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It’s no secret that conventional household cleaners contain toxic chemicals. But did you know that these chemicals are central nervous system disruptors, known carcinogens linked to cancer and birth defects, and many are toxic via inhalation?
Cleaning should make your home cleaner, not more full of harmful chemical toxins.
This guide is meant to inform you what’s in conventional cleaning supplies, why we think you’ll want to avoid them, and offer suggestions for safer alternatives to use instead. We’ll share a list of our favorite brands (plus plenty of links to find them), recommendations for cleaning your home with natural products, and a checklist to build your chemical-free cleaning “toolbox.”
As with all of our guides: this is intended as an informative and helpful resource to support a healthy lifestyle that promotes your overall health and well-being—it is not intended to prescribe a specific “right” way of living, to make you feel guilty about products you currently use or have previously used, nor to scare you about potential negative health impacts. It’s here for you to use, as you’d like, in creating a healthy lifestyle that works for you and your family.
No need to take all the recommendations in one day. Simply start where you are and work toward where you want to be!
So what's in conventional cleaners?
Phthalates, perchloroethylene, quarternary ammonium compounds, 2-butoxyethanol, formaldehyde, ammonia, chlorine… just to name a few. These toxic chemicals are endocrine disruptors, known carcinogens, neurotoxins and caustic agents that can burn skin and cause blindness.
But you’ll be fine if you don’t drink or bathe in your cleaning supplies, right?
Nope. Many of these chemicals are toxic via inhalation. (Ever notice that you get a headache or slight cough after cleaning with them?)
In addition to the toxic properties of cleaning agents, there’s another ingredient in conventional cleaners that, though seemingly harmless, actually has some pretty negative impacts on the body:
THE HIDDEN INGREDIENTS IN FRAGRANCE
Synthetic fragrance is commonly added to household cleaners (often to try to mask their chemical smell), but it’s solidly on our “avoid” list.
While there are many fragrance-free natural cleaners on the market (and these are certainly good options, especially if you have sensitivity to fragrance), there’s a little more to the story: Not all fragrance is created equal. Synthetic fragrance is protected as a proprietary trade secret, so its ingredients are not required to be labeled as anything other than “fragrance.” But what’s typically in it? A cocktail of chemicals including acetaldehyde, benzophenone, diethyl phthalate—chemicals linked to allergies, skin conditions, cancer and reproductive toxicity.
However, naturally derived scents (such as those from essential oils) are not proprietary and are typically labeled individually. (So, if you’d like to use fragranced products, choose those made with natural plant-derived scents—and listed as such on the label.)
What to look for in safer cleaning supplies
Instead of “cleaning” your home with products that are toxic to touch and inhale, we recommend switching to safer products with natural, plant-derived ingredients.
An increasing number of brands carry a full line of human-, pet- and environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies, many with reputable production and social responsibility standards. These natural brands are readily available at Whole Foods, Target, Amazon or Thrive, and most mainstream supermarkets and drugstores are starting to stock more natural cleaners too.
What to look for:
Fully disclosed ingredient lists (if the label doesn’t tell you exactly what’s in the product and why it’s there, that’s a red flag)
Ammonia-free and chlorine-free (ammonia and chlorine cleaners produce toxic fumes, especially when combined)
Fragrance-free or clearly labeled plant-derived fragrance (beware the lone “fragrance” term, which denotes hidden synthetic chemicals)
Companies that have a mission to provide healthy, safe and environmentally-friendly products
“A” or “B” grades on EWG’s product database (we’re comfortable using products with a B rating or higher)
Watch out for marketing, though—some products marketed as “green” or “eco- friendly” aren’t exactly that. The most important thing in choosing household cleaners is to read labels and understand their ingredient list. Lengthy chemical names can be confusing and we’re not all expert chemists, so when in doubt, EWG’s product database is a useful tool for learning about specific ingredients and making informed decisions.
Our favorite natural cleaning brands
Your particular needs may vary (for example, some people are very sensitive to any fragrance, while others do just fine with plant-based fragrance), and there are vastly more natural cleaning products than those we’re able to list here, but the brands below are suggested as a starting point for making the switch to safer cleaning supplies—they’re affordable, offer a full line of products and are easily accessible in most places.
Some of our favorite affordable and easily accessible natural brands are:
Natural cleaners in your pantry
Though the store-bought options mentioned above are generally affordable, accessible and easy to use, most home cleaning needs can also be solved with just a few simple ingredients, many of which you already have in your pantry:
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) cleans grease and grime, deodorizes, removes stains, unclogs drains and even has proven virus-killing abilities.
Distilled white vinegar, thanks to its acidity, effectively cleans grease, soap scum and grime.
Borax (sodium borate) is a naturally occurring mineral that can be used to deodorize, clean, remove rust, whiten laundry and kill pests. Though it’s safe to use small amounts in cleaning, don’t rub it on your skin or ingest it, and keep it out of reach of children and pets.
