No one loves to do housecleaning, yet we all have to anyway. How can you set reasonable standards for cleanliness, get it done efficiently and use products that aren’t dangerous to your health and the environment at the same time?
Although each member of a household will have a different idea of what “clean” means, most will agree that a home doesn’t need to be sterile in order to be healthy. Yet most households use an inordinate amount of toxic cleaning products, most with “disinfectant” or “anti-bacterial” on their labels.
Do these products make us any healthier? On the contrary, researchers at the University of California-Davis demonstrated that chemicals in anti-bacterial soaps (triclosan and triclocarban) have the potential to affect sex hormones and interfere with the nervous system. Plain old soap and water work just as well, and the anti-bacterials may contribute to the rise of strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Commercial cleaning products aren’t only dangerous if they are swallowed or come in direct contact with skin; many contain chemicals, like phosphates, di- and triethanolamine (DEA and TEA), 1,4 dioxane, and butyl cellosolve that are neurotoxins or have long-term health effects. Many ingredients are known carcinogens and can cause respiratory irritation, headache and other allergy symptoms.
“The use of persistent toxic chemicals is so pervasive,” says Jack Manno, associate professor of environmental studies at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “But it isn’t large amounts of these compounds that cause the most harm, it is small amounts adversely affecting our most delicate body system—the endocrine system, which regulates the body’s hormonal balance.” Although we may not immediately get sick from the exposure, the long-term effects are very serious, especially in developing bodies.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has found that one-third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic. Because fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies aren’t required to list the ingredients and simply label them “fragrance.”
When it comes to cleaning, we are influenced by television commercials or seeing what others use. But just because your neighbor uses disinfecting wipes every time she steps into the bathroom doesn’t mean you have to. No need to clean the toilet bowl more than once a week. Do it by pouring a quarter-cup of white vinegar into the bowl while you clean the rest of the bathroom and then give it a simple scrub with a toilet brush. If you’re potty training youngsters or if someone in the household has been sick, you may need to clean more often, but you don’t need any fancy products to do so.
The best time to rethink your home in terms of simplicity and minimizing maintenance is when you’re cleaning. Get rid of clutter and organize what’s left so it’s easier to clean around. Using baskets, bins and organizers will keep surfaces clear of small items that can get scattered and look messy.
Open closets, cupboards and cabinets and ask yourself if you’ve used these items within the past year. If the answer is no—get rid of it! Give unused clothing, shoes and household gadgets away to charity thrift stores.
Use a wicker or plastic laundry basket each evening to gather up all the things that somehow migrate from their proper homes into the living area or kitchen. Ask their owners to retrieve them or put them all away in one trip. Once rooms are picked up cleaning becomes as easy as a wipe-down with a damp cloth.
Faced with less time for cleaning chores and still wanting to have a clean space, I’ve begun deep cleaning one room each week. By going the extra mile—vacuuming behind furniture and dusting window sills—I have been able to achieve a deeper clean that seems to last longer. Since bathrooms get dirty faster, alternate bathrooms every other week or give them a quick touchup (wipe counter, clean mirror, scrub toilet and sink) in between more thorough cleanings.
The notion of starting a cleaning task and finishing it in an hour or two makes cleaning seem less daunting and more rewarding.
Trading up to natural, less toxic cleaning products is simple and will save you money. You probably have many of items (like baking soda and vinegar) in your cupboard and if you do need to buy them, they cost a fraction of what you’d pay for the toxic products that claim to work better.
Cleaning isn’t just about products, though. Even the methods you use to clean can make a difference. Using washable micro-fiber cleaning cloths will eliminate paper towel waste while doing the job more efficiently. Keep two sets handy so that you can use one while the other is being washed. Less toxic cleaning means even the youngest can help without fear of coming in contact with dangerous chemicals. Teaching kids to be involved in cleaning does more than help out; it establishes good habits for later in life.
Essentials for non-toxic cleaning
Baking soda. Bicarbonate of soda is a nontoxic, naturally occurring mineral that’s great for scrubbing with a mild abrasive action. Use safely on kitchen sinks and appliances or add some muscle by sprinkling on, then spraying with, vinegar. Make your own scouring cleaner: ¼ cup borax, ¼ cup baking soda, and stir in enough hot water to make a thin paste. Store extra amount for next time. Sprinkle baking soda onto carpets and leave overnight then vacuum in the morning to deodorize. Sprinkle onto stinky dogs’ fur, then brush out.
Vinegar. Diluted acetic acid is nontoxic, food safe, and cleans nearly everything. Use full strength on glass and mirrors; dilute ¼ cup in a gallon of hot water and fill a spray bottle for an all-purpose cleaner. Clean the microwave by boiling ½ cup vinegar and 1 cup water. Baked-on food comes off easily. Add ½ cup vinegar to the laundry rinse cycle for brighter colors. To remove hard water deposits, spray vinegar, sprinkle baking soda and cover with a damp dish towel for about an hour, then scrub away.
Borax. Sodium borate is a naturally occurring alkaline mineral that has no toxic fumes and is safe for the environment, but it can irritate skin and should not be ingested. Add a sprinkle into your next load of laundry to soften water and boost the power of detergent. Make your own wall and floor cleaner: Fill a bucket with 1 gallon of warm water, 1/3 cup borax, 1 teaspoon liquid dishwashing detergent and 1 tablespoon ammonia. Mix and use to wipe walls and mop floors.
Tea tree oil. Extracted from the leaves of the tea tree, this oil is a natural antibacterial, disinfectant and antifungal. Use a few drops in your humidifier to resist mold and mildew.
Hydrogen peroxide. H2O2: two molecules of hydrogen plus two molecules of oxygen makes an antibacterial solution. Pour a small amount of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide into a spray bottle and spray on shower walls. Wipe with a clean dry cloth. Mist over counters, appliances, inside refrigerators and lunch boxes to eliminate germs. Discard remaining solution into sink drain, or pour back into brown bottle to keep chemical makeup intact.
Isopropyl alcohol. This colorless, flammable chemical with a strong odor is a nontoxic solvent that works well on vinyl floors to cut grease: Pour 1/2 cup of alcohol into a bucket of hot water and stir with mop. Spot clean greasy areas, then give the entire floor a mopping; air dry. Pour used solution down the sink and rinse mop thoroughly.
Although there are a growing number of “green” cleaning products on the market, not all are as healthy as they claim. Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products, and Clorox’s line of Green Works products are among the best. As many companies jump on the “green” bandwagon, do the research to find out what’s real and what’s really bad. See how your favorite products measure up at http://www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare/ShoppersSafetyGuide.pdf.
What to do with the old products? Don’t toss them in the garbage! Try to use them up, share them with friends, or take them to your local household hazardous waste collection site for proper disposal.
Sami Arseculeratne Martinez, who has a grown son and daughter, lives in Hamilton with her husband and three cats.