Q: I’ve read all this stuff recently about not using toxic cleaners to clean my house, especially with kids around. But do these natural cleaners actually clean? If I really want my tub to shine and my toilet to sparkle, I feel like I need to use some good old-fashioned bleach, don’t I? Which nontoxic cleaners get the job done the best?
A: I know this might be hard to believe, and it took me a while to internalize myself (seeing as I usually scrub past clean straight into obsessive-compulsive), but you don’t need to use toxic ingredients to disinfect your tub or toilet. And in fact, using these cleaners — even having them around — can be bad for you, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Let’s have a little chemistry lesson, shall we? What do you get when you mix chlorine and ammonia, two of the most common ingredients in household cleaners? That’s right, you got it — potentially poisonous gas. (Click here for more details on dangerous cleaning cocktails.) Now, you could avoid mixing these two ingredients or you could avoid having these two harmful substances in your house altogether by picking natural cleaners instead. How do you know what’s really natural?
Chemistry lesson over. Time for gym! (I’m making you work for this one.) Go find your go-to household cleaner. (I’ll wait.) Now — turn it around and look at the ingredient list. That’s it, keep turning … You won’t find it! Cleaning supply manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on the label, and that's part of the problem. Try to stay away from products that simply tout themselves as “organic” or “natural” without the specifics to back it up. Look for products that say “ammonia-free” or “chlorine-free” on the label. Some companies that make natural cleaners, like Seventh Generation and Ecover, do list their ingredients on the label, a sure sign that they’re not afraid to lay all their cards on the table. (My MNN colleague, Matt Hickman, recently wrote about a natural certification system for household cleaners.)
The truth is, once you get it out of your head that you need your house to smell like a freshly sterilized hospital room, you'll find your best cleaning supplies right in your own pantry. Baking soda and vinegar will often work to clean just about anything, including toilet bowls, soap scum and kitchen sinks.
Have a clogged drain? Pour one cup vinegar, then one cup baking soda down the drain. Let it sit for a few minutes and follow with a cup of boiling hot water. Usually this’ll be just as effective as the most expensive drain cleaners, and drain cleaners can be one of the most toxic things in your cleaning cadre. They can be bad for your pipes, and they are the last thing you want your toddler mistakenly guzzling down when he can’t find his sippy cup (shudder).
What about a carpet stain? Try some club soda and a clean rag to scrub it out. This also works wonders on garments, as I thankfully learned when I spilled red wine on my champagne-colored dress at my brother’s wedding. (No need to point out the irony, folks. I get it.)
Here are more natural solutions to your common cleaning quandaries, and don't miss Matt's Back to Basics series on simple, nontoxic cleaning solutions.
What about everyday household cleaning? Mix 1 cup vinegar with 1 cup water in a spray bottle and you’re ready to go. For more serious disinfecting, try having one spray bottle of vinegar around and one spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide (make this one a dark bottle since light can change the properties of hydrogen peroxide). Research has shown that spraying these two nontoxic ingredients on your countertops can kill 10 times more bacteria than peroxide alone.
No matter what you choose, know that you’re doing the best thing for your family’s health. After all, why bother using toxic cleaners when the ones Mother Nature invented often work just as well?
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