Lemon juice is a natural disinfectant and stain remover that can be use to clean mold and mildew, deodorize and remove stains.
Salt is a gentle but effective scouring agent.
See notes below in Natural Cleaning Tips & Tricks for ways to use these natural cleaners in your home.
Natural cleaning tips & tricks
Look for natural laundry detergents with disclosed plant-based ingredient lists (Seventh Generation does a great job explaining theirs!). Choose plant-based rather than synthetic fragrances.
Borax is a natural laundry brightener, and much safer than chlorine bleach. Add ½ cup borax to a load of laundry and wash as usual.
Wool dryer balls remove static and speed drying time, without the chemical additives of dryer sheets. They’re also reusable and last many, many years (rather than ending up in a landfill after each use).
You likely already have natural, nontoxic stain removers in your pantry: To remove wine stains from cotton or polyester clothing, sponge distilled white vinegar directly into the stain until it disappears (treat the stain within 24 hours). To remove tomato-based stains, treat directly with distilled white vinegar and wash as soon as possible. To remove grease stains, sprinkle with baking soda and soak in distilled white vinegar for 15 minutes before washing.
Clean your oven without toxic fumes by mixing a paste of baking soda and water, spreading it on the bottom of the oven, leaving it for a few hours (no need to turn on self-cleaning mode) and wiping it clean.
Unclog a drain with baking soda and vinegar: pour a pot of boiling water down the drain, add ½ cup baking soda and let it sit for a few minutes; pour in 1 cup vinegar mixed with 1 cup boiling water, cover with a drain plug and let sit for 10 minutes; flush with one more pot of boiling water.
Deodorize your garbage disposal by pouring ½ cup baking soda and ½ cup vinegar into the disposal and covering with the drain plug. After a few minutes, when the fizzing stops, remove the plug and flush with hot water while running the garbage disposal.
Skip the fragranced garbage bags, which are scented with chemical fragrances that pollute indoor air. Instead, deodorize smelly garbage with baking soda: for plastic garbage cans, sprinkle baking soda in the bottom of the can before replacing the bag; for metal cans, fill a coffee filter with baking soda, tie it closed with a rubber band and leave at the bottom of the can under the bag.
For sparkling clean glasses, add a cup of distilled white vinegar to the bottom of the dishwasher and run normally with your natural detergent.
Leave an open box of baking soda in the back of the fridge as a natural deodorizer.
There’s no need to use antibacterial dish soap—in fact, ingesting synthetic antibacterial products is bad for your health, so it’s best to keep it away from the dishes you eat off of. If you need to disinfect, the dishwasher heated dry does the job, or you can use a natural disinfectant like 3% hydrogen peroxide.
No need to use conventional antibacterial hand soap either—it can end up reducing our immunity more than helping it. (We explain more about that here.)
Kitchen sponges are breeding grounds for bacteria, but these eco-friendly dishcloths can be regularly washed in either the dishwasher or washing machine. They’re also great substitutes for paper towel.
If you do need disposable paper towels, unbleached recycled paper is your best bet.
Unbleached, recycled toilet paper is our favorite healthy and environmentally friendly option. Recycled toilet paper does contain small amounts of BPA from its post-consumer content (BPA is commonly used in receipt paper and shipping labels—“shiny” paper products), but in amounts much, much smaller than what we’re exposed to from touching a credit card receipt, so we still like it as a safe and environmentally conscious choice.
Choose a natural, non-antibacterial hand soap. Simple, old-fashioned hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds (about the duration of singing “Happy Birthday”) is effective in reducing the spread of germs and bacteria. Be sure to lather soap all over your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. (Read more here about the reason we don’t suggest antibacterial products.)
Clean soap scum and hard water deposits by sprinkling borax on a damp cloth and wiping down your shower/tub/tile as needed.
Do your air quality a favor and skip the chemical-fragranced air freshener. Choose a naturally scented soy-based candle or make your own essential oil diffuser with pure essential oils of your choice, sweet almond oil, reed diffuser sticks and a glass bottle—just mix a blend of 30% essential oil to 70% oil, pour into your container and add the reeds!
Poo-Pourri is a natural essential oil-based spray that helps prevent bathroom odors before they start.
Dust exposed surfaces with a microfiber or wet cloth to avoid redistributing it into your air.
Use a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum to effectively clean small particles like pet dander, mold spores, pollen and toxic VOCs.
If you have allergies, asthma or want a deeper clean, a portable HEPA air filter will help cleanse and deodorize your indoor air.
Disinfectant cleaners have their time and place, but most household cleaning does not require strong disinfecting. 3% hydrogen peroxide is an effective natural disinfectant to have in your arsenal when necessary, but it’s okay to stick to gentler cleaners for other purposes.
Skip cleaning supplies you don’t need, like dryer sheets, fabric softener, dishwasher drying gel, or any specialized product your grandma probably didn’t use—and didn’t need.
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