Green cleaning products are in. From kitchen sprays and bathroom scrubs to dishwashing detergents and liquid soaps, manufacturers all seem to be going au naturel.
These products cost more, but with their trendy graphics and emerald labels comes the comforting reassurance that we're "going green:" staying healthy and protecting the environment at the same time.
But are we? A host of multi-syllable, unpronounceable chemicals tend to lurk inside many of these earth-friendly-looking bottles, if they are listed at all, since federal law doesn't require manufacturers to do so on cleaning products. And on the rare occasion that they do, it's hard for most people to know what these names mean, much less whether they're safe.
So what does "going green" actually mean, when it comes to cleaning products?
Jeff Bishop, technical advisor to the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), the nonprofit organization that regulates industry standards and certifies cleaning, inspection and restoration companies, tells WebMD that the most accurate term is "cleaning green," not "green cleaning."
"If you clean things to a sanitary state or higher, you're creating a more habitable environment," he says. "If I use a product that is perfectly safe but it doesn't get rid of germs and bacteria and people get sick, what good does it do? The ideal is to marry the two together, but the important thing is to make sure you're cleaning."
Allen Rathey agrees. Rathey is president of the Healthy House Institute, a consumer resource dedicated to providing information about healthier homes, and founder of the HousekeepingChannel.com.
"Green cleaning is a term that is, in some ways, somewhat redundant," he says. "If you are removing contaminants from the environment, which is what cleaning is all about, you really are producing a healthier, greener environment."
The problem, Rathey is quick to add, is that much of the cleaning we do isn't cleaning, it's polluting, which is the whole reason the green movement began. "It's basically an interim term [that we are using] until we grow up and learn that cleaning is not polluting," he says.
Green Cleaning: The Basics
What, then, is green cleaning (or cleaning green)?
"It's a combination of products, equipment, and procedures," Bishop says. That means in addition to using products that are safe and environmentally friendly, we must also use non-polluting equipment and procedures.
When vacuuming, for example, he says that a good quality vacuum (which typically costs $250 to $300) together with a good filter will go a long way toward purifying the air and eliminating dust, soil, and residue.
Rathey says that steamed vapor cleaners are also an excellent investment. The best ones are expensive ($500 to $1,500), but they use one of the most effective cleaning products of all, hot water, and work on everything from dirty floors to greasy ovens. He also likes microfiber cloths and mops, which can remove high levels of soil and oil.
As for green cleaning procedures, Bishops emphasizes the importance of prevention. Following these steps, he says, will help keep dust, soil, and contaminants to a minimum and decrease the need for cleaning products:
- Use entry mats outside your home and always wipe shoes before entering. This will remove 83% of the abrasive soil that is tracked inside.
- Remove your shoes at the front door.
- Vacuum at least twice a week.
- Use a high-quality HVAC filter (not fiberglass) and change every month.
- Have your carpets professionally cleaned at least once a year by a qualified specialist.
- Get water leaks fixed immediately, to avoid mold.
Green Cleaning: Products
When it comes to products, there is no quick-and-easy formula for evaluating how green, or safe, they are. It all has to do with risk -- to ourselves and the environment -- Rathey says.
Arthur B. Weissman, PhD, is president and CEO of Green Seal Inc., a nonprofit organization considered to be the gold standard for "green certification." Green Seal awards their seal of approval to manufacturers who adhere to specific health and environmental standards -- a mark that many consumers have learned to look for when searching for green products.
Weissman says that "we should always try to use ingredients that are as harmless as possible," he says. "The less hazard overall, the less likely it is to have an adverse environmental or health effect."
Green Cleaning: What to Avoid
Annie B. Bond, author of Clean & Green and Home Enlightenment: Practical, Earth-Friendly Advice for Creating a Nurturing, Healthy and Toxin-Free Home and Lifestyle, recommends paying special attention to what she calls "signal words" on labels, which are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and must be placed on hazardous products. The most dangerous ones, she says, are:
Poison/Danger: which means the product is extremely toxic; a few drops can kill you.
Warning: means the product is moderately toxic; as little as a teaspoonful can kill.
Caution: refers to a less-toxic product; 2 tablespoons to a cup can kill you.
Other words that often signal danger are "Strong Sensitizer," "Toxic," "Carcinogen," Flammable," and "Corrosive." Bond recommends that we avoid all products containing these warning labels.
