vinegar in your dishwasher, then run an empty cycle to disinfect and clean it; or use it as a substitute for rinse aid (I use about ½ cup per load for this purpose). It’s also safe for use on some wood surfaces (like window blinds). However, it should not be used on floors or countertops with stone (or stone tiles), or on hardwood floors. Finally, get your rusty tools out: soak them in a vinegar and water bath overnight (or for a few days if they’re very rusty) and the rust will flake off.
- Baking Soda: great for getting rid of smells in your child’s sippy cup or thermos, or in your own water bottle or to-go coffee cup: mix with a little hot water from the tap, cover, and shake for about 2 minutes. Rinse with water and voilà! No more stinky smell. You can also make a paste with baking soda to clean most surfaces in your bathroom: toilet, sink, shower. Let the paste sit for a few minutes, then rinse, wipe, or scrub clean. Finally, sprinkle some on your carpet before vacuuming to deodorize.
- Borax has been around for over 100 years. It cleans by converting some water molecules to hydrogen peroxide (more so when mixed with warm or hot water). Borax can be used to boost your laundry cleaning. When mixed in a 2:1 ratio (2 parts borax, 1 part water), it gets rid of sticky residue on many surfaces. Use it in the bathroom or kitchen like you would use a can of powdered bathroom cleaner: sprinkle directly on a sponge to scrub away dirt and stains. It can also be used as an insecticide to kill roaches and ants. Although it’s generally safe for households (it’s toxic if ingested in quantities of 15-20 grams by adults, 5 grams by kids and pets), you should keep it away from food, children, and pets, and rinse it off of surfaces after use.
- Lemon juice is a common ingredient in cleaning products. Its acidity makes it effective at cutting stains and eliminating unpleasant odors. It can also be used to de-grease and freshen up a microwave. Put a chopped up lemon in a bowl of water then microwave on high for about a minute. Let sit for 10 minutes, then open the door and wipe clean. Have sweat stains on your t-shirts? Get rid of them by rubbing lemon directly on the stain and letting it soak in before tossing your shirt in the wash.
- Hydrogen peroxide can be used to bleach stains in the laundry and on a variety of surfaces without damaging delicate fabrics. A couple of weeks ago I spilled a whole glass of red wine on a light-colored table runner I had bought in Indonesia back in 2014. After soaking it a couple of days in a 1:1 mix of hydrogen peroxide and water, the stain was gone (I tried other things to remove the stain, but nothing helped). Hydrogen peroxide can also be used to bleach stains on your carpet or countertops.
- Castile soap (peppermint): my favorite use for this is not actually cleaning, but as an insecticide. Mix with water and spray on your plants. It’s very effective against aphids, whiteflies, and a host of other pests, though you have to spray it on them directly to achieve the desired results. You can also use castile soap to make your own dishwasher liquid (especially great if you run out and can’t get out to the store to buy more): mix ½ cup liquid castile soap, ½ cup water, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 3 drops tea tree oil, and ¼ cup white vinegar. Use 2 tablespoons per load. Finally, it’s great for cleaning makeup brushes (which you should do once a week).
If you still prefer to use commercial cleaners but are unsure as to what is really non-toxic and effective, check the recommended products page on the Green and Prosperous website, or take a look at the suggestions below.
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