When it comes to keeping your home free of dirt and germs, the term “household cleaners” shouldn’t be an oxymoron. But, as scientists over the years have discovered, many of the products commonly associated with home hygiene instead pollute air, humans and animals with harsh – and sometimes dangerous – chemicals. So much for earth-friendly cleaning.
Just what is in some of those household cleaners? For starters, many products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient are made with synthetic (i.e. petroleum-based) materials called phthalates, which have been found in studies to cause cancer and harm the reproductive systems of rodents. Other common but potentially harmful chemicals in cleaners include:
- Formaldehyde, which can irritate the lungs and mucous membranes, and may cause cancer;
- Cholorine, especially used in small, poorly ventilated rooms like bathrooms, which can irritate the lungs;
- Propellant chemicals used in aerosol sprays, which are flammable and can cause nerve damage;
- Lye and sulfuric acid, often found in drain cleaners, which can cause chemical burns; and
- Ethylene-based glycol, used as a water-soluble solvent in cleaners, which is classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Though housekeeping can sound scary, there are many alternatives to just about every type of cleaning product, many of which can be found already in your home, such as:
- Baking soda: eliminates odors; combine 3 parts baking soda with 1 part water to polish silver or soak caked-on food overnight; wash laundry; clean toys.
- Cornstarch: sprinkle on stuffed — or real — animals and brush out; sop up grease on counters; mix one-half cup with 2 cups warm water to clean windows; mix with milk to make a paste to soak up ink stains on carpet.
- Lemon juice: mix with vinegar or baking soda to make cleaning pastes; polish hardwood floors and furniture with 1 cup olive oil and one-half cup lemon juice.
- Olive oil: combine with lemon juice for hardwood polish; can use in place of vinegar for some cleaning.
- Vinegar: combine with water for an all-purpose cleaner, or use without diluting to clean toilets; also disinfects and deodorizes.
- Soap and water: self-explanatory.
- Steam: sterilizes surfaces and fabrics such as couches.
A note about borax, a white powdery substance also known as boric acid or sodium borate: Often touted as a safe, all-purpose natural household cleaner, it is a known skin irritant and studies have found it has been harmful to the male reproductive system.
If whipping up a batch of your own cleaner or polish is not appealing, you still can purchase several chemical-free brands in stores such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, as well as specialty shops and online, including:
- Seventh Generation
- Mrs. Meyers
When in doubt about the ingredients of a particular household cleaner — or if you are concerned about a chemical listed in one of your favorites — the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has a Household Products Database of more than 10,000 consumer brands in categories including Inside the Home, Personal Care, Auto Products and Pesticides.
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