In addition to hazardous products, Weissman recommends that consumers also avoid those with any significant amount of phosphates (more than 0.5%); high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contribute to outdoor pollution and may also have negative effects on health; and those containing ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or "EDTA," which is not biodegradable.
Other potentially harmful yet commonly used ingredients (often in all-purpose cleaners) include:
Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEs): often found in surfactants, which Weissman calls "the workhorses" of cleaning chemicals. APEs tend to either be endocrine disruptors or break down into endocrine disruptors, he explains, which adversely affect the human endocrine system.
Certain glycol ethers, like 2-Butoxyethanol (or "Butyl"): typically found in household cleaners and "degreasers," they are a lung irritant.
Ammonia: a respiratory irritant found in many cleaning products
Ethanolamines: another respiratory irritant common to all-purpose cleaners
Rathey says we should also be wary of anything with a strong fragrance, which usually means it contains potentially hazardous petrochemical ingredients. It's also a good idea to clean when no one else is around -- especially children. And no matter what products we use, proper ventilation is crucial.
"Run the exhaust fan in the bathroom and kitchen, or open a window. Create an air flow," he says. "You consume daily about 4 pounds of liquid and 2 pounds of food, but about 30 pounds of air. It's the No. 1 route of exposure to contamination. What you're not breathing can't hurt you."
Green Cleaning: Cleaning Products Safe
Brian Sansoni, vice-president of communications for the Soap and Detergent Association, said creating lists of supposed “bad” chemicals isn’t helpful for consumers. “The most important information on the label is the product safety and usage information. Real problems arise really only when these products are improperly used or improperly stored.”
Sansoni said that companies do a lot of research before developing products to make sure they are safe. “These products are formulated to be safe when used as directed,” he said.
He added that consumers should be wary of terms such as “green” and “natural” because they are marketing, and not scientific terms. “When they hear all the green marketing information, we recommend that they look closely at it. Is it a brand you trust? If you have questions, call the company. Go to the website. We don’t believe that some unscientific interpretation of what is green and what is not helps consumers all that much,” Sansoni said.
Green Cleaning Products: What to Look For
So what is safe? And is natural always better?
"Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good for your health," Weissman says. "Arsenic is a natural element, but you don't want to have that much around you. You have to look at each individual ingredient and its whole profile -- not just where it was derived from."
Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers -- yet.
Anne Maczulak, PhD, author of The Five Second Rule and Other Myths About Germs: What Everyone Should Know About Bacteria, Viruses, Mold, and Mildew, says that although chemical disinfectants are registered with the FDA, green ones are not, which means their effectiveness can be an issue.
"Green disinfectants do kill some germs, but probably not as many and not as fast," she adds. "I wish I could say that they were, but they're not quite as good."
Last year, the New York Times reported on the quest for green cleaning products by environmentally conscious restaurateurs. Their consensus? Quality green cleaning products are out there, but you may well end up with a closet full of them before finally finding what works best.
Bond recommends visiting natural food stores and choosing from the many green cleaning products they carry.
"The competition in the real green cleaning arena -- the companies that have been working to perfect their products during the last 15 years, and which can be found in health food stores -- has been so intense for so long that the ones who have survived are ones that have a lot of integrity," Bond says. "They've weathered the test of time and their efficacy is getting better and better, and you know that if they're creating a formula for a new product, it will have a lot of integrity."
For those who prefer not to spend the money on green cleaning products, she offers the following recipe from her book, which can be applied almost anywhere, including the bathroom and kitchen:
Homemade Soft Scrubber
1/2 cup baking soda
Liquid soap or detergent
5-10 drops pure antiseptic essential oil such as lavender, tea tree oil, or rosemary (optional)
Place the baking soda in a bowl. Slowly pour in liquid soap, stirring constantly. Add liquid soap until the consistency resembles frosting. Add the essential oil, if desired. Scoop the creamy mixture onto a sponge, scrub the surface, then rinse.
Other safer cleaning products include borax, which can be used as a sanitizer; hydrogen peroxide, which can be used in place of bleach for whitening and killing germs; and white vinegar, which can be used as a cleaner in the kitchen for countertops and cookware, among other items.
Are green cleaning products worth the extra effort and expense? Almost everyone agrees that they are.
"When you take these chemicals and you add them to your living space over time, no one really knows what happens," says Rathey, who adds that health problems have soared since the '70s, when builders began insulating homes and decreasing their ventilation. "It may or may not ever affect you, but it's like a giant experiment in which we are all the guinea pigs."