Of all the natural/nontoxic cleaning product lines out there, none have quite spoken to me like Pasadena-based Eco-Me (well, at least the carpet deodorizer). Combining stripped down — yet safe and effective — food-grade ingredients like baking soda and essential oils with packaging that all but jumps off the shelf at you (especially if your name just happens to be Kate, Jack, Emily, etc.), Eco-Me, like many boutique green cleaning product lines, has successfully made the leap onto the brick and mortar shelves of some of the nation’s biggest chain retailers. Case in point: Just this month, more than 450 Target and Super Target stores have started selling Eco-Me’s dog grooming collection
 
I recently had the chance to ask Eco-Me’s founder and fearless leader, Robin Kay Levine, a few questions about the brand, a brand that the former animation producer founded six years ago not as a chance to jump on the green cleaning product bandwagon, but as a direct response to a serious familial health issue: her sister's diagnosis with breast cancer at the age of 35. Since launching Eco-Me, Levine, who also serves on the board of the Natural Products Association, has emerged as an authoritative voice on safety issues surrounding commercial cleaning products and the art of maintaining a healthy, toxin-free home. Here's what she has to say about specific ingredients to be on the lookout for when shopping for household cleaners, the Eco-Me "family" naming process, and the almighty cleaning power of distilled white vinegar:

MNN: Although the Eco-Me brand image is all rather playful, Eco-Me is rooted in a serious, illness-related back story. Can you tell me more about that?

Robin Kay Levine: The back-story of Eco-Me is a deeply personal one for me. In 2005, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. With no family history of the disease or an unhealthy lifestyle contributing to the diagnosis, we looked towards environmental factors as the cause and did some research. What my sister and I found out was shocking and still holds true today:

  • According to the EPA, air in homes is three to seven times more chemically polluted than outdoor air. The average home contains more than 25 pounds of toxic cleaning products.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission stated that of the chemicals commonly found in homes, 150 have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer and psychological abnormalities.
  • The Breast Cancer Fund, a nonprofit organization, wrote that a substantial and growing body of evidence 
    indicates that exposure to certain toxic chemicals and hormone-mimicking compounds contribute to the development of breast cancer. 
 

After finding this out, I helped my sister clean out everyday products from her home and replace them with natural, eco-friendly green alternatives. For example, we discovered that vinegar, a food-grade product, reduces 96 percent of all bacteria. As my sister recovered, I came to the realization that I could help countless women and families take safer care of their homes. And so, from there, Eco-Me was born.

 

So were you yourself using conventional cleaning products in your own home prior to your sister's diagnosis?

Yes.

 

The recently released Environmental Working Group's Cleaners Hall of Shame and upcoming EWG Cleaners Database is sure to get a lot of folks re-thinking their cleaning product purchases and hopefully inspecting labels with more vigilance. What should folks be on the lookout for? 

We have a blog post that is dedicated to this exact topic, a good one, but it can be overwhelming so we did our best to pinpoint the main culprits: Triclosan, sulfates (SLS, SLES), synthetic fragrances (phthalates), phosphates, Methylisothiazolinone, Benzisothiazolinone, formaldehyde (benzene, Phenol, methyene oxide, methylaldehyde ...), 1, 9 Dioxane, colorants/dyes.

 

Not all cleaners branded as "green" and "natural" were created equal. Are there any easy actions a consumer can take to help differentiate the truly safe/nontoxic from the greenwash-y products?

Look for full ingredient disclosure on labels and/or company websites. These days you can look up ingredients online to see if they are truly deemed safe and natural at The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and GoodGuide

 

If a brand has a seal on their bottle make sure it's a third party seal of approval like the Natural Products Association's seal, Green Seal, or the Green Good Housekeeping Seal. Many brands create their own seal and there is no unbiased testing or requirements to that.
 

Very helpful. Do you have any words of wisdom for those having problems parting with their conventional cleaning products? For example, it was easy for me to do away with chlorine bleach-based bathroom cleaners (my roommate, however, hides her stash from me and waits to use them until I'm out of the house for the weekend), but it was more difficult for me to switch over from a certain name brand detergent to a natural one.  

