Keeping your home clean doesn't require weapons of mass disinfection, experts tell WebMD. Antibacterial and harsh cleansers are usually unnecessary, and some raise concerns about our health and the environment.
These products don't work any better than their natural or non-toxic counterparts, and they damage the environment and potentially place our long-term health at risk.
"The antibacterial soap we buy in the store doesn't clean hands or reduce the spread of illness any better than regular soap," says Allison Aiello, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.
You can keep your home just as clean for much less money, safeguard your personal health, and even protect the environment by going back to the basics.
Chlorine Bleach: What Are the Alternatives?
Chlorine bleach is one of the oldest cleaners. It's also one of the harshest. Chlorine bleach kills germs on contact, and isn't much friendlier to your skin, if accidentally splashed. Manufacturers include chlorine bleach in a wide variety of cleaning products as well as some laundry and dishwasher detergents.
Bleach is also renowned for its mold-killing ability, but it's not the only way to kill mold and mildew. Hydrogen peroxide or vinegar also works to kill mold.
Because it's used so frequently, chlorine bleach is the most common cleaner that kids accidentally swallow. And chlorine poses another special danger: when mixed with ammonia -- another common ingredient of cleaning products -- and acidic cleaners, such as toilet bowl cleaners, the mixture releases poisonous gasses. Since it's hard to know what's in every product, it's best to simply not mix cleaning products at all. While it's safe to pour old cleaning products down the drain, don't pour more than one at a time.
- Use a hydrogen-peroxide-based bleach in your laundry instead of chlorine bleach. Hydrogen peroxide kills mold and mildew, sanitizes counters and cutting boards, and removes stains from counters.
- For household cleaning, opt for chlorine-free products to eliminate the risks. Specifically look for "chlorine-free" on the label. Use one product at a time, and rinse surfaces thoroughly.
- A simple tip: Keep an old toothbrush to scrub counter and those hard-to-clean tile corners.
Ammonia: Avoiding Hazardous Fumes
Want a clue to ammonia's hazardous properties? Consider its well-known harsh smell. Undiluted ammonia is highly irritating to the eyes and respiratory system. Because it does everything from cutting through grease to cleaning windows, ammonia is found in a wide range of conventional cleaning products. There are other ways to clean that are just as effective.
- Look for "green" and non-toxic cleaners that don't contain chlorine, alchohols, triclosan, triclocarbon, lye, glycol ethers, or ammonia. Choose ones that say "petroleum-free," "90% biodegradable in 3 days," or "phosphate-free."
- Choose safer products that say "petroleum-free," "biodegradable," "phosphate-free," "VOC-free," and "solvent-free."
Non-toxic Cleaners: Off the Shelf or Do-It-Yourself
Growing awareness and demand by ecologically-minded consumers, as well as parents motivated to keep their family healthy, has led to an explosion of environmentally friendlier and non-toxic products. There are many products in this category – from laundry detergents and fabric softeners to multi-surface and floor cleaners, to tile and bathroom cleaners -- that are convenient and safer for people and the planet.
While some are indeed safer, others are unfortunately “green-washed,” marketed as natural while still including suspect chemicals.
Get in the simple practice of looking at product labels to see if the cleaning manufacturer is clearly disclosing all ingredients. If it is not, you can check the manufacturer's web site, but it could mean the manufacturer is trying to hide a particular suspect ingredient.
Third party “ecologos” and product labels can sometimes be confusing, even misleading. For independent reviews, use Consumer Report’s Eco-Labels.org to find out what claims on labels really mean and if they’re actually regulated. You can also use the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database to look up specific products and find out their ingredients. Likewise, you can check out a company’s web site – many are being much more transparent than in the past. Or contact them to find out what’s inside.
Some people may choose to make their own cleaning products. It's surprisingly easy, cheap, and for most ordinary household jobs, do-it-yourself cleaning products can be as effective as anything you'd buy at the store. It’s easy, inexpensive, and for most ordinary household jobs, do-it-yourself cleaning products can be as just as effective.
General Non-toxic Solutions:
- Use a reusable microfiber cloth to dust -- it picks up dust particles without needing any chemical help.
- White distilled vinegar can be used to clean windows; kill mold and mildew; get rid of soap scum; and sanitize kitchen counters and cutting boards.
- Use baking soda and a few drops of soap to scour kitchen counters and bathtubs. For tough stains, use borax.
- For fresh scents, use lemons or essential oils like lavender.
Try these recipes for homemade cleaners:
All-Purpose Disinfecting Cleaner
2 cups water (preferably distilled water)
1 1/2 to 3 tsp. liquid castille soap
1 tsp. tea tree oil
Mix ingredients above to store and keep. Add a couple drops of your favorite essential oil to give it a pleasing scent.
Toilet Bowl Cleaner
1 cup borax
Pour into toilet bowl before going to bed. In the morning, scrub and flush.
Sprinkle a little salt on the rust. Squeeze a lime over the salt until it is well soaked. Let the mixture set for two to three hours. Use the leftover rind to scrub the residue.
1/4 cup white distilled vinegar
1 quart warm water
Mix ingredients above. Pour into a spray bottle or apply with a sponge. For lint-free results, wipe dry with crumpled newspaper instead of paper towels. Buff to a shine.