 

I think the challenge is that not all natural cleaners actually perform. But this is also true for the chemical traditional cleaners. For some, it's best to start slowly with products you use regularly and effect a larger area of your home, like all-purpose cleaners, floor cleaners, room sprays. Then graduate up to swapping out more every time you finish up a bottle of your old products.

 

We help people make this transition by doing side-by-side testing; once you know that pricing is pretty competitive and they work just as well, then it's just a matter of making the effort at the store to buy the brands that are healthier and safer.

 

Another tactic is to really focus and understand the health consequences of these strong chemical base products.  On the environmental side, they contaminate the water, harm our fish and aquatic life, cause overgrowth of algae that kills even more fish and in turn we as humans ingest the water and fish. On the health side, in our homes chemical-base cleaners are the number one cause for children poisoning, headaches, skin and eye irritations, increase in asthma and lung irritations, and have been linked to neurological disorders and cancer.  Note that chemicals can stay present in the air up to 48 hours or longer out-gassing into your home even after the scent is gone. These harmful chemicals get absorbed into the body and some stay with you for life, accumulating over time.

 

The cleaning industry has spent a ton of money and marketing to scare people into believing they need strong chemicals to stay clean and healthy, but the truth is that our bodies were built to deal with dirt and germs. Hot soapy water, natural acid bases like vinegar do a great job cleaning and removing dirt, grime, and bacteria without hurting the human body.  
 

As mentioned, good ol' plain white vinegar is the key ingredient in several Eco-Me products and discovering its versatile, germ-busting properties served as your "a-ha" moment when developing Eco-Me. What are a couple of other simple and safe ingredients found throughout Eco-Me products? 

Essential oils are a main component in all our products. Our blends help extend our products for a longer shelf life without having to rely on chemical preservatives. Baking soda is another fantastic natural ingredient. It scrubs, deodorizes and absorbs odors. Vegetable oils: olive, coconut, grapefruit seed, and grapeseed oils are all healthy alternatives to petro-based chemicals made from petroleum or silicon.

Can you tell me more about the Eco-Me DIY kits? 

This is where we started the company: Kits that show people how to mix their own natural cleaning, skincare,  and pet care products with easy-to-fill recipes on the containers, food-grade ingredients, and our essential oil blends. The kits were a great success, they opened the door to educating and empowering people to take notice of the products they use every day.
 

I recently noticed a couple of Eco-Me products at my local Duane Reade, a NYC drugstore chain that until somewhat recently carried zero natural household cleaners. How has it been making headway into larger chain stores?

Stores are following the demands of their customers. Consumers are moving away from chemical-base products as more and more information comes out in the media and from our health providers about the dangers. In the U.S., there are no true regulations for cleaning products, the people are making noise and demanding better, healthier cleaning options. We are seeing the larger chains being more accepting of natural brands and seeing that when given options many customers choose the higher quality products. 

 

What's next for Eco-Me?

We're going on tour to grow our community and empower people to make healthy choices in their homes. Stay tuned for our natural pet grooming line that launches in Target stores nationally this month.

 

And I have to ask ... are the products that make up the Eco-Me "family" (Bill, Suzy, Emily, et al.) named after real-life friends and family members? If so, how did Suzy, for example, get the honor of having a dish soap named in her honor?

Some of the names are our family, some are people we work with. Suzy is my aunt, she always hosts Thanksgiving, a big deal in the kitchen, so our plan was to give her a hand to tackle tough kitchen jobs!

Dave is our vice president's grandfather while Phil is a mentor of ours in the industry (he chose the toilet bowl cleaner; he's a tough dude). We are constantly being asked to name products after people, the list is pretty long right now on the wait list! What we love most about our micro-branding of the cleaning products is that everyone has so much fun talking about the products as if they are friends in their homes. People often get inspired by the products if they know someone with the similar name.

 

There is a lot of competition for new brands on the shelves and we found that creating personalities and naming our products really spoke to consumers. Our customers call our products by their first name!

 

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